01/27/2012 02:58 pm ET Updated Mar 13, 2012

Haiti Earthquake Aid: Champagne, Cruise Ships & Cholera

Cheryl Mills, the counselor and chief of staff to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, has the unenviable task of coordinating America's aid efforts in Haiti. She recently kicked off the "two years-post earthquake" news cycle with "10 Things You May Not Know About Haiti Today." She's probably incredibly busy this week with international media requests. That's why I've selflessly volunteered to help her out by listing the five things she forgot to mention about Haiti's recovery.

5 Things Cheryl Mills Forgot to Mention About Haiti Today

1. International aid workers are responsible for the cholera outbreak.
American aid organizations have spent more than $75 million to combat the infectious disease that has killed more than 7,000 people and sickened approximately 500,000. One of Mills' success stories from Haiti is the "international community's response to prevent and treat cholera -- bringing the case mortality rate below the international standard of 1 percent." Mills failed to mention that the international aid community brought cholera to Haiti.

In the past half century, Haiti hadn't experienced a single case of cholera. Not one. Until U.N. peacekeepers from Nepal dumped their feces into a tributary of the Artibonite River, an important water source for nearby communities. Several independent studies conducted by the CDC and U.N. have confirmed that Haiti's cholera strain is "a perfect match" for an outbreak in Nepal. Yet, the international aid community won't apologize for "the worst cholera outbreak in recent history." How can the international community claim success for a problem it caused?

Sadly, the mainstream media has allowed Mills and other high-ranking aid officials to depict themselves as the white knights rescuing Haitians from disease. If you read USA Today's recent story on the cholera epidemic, you'd never know the cause of Haiti's cholera. It's as if earthquakes commonly cause cholera outbreaks.

2. Aid workers and private contractors have made millions of dollars from Haiti's disaster.
"The United States government (USG) -- and the American people -- has had the privilege of being a steadfast partner in Haiti's efforts," Mills wrote in her top 10 list. She's right: It's been a privilege for the U.S. government employees, private government contractors and big businesses that have pillaged Haiti's disaster funds.

Shortly after the earthquake, the New York Times exposed how foreign aid workers routinely dine at chic Petionville restaurants with "prices rivaling those in Manhattan." Their typical meal might include New Zealand lamb chops washed down with Veuve Clicquot Ponsardin Champagne. "A few yards away, hundreds of families displaced by the earthquake languished under tents and tarps, bathing themselves from buckets and relieving themselves in the street as barefoot children frolicked on pavement strewn with garbage."

Lest you think that the Times unfairly exaggerated the behavior of a few bad apples, investigative journalist Michele Mitchell tackles the same subject in her insightful new documentary, Haiti: Where Did the Money Go? Mitchell told the Caribbean Journal's Alexander Britell that her most surprising discovery in Haiti was aid worker extravagance.

In a place called Place Boyer, right across the street from this camp, there are several, very nice expensive restaurants. And I would watch the aid workers drive up into the restaurants. There's a scene in the movie where I'm reading out the wine list - there's a Bordeaux for $72, and the menu lists a New York steak for $34 dollars, or a lobster salad for $15.50 -- that's expensive for anywhere -- even in New York that's expensive.

(Public television stations in Oregon will be airing Mitchell's outstanding documentary in the coming days. Watch it.)

Aid workers are guilty of petty theft compared to the multi-million dollar extortion by big business. George Russell, the executive editor of Fox News, uncovered how the U.N. World Food Program spent $112,500 per day to house aid workers on luxury cruise liners after the earthquake. U.N. employees nicknamed one ship, "the Love Boat."

Timothy Schwartz, a cultural anthropologist and author of two books about Haiti, detailed for Open how U.S.-owned companies with a history of shady business practices collected more than $100 million to remove rubble. "These 'humanitarian corporations' and 'humanitarian entrepreneurs' began their cleanup efforts billing at a figure of about 500 percent the cost per cubic meter that it should have been, U.S. $60 to 80 in the months after the earthquake compared to U.S. $15 to 20 that it became one year later," he wrote.

If U.S. foreign aid programs were serious about accountability, they'd hire a tough critic like Schwartz to oversee all project evaluation. But, U.S. officials don't approve of Schwartz's fact-based reporting. That's why, despite his expertise on Haiti and unimpeachable data analyses; he was eliminated as a candidate for consultant work in the U.S. Food for Peace Office in Haiti.

3. The Clinton administration's agricultural policies destroyed Haiti's domestic food production.
In the 1970s, the U.S. government pressured Haiti to reduce its import tariffs. Lower tariffs help American agribusinesses flood foreign markets with cheap goods. American farmers also convinced the U.S. government to purchase their food surpluses for free distribution in developing countries. (That's in addition to the billions of dollars a year in federal farm subsidies.) It was corruption disguised as benevolence.

Mills served in the Clinton administration when it expanded these destructive policies and pressured Haiti to lower its rice tariffs. After all, it's un-American to let corn growers in Iowa reap all the profits while rice farmers in Arkansas suffer. Philippe Mathieu, Oxfam's Haiti director, specifically identified U.S. rice subsidies as the cause of Haiti's current food production problems. "U.S. rice subsidies and in-kind food aid undercut Haitian farmers at the same time as the U.S. government is investing in Haitian agricultural development," he told Reuters in 2010.

To his credit, former President Bill Clinton, now the U.N. special envoy to Haiti, has publicly apologized for his role in eviscerating Haitian farms. "It may have been good for some of my farmers in Arkansas, but it has not worked. It was a mistake. I had to live everyday with the consequences of the loss of capacity to produce a rice crop in Haiti to feed those people because of what I did; nobody else," he told a U.S. Senate committee in 2010.

In addition to high subsidies and lower tariffs, American farmers pushed for federal limitations on any foreign agricultural assistance that might help foreign competitors. Maura O'Connor, a freelance foreign correspondent and 2010 Robert Novak Journalism Fellow for the Phillips Foundation, explained in a series for how "a little-known American law called the Bumpers Amendment" has prevented foreign farmers from receiving aid "if they were growing rice or sugar rather than lettuce or mangoes."

Instead of trying to reform the Bumpers Amendment, Mills boasted in her piece that USAID has provided Haitian farmers with "improved seeds, fertilizer, technologies, and techniques." The result has been a "64 percent increase in rice yields." One influential member of the Haitian-American Chamber of Commerce has compared such accomplishments to "putting a Band-Aid on a cancer patient." What good are higher crop yields if you lack buyers.

4. It's hard to "capacity build" from an armored vehicle.
Glance over any State Department aid programs, and you'll find a reference to "partnering" with local "stakeholders" to "capacity build." (Mills' latest piece used all of these buzz words.) I don't speak bureaucrat, but I know it's hard to trust a partner that you fear.

It's logical to assume that the worst parts of Haiti need the most assistance. Yet, American embassy personnel, according to the current travel advisory, are strictly forbidden "from entering Cite Soleil and La Saline and their surrounding environs due to significant criminal activity." Security problems in Haiti are real and not to be minimized. However, it's impossible for aid workers to properly partner in the "red-zone" areas that need partnerships the most. As one 2006 diplomatic cable uncovered by WikiLeaks put it, "From our very limited perspective behind the windshield of amoured [sic]vehicles, it was hard to assess the attitude of the residents."

5. Lies, Damned Lies and Inflated Earthquake Statistics
The 2010 earthquake was a major tragedy. Thousands died; millions were affected. Somehow, that's not enough for the international aid community, which continues to overstate the death toll, number of people living in tent camps and amount of earthquake rubble. Higher numbers help international aid organizations show greater progress.

In June 2011, a report originally commissioned by U.S. AID estimated that between 46,000 and 85,000 people died in the earthquake. A tragic figure, but far below the 222,000 to 316,000 figure used by the international aid community and Haitian government. U.S. AID immediately distanced itself from the report. International aid organizations think higher death tolls generate more fundraising dollars and media attention.

Mills claimed that "almost two-thirds of the estimated 1.5 million Haitians living in tent shelters after the January 2010 earthquake have left camps." Of course, it's easy to move people out of tent camps if they were never there in the first place. One study commissioned by the International Organization for Migration, according to an analysis by Schwartz, showed that 8 percent of tent camp sites were completely empty and two-thirds of sites had some empty tents when they were allegedly full. "In the commune of Croix-Des-Bouquets, 6,525 tents located on 63 sites were empty," Schwartz wrote.

Again, that's not to minimize the hundreds of thousands of Haitians that lived in tents or gloss over the terrible living conditions in camps. Nevertheless, it's necessary to discuss the real statistics in order to assess the effectiveness of the international aid community. Moreover, as Australian aid worker Martina Nicolls argues, "The problem of inflating statistics to gain funding is threefold: (1) it discredits agencies and therefore they will find it more difficult to gain funding; (2) it leads to donor fatigue -- particularly for individuals supporting charities; and (3) it impacts equitable distribution of vital resources."

Mills closed her piece with a fundraising pitch: "I encourage you to go back to the organization you supported -- you will see the difference you helped make -- and can continue to make." If you gave money to the United Nations, you helped spread cholera. If you donated to the World Food Program, you paid for an aid worker's accommodation on a luxury cruise liner. If you donated American canned goods or agricultural products, you made it harder for Haiti to feed itself. We all made a difference in Haiti. Let's hope we don't continue to make the same difference in the future.