Will endemic corruption suck away aid to Haiti?
PORT-AU-PRINCE (Reuters) - Despite the best intentions of the international community, Haitians have little faith they will see the billions of dollars in aid pledged to rebuild their earthquake-shattered country, which international monitors rate as one of the world's most corrupt.
From successful businessmen to refugees scraping to survive in squalid tent camps, Haitians said they expect that a good portion of any money sent will flow straight into the pockets of corrupt government officials.
"The U.S. government needs to come here to help the Haitian people," said Jean-Louis Jerome, a construction worker who has lived beneath tarpaulins in a park with nine relatives since their house collapsed during the January 12 earthquake.
"If you give the aid to the person at the top, he will just put it in his pocket."
Transparency International, a group that studies government corruption, rates Haiti's government as one of the world's most corrupt and least effective, despite efforts by President Rene Preval to combat the chronic problem.
Haitian Prime Minister Jean-Max Bellerive was in Canada at a meeting of a dozen nations to assess Haiti's immediate needs and develop a strategy to rebuild the country after the devastating earthquake, which killed up to 200,000 people and left the capital city and other areas in ruins.
The donors in Montreal decided on Monday to hold an international aid pledging conference at U.N. headquarters in New York in March. Aid pledges to Haiti have already mounted into the billions.
Clifford Rouzeau, co-owner of three restaurants in the Haitian capital, has been distributing free food to more than 1,000 people every day instead of reopening. He said he hoped the crisis would end Haiti's long history of government theft.
"I'm hoping. I've got my fingers crossed. The people here deserve better than they actually have," he said.
"You have a government that steals everything and won't give anything back to the country. You have a government that doesn't feel it necessary to put police out in the street. Do something! Put canteens all over. Just do something."
Cabinet members, who had only been in place for two months before the quake, insist things have changed despite years in which international aid seemed to fizzle before doing anything to ease rampant poverty in the Western Hemisphere's poorest nation.
"They (the people) need food, they need housing, they need to send their children to school, surely the government people would not be so bad as to take that money," Trade and Industry Minister Josseline Colimon Fethiere told Reuters in an interview this week.
"After so big a catastrophe, that the money would not go where it needs to go would be impossible," she said.
Supporters of Preval point to a number of efforts to combat corruption since he began his term in 2006, and international observers give him credit for finally making a dent in the problem.
"I am proud of the government that is not robbing the people's money and that is working for the well-being of the people," said Prime Minister Jean-Max Bellerive upon his return on Tuesday from a donor meeting in Montreal.
He said not all the aid money coming into Haiti will have to go through the government, but the country's leaders should have a say over how it is used.
"The leadership of President Preval ... has shown a very strong will to fight corruption," said Richard Coles, a member of one of Haiti's leading business families, whose assets include several textile assembly plants.
"The drive of the head of state is not money," he said. "Right below, it is much more difficult to control."
(Additional reporting by Matthew Bigg; Editing by Patrick Markey and Anthony Boadle)
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