Martha Mendoza and Trenton Daniel of the Associated Press reported over the weekend on the state of U.S. reconstruction efforts in Haiti. The report is based largely on documents obtained through Freedom of Information Act requests. Mendoza and Daniel write:
Until now, comprehensive details about who is receiving U.S. funds and how they are spending them 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.
Searching for evidence of success after more than two years and two billion dollars, the AP found lasting results hard to come by as “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.” Attempting to preempt the AP article, Mark Feierstein, Assistant Administrator for Latin America and Thomas C. Adams, Haiti Special Coordinator at the U.S. Department of State wrote an article, “Progress in Haiti” to combat what they believe to be an unfair portrayal of U.S. reconstruction efforts.
Mendoza and Daniel note that the reconstruction plan laid out a number of benchmarks, 40 of which were due to be reached this month. But while some benchmarks have been achieved, many have not. One area of particular concern is the provision of shelter. While Adams and Feierstein point to the decrease in the camp population as the first sign of success, AP reports:
Meanwhile, 390,000 people are still homeless. The U.S. promised to rebuild or replace thousands of destroyed homes, but so far has not built even one new permanent house. Auditors say land disputes, lack of USAID oversight and no clear plan have hampered the housing effort. USAID contested that critique.
As we have previously pointed out, the provision of new shelter options cannot explain the majority of the decrease in the camp population, and many of those that have left the camps have found themselves in even more precarious living conditions, this time out of sight of the humanitarian community.
The State Department says 29,100 transitional shelters have been built, to which residents are adding floors, walls or roofs to make permanent homes, although homes once again vulnerable to natural disasters. U.S. funds also supported 27,000 households as they moved in with friends or families, and repaired 5,800 of the 35,000 damaged homes they had planned to complete with partners by July 2012. Also by this month the U.S. had planned to help resolve 40,000 to 80,000 land disputes, but at latest count had helped 10,400.
The article also reveals why it is so important to look beyond the headlines and press releases and try to truly assess what has been done. The largest program in the education sector, which began before the earthquake, was with the Washington, D.C.-based American Institutes for Research (AIR). After the quake, AIR was told they had to “start doing other things with that money." The AP continues:
In April 2011, USAID announced that a $12 million AIR project had "constructed or is in the process of constructing more than 600 semi-permanent classrooms serving over 60,000 students."
But when pressed for details, AIR spokesman Larry McQuillan said the number of classrooms actually was 322. They were serving at least 38,640 students each day, many in two shifts.
The organization left Haiti last year after building 120 temporary schools. Today, about half of Haiti's school age children attend school, about the same as before the catastrophe. The Haitian government says it wants to put another 1.5 million children into school - by 2016.
An issue that we have written about extensively is the lack of transparency in U.S. government relief and reconstruction programs. As the AP writes, “From interviews to records requests, efforts to track spending in Haiti by members of Congress, university researchers and news organizations have sometimes been met with resistance and even, in some cases, outright refusals.” Yet the U.S. government, in their preemptive response to the article, point out that:
The State Department and USAID regularly provide information to the public and consult with Congress. In the last nine months alone, we have held more than 50 briefings for Members of Congress and their staffers, submitted strategies and reports, and have made ourselves available to answer inquiries via letters, emails, phone calls and meetings. And, for U.S. development projects, USAID provides Congress with a progress report every two weeks.
And yet, when USAID contracted a company to provide an independent assessment of the U.S.’s earthquake response, the authors of the review couldn’t determine the effectiveness or impact of aid because of a “disquieting lack of data.”
Though USAID often harps on the importance of transparency, AP’s investigation into where the money has gone was stymied by USAID:
In its own effort to follow the money, this year the AP began contacting firms that have received U.S. funding since the earthquake. A memo went out two weeks later.
Congresswoman Yvette Clarke, presumably privy to at least some of the “more than 50 briefings for Members of Congress and their staffers”, comments:
"A series of requests from journalists may come your way," cautioned Karine Roy, a spokeswoman for the USAID, in an email to about 50 humanitarian aid officials. "Wait for formal clearance from me before releasing any information."
U.S. contractors, from pollsters to private development firms, told the AP that USAID had asked them not to provide any information, and referred to publicly released descriptions of their projects.
The Durham, North Carolina-based group Family Health International 360, for example, received $32 million, including $10 million for what the State Department described as an "initiative designed to increase the flow of commercially viable financial products and services to productive enterprises, with a focus on semi-urban and rural areas."
When the AP asked for a budget breakdown, FHI 360 spokeswoman Liza Morris said, "We were pulling that for you but were told that it was proprietary by our funder."
Who is the funder?
"Our funder," she said, "is USAID."
"The lack of specific details in where the money has gone facilitates corruption and waste, creates a closed process that reduces competition and prevents us from assessing the efficacy of certain taxpayer-funded projects.”