Haiti: A Donor Darling Today, But What About Tomorrow?

Aid is important, but aid has never saved a country,” U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton told officials assembled at the international donor conference for Haiti, held yesterday at the UN headquarters in New York City. Her words underscore the complexity of assisting Haiti in its reconstruction effort: while the unprecedented funding pledges signal an international willingness to support the ravaged country, there is reason to be skeptical about whether a coordinated, efficient strategy for nation (re)building will emerge.

The success of the conference, however, should not be diminished. The government of Haiti had originally intended to raise about $4 billion in pledges, including $1.3 billion for humanitarian relief over the next 18 months. At the outset of the conference, the international community had pledged nearly $10 billion dollars to support Haiti reconstruction efforts over the next three years, with $5.3 billion designated for 2010 and 2011. The European Union led the way, with a generous $1.6 billion pledge, followed by the U.S., which pledged $1.15 billion (what happened to Obama’s $2.8 billion request to Congress for Haiti?) Even Mali, one of the poorest countries in the world, pledged to donate $200,000.

Now, of course, the challenges of reconstruction are only beginning. And while the generosity of the international community was on clear display yesterday, observers point to the fact that, thus far, only about 50% of the immediate aid promised in the aftermath of the earthquake has been disbursed.

Furthermore, for all the talk of empowering the Haitian government to lead and manage the reconstruction process, the way in which funds will be disbursed gives them little control. The World Bank will manage the Haitian Reconstruction Fund, overseen by an Interim Haiti Recovery Commission. Former U.S. President Bill Clinton — who is already making significant contributions to the post-earthquake relief and recovery effort as the UN’s Special Envoy for Haiti and through the Clinton-Bush Haiti Fund — will be co-chairing the commission with Haitian Prime Minister Jean-Max Bellerive.

The convoluted financing process speaks to the difficulty of finding an appropriate balance between the desire to empower the local leadership and the need for transparency and accountability; an arguably complex task for a government that lost 17% of its civil servants on January 12 .

The international community can be fickle, and whether these pledges will be fulfilled completely and in a timely manner is not certain. Already, signs of a very short attention span were visible during a press conference yesterday, when news about a Security Council resolution on Iran began to distract the attendees. In response, Haitian President Rene Preval quipped: “Do I need to develop a nuclear program for Haiti so that we come back to talking about Haiti?”