Haiti Donors Conference: A New Paradigm or New Packaging?

  International leaders gathered in Washington, DC this past week to pledge assistance to Haiti through the Haiti Donors Conference at the Inter-American Development Bank (IDB). UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, Secretary of State Clinton, President Clinton, and the presidents of the World Bank, IDB, and IMF all spoke about the "critical juncture" that Haiti is at: either Haiti could take significant steps forward or a devastating slide backwards. Yet, overwhelming optimism abounded: all Haiti needed to keep it on the right track was donor commitment to support the government of Haiti’s "excellent" plan to alleviate poverty and promote economic growth. In the convivial and cooperative spirit of the donor conference, it was possible, for just a moment, to forget the international community’s – and that of many of the donors in the room — egregious history with the most impoverished nation in the Western Hemisphere and believe, as the title of the conference proclaimed, that Haiti was moving "Toward a New Cooperation Paradigm for Growth and Opportunity."

And then the pledges came in. $324 million (the actual number is still being verified, after donors made general pledges on Tuesday). A mere $324 million to take Haiti from its critical crossroads towards progress and a new paradigm? Perhaps the lack of funds makes sense to donors in light of the fragile state of the world’s economy. But then again, donor-after-donor conceded that Haiti is at a "critical juncture" and, in recent months, the nation has warranted high-profile international attention, including visits by the UN Secretary General, Secretary and President Clinton and a host of other international experts and dignitaries.

If we move past the amount given, we should acknowledge that even $324 million can make a significant contribution in Haiti. But before we do, it might be worthwhile to look back at lessons learned — something that the donors at this conference did not want to do. At the 2004 donors conference, $1 billion was pledged under the Interim Cooperation Framework, a plan to address Haiti’s most urgent needs: food security, health, education and strengthening government infrastructure. However, most of these pledges were never fulfilled and the funds that were sent, by most estimates a fraction of the monies pledged, did not go to the priority sectors. If there is to be true hope for Haiti, not just HOPE II, an Act passed by congress to provide tariff preferences for U.S. imports of Haitian apparel, pledges must be fulfilled and go to the priority sectors outlined by the government to make any measurable contribution.

Equally important, the funding patterns of the last decade need to be reevaluated and reversed with more funds going directly to the Haitian public sector. Almost all assistance going to Haiti from major donors states flows through NGOs, bypassing the very institutions the donors all committed to strengthening this week. Without direct funding to the government agencies charged with devising national schemes for serving its population, public infrastructures for health, education, housing, clean water and the like collapse when NGOs lose their funding or change their priorities. The gaping hole that is left behind in such circumstances has been the story of Haiti for far too long and which, unless changed, will prevent the nation from setting forth models for the long-term welfare of her people.

The news is not all bad – Haiti does stand at a crossroads after all. There are some positive signs – the US has reversed its policy of bypassing the government and for the first time provided $20 million of direct budgetary support to Haiti. The international attention is also encouraging, but must be sustained. Now, the rhetoric of partnership needs to be actualized. $324 million in pledges, if actually fulfilled and spent according to the needs and rights of the Haitian people, can improve the daily lives of Haitians who live in the most impoverished nation in our hemisphere. But it will depend on the actions of the donors. Perhaps the more important crossroads is not the one that Haiti stands before, but the one the donors must contemplate. Are they ready to embrace the new paradigm, a true partnership with Haiti, or just repackage the old one?

Monika Kalra Varma is the Director of the Center for Human Rights at the Robert F. Kennedy Center for Justice and Human Rights.