- The Washington Times - Tuesday, February 16, 2010

The United States mounted an unprecedented military and civilian rescue operation in Haiti. But now, more than a month after the Jan. 12 devastating earthquake, the dangers of the upcoming rainy season have put a new focus on the enormity of the country’s remaining problems.

As the Obama administration begins to ponder the lessons learned from the massive relief effort, thousands of Haitians are still struggling to meet their basic daily needs.

“While the international response to the disaster is well under way, assistance efforts and services have still to reach a significant portion of the affected population with many people still lacking basic amenities, such as shelter, food, water and medical assistance,” the office of U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees Antonio Guterres said last week.

“Over 1.2 million have lost their homes. We are particularly concerned about the large numbers of highly vulnerable people, including the injured, as well as separated or orphaned children,” it said.

Rajiv Shah, administrator of the U.S. Agency for International Development, said the U.S. government has provided “more than $450 million in support for Haiti and for its people.” A “fixed point distribution system in 15 neighborhoods in Port-au-Prince,” the capital, has fed more than 1.6 million people, he added.

“The international relief community, the government of Haiti and local merchants are able to now reach nearly 200,000 people with two-week rations of food on a daily basis,” Mr. Shah told reporters on Friday.

Still, U.S. officials say they are concerned about the many people who have not been reached by those efforts — a serious problem that diplomats, aid workers and Haiti experts blame on the country’s barely existing infrastructure and weak government.

“The biggest challenges have been the bottlenecks created by Haiti’s lack of infrastructure and the strong emphasis on security, which slowed down delivery of humanitarian relief,” said Daniel Erikson, director of Caribbean programs at the Inter-American Dialogue, a Washington think tank. “A month after the crisis began, the depth of the suffering remains profound.”

William G. O’Neill, director of the Conflict Prevention Program at the Social Science Research Council in New York, said the Haitian “state has largely been absent.”

“One of my Haitian friends says in fact rather than call Haiti a failed state, many Haitians call it a phantom state — that there is no state there,” Mr. O’Neill said at the Brookings Institution late last month. “You see ministries … but in fact the government — and it’s not just recent, it’s unfortunately throughout much of Haitian history — has not provided basic services and not guaranteed the basic human rights of its citizens. To the extent the state was present, for most of Haitian history it was a predatory state.”

On Thursday, hundreds of Haitians marched from the destroyed National Palace to the temporary government headquarters in Port-au-Prince to demand President Rene Preval’s resignation. Mr. Preval has been largely out of sight since the earthquake, though he surfaced on Wednesday to scold publicly his own communications minister over the handling of the release of the death toll numbers, which officials say exceeds 200,000.

“The question now is whether the U.S. can oversee a transition to a more multilateral reconstruction effort with a viable partner in the Haitian government, which thus far has lacked the capacity to play much of a role in the earthquake’s aftermath,” Mr. Erikson said.

Mr. Shah agreed that “the challenge going forward is maintaining that urgency and the high level of commitment from so many broad partners.” That need “will be highlighted at the upcoming donors conference at the end of March” in New York, he added.

Kenneth H. Merten, the U.S. ambassador to Haiti, said he is most concerned about “sanitation and shelter issues, particularly regarding short-term shelter,” which will be exacerbated by the rainy season just weeks away.

“We want to do the best we can to make sure weve reached and touched as many people as possible with plastic sheeting, which is what we are distributing, so that they can take that sheeting and either put it where they are currently staying or take that to where they ultimately plan on moving permanently, and they can use that as a construction material,” he said at the State Department on Friday.

The U.S. military, meanwhile, is scaling back its biggest surge since the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, with troop numbers down in Haiti to about 13,000 from a Feb. 1 peak of more than 20,000. The operation’s price tag so far exceeds $234 million, according to Pentagon estimates. Thanks to the troops’ efforts, Port-au-Prince’s severely damaged port can now operate at several times its pre-quake tonnage.

Although Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates has said the military will be in Haiti for the long haul, U.S. Southern Command chief Gen. Douglas Fraser declined to specify what the troop levels would be in the coming months.

“Remember that the capability and the capacity the United States military brought in [were] for immediate relief,” he told reporters during a weekend visit to Haiti.

The military has begun turning certain tasks over to the Haitians, such as daytime air traffic control at Port-au-Prince’s damaged international airport, where commercial flights are expected to resume on Friday, an airport official was quoted as saying by Agence France-Presse.

Mr. Shah, asked at a press briefing what lessons the administration has learned from the Haiti effort so far, said it was too early for specifics.

“Weve started a number of lessons learned activities just on the response and the recovery effort to date,” he said. “There are important lessons for how we, as an international community, can mobilize ourselves quickly and efficiently, how we can deploy resources on the ground ever more effectively.”

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