- Associated Press - Monday, July 30, 2012

PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti — The deadly earthquake that leveled Haiti’s capital more than two years ago brought a thread of hope: a promise of renewal.

With the United States taking the lead, international donors pledged billions of dollars to help the country “build back better,” breaking its cycle of dependency.

But after the rubble was cleared and the dead were buried, what the quake laid bare was the depth of Haiti’s dysfunction.

Today, the fruits of an ambitious, $1.8 billion U.S. 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 of Port-au-Prince, have not taken off.

Critics say the U.S. effort to reconstruct Haiti was flawed from the start. While “build back better” was a comforting notion, there wasn’t much of a foundation to build upon.

Haiti’s chronic political instability and lack of coordinated leadership between Haiti and the U.S. meant crucial decisions about construction projects were slow to be approved. Red tape stalled those that were.

The international community’s $10 billion effort also was hindered by its pledge to get approval for projects from the Haitian government.

For more than a year then-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 wasn’t 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.

Where did the money go?

Until now, comprehensive details about who is receiving U.S. funds and how the funds are being spent have not been released.

Contracts, budgets and a 300-item spreadsheet obtained by the Associated Press under a Freedom of Information Act request show:

• Of the $988 million spent so far, a quarter went toward debt relief to unburden the hemisphere’s poorest nation of repayments. But after Haiti’s loans were paid off, the government began borrowing again: $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, $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 $1.8 billion the U.S. promised for rebuilding is still in the Treasury, its disbursement stymied by an understaffed U.S. 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 State Department promises to keep spending public, some members of Congress and watchdogs say they aren’t getting detailed information about how the millions are being spent, as dozens of contractors working for the U.S. 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,” said former U.S. Ambassador Brian Curran. “The concept of ‘build back better’ is a good one, but we were way overoptimistic about the pace we could do it.”

‘Sustainable improvement’

U.S. Special Coordinator for Haiti Thomas C. Adams, who oversees spending of U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) funds here, says the first priority in the critical days after the quake, which killed more than 300,000, was crisis management, and the U.S. government spent $1.3 billion on critical rescue operations, saving untold lives.

Three months later, the goals shifted from rescue to what would become a $1.8 billion reconstruction package aimed at building new foundations.

“U.S. taxpayers, in the past, have spent billions of dollars in Haiti that haven’t resulted in sustainable improvement in the lives of Haitians,” Mr. Adams said. “The emphasis was never on ‘spend the money quickly.’ The emphasis was on spending the money so that, in a year or two, we could look at these projects and see that we’ve helped create a real base to jump-start economic development and give Haitian families and businesses the kind of opportunities they deserve.”

Haitian government officials are appreciative and said the U.S. provides generous support for projects that affect long-term development.

As for going back into debt, “Haiti needs all the assistance it possibly can get at this point,” said Dimitri Nau, deputy chief of staff for Prime Minister Laurent Lamothe.

Unmet promises

Within months of the quake, Congress approved a 27-page plan detailing a partnership with the Haitian government to “lay the foundation for long-term stability and economic growth.”

USAID, an agency overseen by the State Department, was held responsible for getting the job done by choosing contractors, selecting projects and overseeing the work.

But just as there’s little to show for the $2 billion the U.S. spent in Haiti in the two decades before the earthquake, it hasn’t built much that is permanent with the new influx of cash.

The plan laid out broad categories: infrastructure, health care, education, economic development. It was followed by a strategy that included specific benchmarks.

This month, as about 40 of those come due, some are met, like a new police hot line to report abuse. But others are not.

For example, the U.S. had planned to improve the business environment by working with the local government to reduce regulations, pass national e-commerce laws, expand mortgage lending and update the tax code.

The measurement of success, U.S. planners said, would be a better ranking by the World Bank’s “Doing Business” indicators.

Instead, this year, Haiti sank eight points lower compared with the rest of the world as a place to do business in categories including securing construction permits, getting electricity, registering property, receiving credit, enforcing contracts and paying taxes.

And so far, the U.S. has no public plans to build a clean-water or sewer system in Port-au-Prince, even as the country grapples with the world’s biggest cholera outbreak that medical researchers say likely was introduced by a U.N. peacekeeping unit after the earthquake.

The U.S.’ largest jobs program is a garment-manufacturing plant being built in Caracol, 175 miles from the capital.

Mr. Adams said some investments, such as fixing the electricity system, are taking more time.

A $137 million effort to supply reliable electricity in Haiti, including blackout-prone Port-au-Prince, stalled after a contract dispute led to a stop-work order — leaving the capital with electricity only about 10 hours a day. Those who can afford it use private generators, and those without use lanterns or candles.

To date, just $18 million has been spent on electricity, largely to build a power plant at the northern industrial park in Caracol.

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