March 28 (Reuters) - The Haitian government and foreign partners will attend a donor pledging conference in New York on Wednesday, seeking solutions and funds to address continuing humanitarian needs in Haiti following the Jan. 12 earthquake, and to guarantee its future stability and growth.
Here are some of the risks involved in this initiative:
Humanitarian and development groups say the donors’ response must be “substantial” to confront what experts are calling a unique disaster management challenge — the rebuilding of a wrecked capital, Port-au-Prince, that concentrated 65 percent of Haiti’s economic activity and generated 80 percent of its fiscal revenues.
With needs estimates ranging from the several billions of dollars to as high as $14 billion or more, over delivery periods from 18 months to 10 or 20 years, Haiti’s partners stress the international commitment must be long-term.
“We can’t get frustrated, we can’t get bored, we can’t get distracted,” said former U.S. President Bill Clinton, named by the United Nations as special coordinator for the relief operation.
Judging from public statements made by governments and aid groups, there is a willingness to commit financing to help Haiti both in the short-term and over the longer period.
Nevertheless, U.N. humanitarian chief John Holmes said earlier this month the world body was struggling to provide support as donor nations had been slow to hand over aid.
There is widespread recognition that any shortfall in funding could be disastrous.
This could leave the weakened Haitian government struggling to provide even the most basic services, or pay its civil servants. It could also delay supplies of adequate shelter and other help to the more than 1 million homeless quake survivors, increasing their vulnerability in the face of the upcoming rains, and the hurricane season starting June 1.
Any withholding or drying up of donor funding for Haiti would dramatically raise the risk of protests by quake survivors, who have already been complaining that the government was slow to respond to the disaster.
Most experts stress that the world’s support for Haiti going forward must look to not just satisfy immediate humanitarian needs but also back a development strategy that pulls the country out of decades of poverty and instability.
Haiti, the Western Hemisphere’s poorest state which has been prone to natural disasters, had already become dependent on foreign aid, thus depriving the Haitian government of responsibility and legitimacy in the eyes of its own people.
Any prolongation of this situation of being a “Republic of NGOs (non-governmental organizations),” in which the government remains weak and ineffective, will only keep the country stuck in the cycle of poverty and underdevelopment which it has suffered for years.
“God Bless the NGOs ... (but) the NGOs need to put themselves out of business, because, as long as we’re begging for money, consistently, Haiti is never going to be economically self-sustainable, independent,” says Regine Barjon of the Haitian-American Chamber of Commerce.
Donors are hoping that the post-quake recovery can provide the opportunity for Haiti’s government to take charge of its own development and future, without constantly relying on foreign handouts and intervention.
This will require financed programs to empower the Haitian state and its public institutions.
Such an economic independence strategy also calls for determined decentralization and the creation of jobs and industries outside the top-heavy capital Port-au-Prince, to prevent the kind of urban migration and crowding that made the earthquake such a killer.
“If conditions in the countryside are not improved, the displaced will ultimately return to Port-au-Prince, to replicate the dangerous dynamics of earlier decades,” said Robert Maguire, a Haiti expert from Trinity Washington University and the United States Institute of Peace.
As captured in Graham Greene’s novel “The Comedians,” Haiti, which won independence from France in 1804 after a slave revolt, has a reputation as a country of tropical intrigue, corruption and explosive social and political violence.
President Rene Preval’s government, which had gained a good reputation among international partners for being reform-minded and business-oriented, was crippled by the quake, losing ministry buildings and scores of trained civil servants.
Many quake victims have grumbled that the president, a mild-mannered agronomist, and his government have been slow to attend to their needs — some even say they would prefer a foreign “protectorate” to run the country, which will not happen, but is a measure of the popular mistrust.
Supporters of former President Bertrand Aristide, who left Haiti in 2004 amid a rebellion, have staged noisy protests criticizing Preval’s performance but these have so far posed no serious threat to order, which is still maintained by U.N. peacekeepers and U.S. troops backing Haitian police.
Corruption has been part of the political fabric in Haiti for decades, with past dictators like the Duvaliers, Francois “Papa Doc” and his son Jean-Claude “Baby Doc,” teaming up with powerful local and foreign businessmen to keep the bulk of the mostly rural population crushed under grinding poverty.
There is widespread suspicion among ordinary Haitians that the foreign-financed recovery will benefit the “Big Men” and elites, leaving the “little people” no better off than before.
Haiti’s government and donors will have to work hard and produce concrete results to change these perceptions.
A blueprint recovery plan stresses “good governance” and “transparency” and “expresses a commitment to hold elections in Haiti as soon as possible to avoid a political vacuum.”
Preval says he will not seek to extend his term beyond its scheduled conclusion on Feb. 11, 2011, and says he is confident that legislative elections — originally scheduled for Feb. 28 — can be organized in time to ensure an orderly transition.
But with hundreds of escaped felons still on the run since the quake, and several kidnappings of foreigners reported, the risk of more crime and unrest is high, as is the possibility of illegal Haitian migrants heading for U.S. shores if recovery does not deliver results to Haiti’s long-suffering people. (Reporting by Pascal Fletcher; Editing by Eric Beech)