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Haiti still waiting for pledged U.S. aid

Antoine Fesnell, right, prays as his daughters Nicole, 9, center, and Antoine, 6, 
look on during a Mass on Sunday in the rubble of
the Notre Dame Cathedral in Port-au-Prince, Haiti.

Associated Press

Antoine Fesnell, right, prays as his daughters Nicole, 9, center, and Antoine, 6, look on during a Mass on Sunday in the rubble of the Notre Dame Cathedral in Port-au-Prince, Haiti.

PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti — Nearly nine months after the earthquake, more than a million Haitians still live on the streets between piles of rubble. One reason: Not a cent of the $1.15 billion the United States promised for rebuilding has arrived.

The money was pledged by Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton in March for use this year in rebuilding. The United States has already spent more than $1.1 billion on post-quake relief, but without long-term funds, the reconstruction of the wrecked capital cannot begin.

With just a week to go before fiscal 2010 ends, the money is still tied up in Washington. At fault: bureaucracy, disorganization and a lack of urgency, the Associated Press learned in interviews with officials in the State Department, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, the White House and the U.N. Office of the Special Envoy. One senator has held up a key authorization bill because of a $5 million provision he says will be wasteful.

Meanwhile, deaths in Port-au-Prince are mounting, as quake survivors scramble to live without shelter or food.

"There are truly lives at stake, and the idea that folks are spending more time finger-pointing than getting this solved is almost unbelievable," said John Simon, a former U.S. ambassador to the African Union who is now with the Center for Global Development, a Washington think tank.

Nor is Haiti getting much from other donors. About 50 other nations and organizations pledged a total of $8.75 billion for reconstruction, but just $686 million of that has reached Haiti.

The lack of funds has all but halted reconstruction work by CHF International, the primary U.S.-funded group assigned to remove rubble and build temporary shelters. Just 2 percent of rubble has been cleared and 13,000 temporary shelters have been built — less than 10 percent of the number planned.

The Maryland-based agency is asking the U.S. government for $16.5 million to remove more than 21 million cubic feet of additional rubble and build 4,000 more temporary houses.

"It's just a matter of one phone call and the trucks are out again. We have contractors ready to continue removing rubble. … We have local suppliers and international suppliers ready to ship the amount of wood and construction materials we need," said CHF country director Alberto Wilde. "It's just a matter of money."

Last week the inaction bore tragic results. On Friday an isolated storm destroyed an estimated 8,000 tarps, tents and shacks in the capital and killed at least six people, including two children.

When the earthquake hit on Jan. 12, U.S. agencies sent troops, rescuers, aid workers and supplies to the devastated capital, Port-au-Prince. On March 24, President Barack Obama asked Congress for $2.8 billion in emergency aid to Haiti. The heart of the request was $1.15 billion in new reconstruction funds.

A week later, Clinton touted that figure in front of representatives of 50 nations at the U.N. secretariat.

"If the effort to rebuild is slow or insufficient, if it is marked by conflict, lack of coordination or lack of transparency, then the challenges that have plagued Haiti for years could erupt with regional and global consequences," Clinton said.

That was nearly six months ago. It took until May for the Senate to pass a supplemental request for the Haiti funds and until July for the House to do the same. The votes made $917 million available but did not dictate how or when to spend it. Without that final step, the money remains in the U.S. Treasury.

Then came summer recess, emergencies in Pakistan and elsewhere, and the distractions of election politics.

Now the authorization bill that would direct how the aid is delivered remains sidelined by a senator who anonymously pulled it for further study. Through calls to dozens of senators' offices, the AP learned it was Sen. Tom Coburn, a Republican from Oklahoma.

"He is holding the bill because it includes an unnecessary senior Haiti coordinator when we already have one" in U.S. Ambassador Kenneth Merten, Coburn spokeswoman Becky Bernhardt said.

The bill proposes a new coordinator in Washington who would not oversee U.S. aid but would work with the USAID administrator in Washington to develop a rebuilding strategy. The position would cost $1 million a year for five years, including salaries and expenses for a staff of up to seven people.

With the bill on hold, the State Department is trying to move the money along by avoiding Congress as much as possible. It sent lawmakers a "spending plan" on Sept. 20 and gave legislators 15 days to review it. If they fail to act on the plan, the money could be released as soon as specific projects get approval.

"We need to make sure that the needs of the Haitian people are not sacrificed to procedural and bureaucratic impediments," Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman John Kerry said. "As we approach nine months since the earthquake, further delays on any side are unacceptable."

Haiti still waiting for pledged U.S. aid 09/29/10 [Last modified: Wednesday, September 29, 2010 2:02pm]

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