The deadly earthquake that leveled Haiti’s capital more than two years ago brought a thread of hope: a promise of renewal. With the US taking the lead, international donors pledged billions of dollars to help the country “build back better,” breaking its cycle of dependency.
After the rubble was cleared and the dead buried, what the quake laid bare was the depth of Haiti’s dysfunction. Today, the fruits of an ambitious, US$1.8 billion US reconstruction promise are hard to find. Immediate, basic needs for bottled water, temporary shelter and medicine were the obvious priorities, but projects fundamental to Haiti’s transformation out of poverty, such as permanent housing and electric plants in the heavily hit capital, Port-au-Prince, have not taken off.
Critics say the US effort to reconstruct Haiti was flawed from the start. While “build back better” was a comforting notion, there was not much of a foundation to build upon. Haiti’s chronic political instability and lack of coordinated leadership between Haiti and the US meant crucial decisions about construction projects were slow to be approved. Red tape stalled those that were.
The international community’s US$10 billion effort was also hindered by its pledge to get approval for projects from the Haitian government. For more than a year then-Haitian president Rene Preval was, as he later described it, “paralyzed,” while his government was mostly obliterated, with 16,000 civil servants killed and most ministries in ruins. It was not until earlier this year that a fully operational government was in place to sign paperwork, adopt codes and write regulations. Other delays included challenges to contracts, underestimates of what needed to be done and land disputes.
Until now, comprehensive details about who is receiving US funds and how they are spending them have not been released. Contracts, budgets and a 300-item spreadsheet obtained under a US Freedom of Information Act request show:
Of the US$988 million spent so far, a quarter went toward debt relief to unburden the hemisphere’s poorest nation of repayments. After Haiti’s loans were paid off, the government began borrowing again: US$657 million so far, largely for oil imports rather than development projects.
Less than 12 percent of the reconstruction money sent to Haiti after the earthquake has gone toward energy, shelter, ports or other infrastructure. At least a third, US$329 million, went to projects that were awarded before the 2010 catastrophe and had little to do with the recovery — such as HIV/AIDS programs.
Half of the US$1.8 billion the US promised for rebuilding is still in the US Treasury, its disbursement stymied by an understaffed US embassy in Port-au-Prince in the months after the quake and by a Haitian government that was barely functional for more than a year.
Despite US State Department promises to keep spending public, some members of Congress and watchdogs say they are not getting detailed information about how the millions are being spent, as dozens of contractors working for the US government in Haiti leave a complex money trail.
“The challenges were absolutely huge and although there was a huge amount of money pledged, the structures were not there for this to be done quickly,” former US ambassador Brian Curran said. “The concept of ‘build back better’ is a good one, but we were way over-optimistic about the pace we could do it.”