Thony Belizaire/AFP/Getty Images
Many Haitian children depend on international food aid. These girls eat a UNICEF-provided school lunch in April 2008, after riots over food prices shook many Haitian cities.
Many Haitian children depend on international food aid. These girls eat a UNICEF-provided school lunch in April 2008, after riots over food prices shook many Haitian cities. Thony Belizaire/AFP/Getty Images
Signaling an increased U.S. commitment to assist Haiti, the hemisphere's poorest country, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton visits the Caribbean nation Thursday to meet with President Rene Preval.
The trip is part of a wider effort by the Obama administration this week to focus on the Western Hemisphere. President Obama and Clinton travel to Trinidad and Tobago to attend this weekend's Fifth Summit of the Americas, after the president first stops in Mexico.
The focus on Haiti comes after a conference in Washington earlier this week where international donors pledged $325 million in additional support for Haiti over the next two years.
At the conference Tuesday, Clinton conceded that after years of international help, Haiti remains desperately poor, deeply indebted and scourged by crime and disease.
She also noted that two years ago Haiti was on its way back, achieving the highest rate of growth it had seen since the 1990s. That was before a devastating series of hurricanes last year and the worldwide rise in food and fuel prices that triggered bloody food riots in Haitian cities.
U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon and World Bank President Robert Zoellick put an optimistic spin on the latest effort to help a country where international aid has repeatedly fallen through the cracks.
"Why Haiti, many may ask?" Zoellick said. He acknowledged that competition for international aid is intense during the global economic downturn, and said that after years of responding to the island nation's needs, many donors may be feeling "Haiti fatigue."
Years Of Progress Could Be Erased
Ban Ki-moon said Haiti is now at a tipping point, likely to slide back into poverty and chaos unless it gets urgent help from the world community.
Clinton said the United States will donate almost $290 million in nonemergency aid to Haiti this year. Some of that money, she said, will go to fight drug-trafficking, which has contributed to the level of violence in the country.
A portion of the U.S. assistance will go to rebuild storm-damaged infrastructure and create jobs. Clinton noted that Haiti is facing a $50 million budget deficit, and said the U.S. will contribute about $20 million to help pay that off. She called on other donors to help fill the gap.
The conference, organized by the Inter-American Development Bank, brought together 20 donor countries with private foundations and other groups in an effort to raise money for an economic-recovery plan put together by the Haitian government.
The plan, outlined by Haiti's prime minister, Michele Duvivier Pierre-Louis, calls for rebuilding roads, bridges and other infrastructure destroyed by last year's hurricanes. It would make basic services such as water and electricity available to more people.
The plan also would promote investment in farming and light industry to create jobs. It would also try to make Haiti less vulnerable to natural disasters by re-foresting bare hillsides to prevent flooding and mudslides.
Haiti's Government Counting On Jobs
Pierre-Louis said her government hopes the recovery plan will create about 150,000 jobs, a significant boost for a country of 9 million people that suffers from 70 percent unemployment. The government hopes to increase employment beyond that by taking advantage of the Hope II Act, a preferential trade deal with the United States that gives duty-free status to some of Haiti's textile exports.
Zoellick called for assistance to help Haiti take advantage of those preferences by attracting American and international clothing manufacturers. He said the World Bank would support the development of industrial parks and export-processing zones, as well as business training to small- and medium-sized companies.
Ban Ki-moon said the U.S. trade preference is a key reason that, despite all its problems, "the plain and simple fact is that its prospects, today, are better than almost any other emerging economy." That, combined with the security provided by a U.N. peacekeeping force and the relative stability of Haiti's elected government, gives the country a strong advantage, Ban said.
Some critics of the Hope II program have said it sets up Haiti to be exploited as a source of cheap labor for foreign manufacturers and harms the country's farm economy by luring people off the land. Supporters, such as Representative Kendrick Meek, a Florida Democrat, say textile jobs can provide the buying power needed to stimulate Haiti's economy. Meek, whose district includes many Haitian immigrants, says the average Haitian garment worker earns between $4 and $5 a day, while 80 percent of Haitians live on less than $2 a day.
Pierre-Louis acknowledged that government corruption has been a serious problem in the past, and she promised transparency and "best practices in the public sector." "We can't call repeatedly on international donors," she said, without being accountable for the money spent.
Banks Could Write Off Much Of Haiti's Debt
Debt relief is a key component of Haiti's recovery plan. The Inter-American Development Bank, Haiti's largest creditor, says once Haiti's government completes a debt-relief program, the bank will write off about $525 million of its debt. The World Bank's Zoellick also said that his group is working to speed up debt relief, with the condition that money that's freed up by debt relief be used to reduce poverty in Haiti.
Watchdog organizations such as the International Crisis Group warn that the security gains Haiti has made over the past several years could unravel quickly if the government can't relieve poverty and develop the economy. In a report issued last month, the ICG noted that even though Haiti's national police force has gotten bigger and better trained with international help, the police alone couldn't contain last year's violent food riots. Those riots triggered the fall of the government of then-Prime Minister Jacques Edouard Alexis.
The report concluded that unless the international community and the Haitian government can act quickly to meet the needs of Haiti's poor, the nation's stability is fragile and its security is at risk.