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Beyond Relief: How the World Failed Haiti

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Much of the meeting is spent complaining. An official from an international aid agency notes that Port-au-Prince is now overflowing with waste, yet 52 disposal trucks that have been imported to handle it are still sitting in customs. Another says that waste from cholera-treatment centers has been dumped at the Truitier landfill, which happens to be located on a major aquifer. Rodrigo Silva, a Portuguese waste-management specialist, offers what seems like a reasonable proposal: Perhaps the NGOs should consider composting the cholera waste instead of dumping it. In unison, officials from Doctors Without Borders, the Pan American Health Organization and UNICEF shoot him down, insisting that chlorine, an extremely effective bacteria-killer, is the only sensible option to neutralize cholera waste. Dejected, Silva leaves the room.

I find him outside smoking a cigarette. A skinny guy in his early thirties, Silva has been in Haiti for months trying to initiate projects that rely on "ecological sanitation," which many development specialists advocate for undeveloped countries like Haiti. So far, though, Silva has had almost no luck except with small NGOs like Give Love, founded by the actress Patricia Arquette. "I go to these meetings, and everybody's talking about problems, not solutions," he says. "I try to make suggestions, but no one listens. I don't know why."

In the end, nothing is decided. After two hours, the aid workers, who have spent most of the meeting arguing, make a dash for the door, getting into their cars to sit for hours in Port-au-Prince's traffic en route to the next meeting. These weekly gatherings, which are designed to streamline relief efforts, wind up seeming like an exercise in futility. "What sucks is that we spend all of our time sitting in traffic going to all of these meetings," says one veteran aid worker, who has been working in Haiti for a year, "and wasting even more hours of our day when we could be doing something else — like helping Haiti."

Many of the decisions about how best to help Haiti, in fact, were conceived well before the earthquake struck. In the spring of 2009, Hillary Clinton, having recently assumed her post as secretary of state, identified Haiti as a top priority. Both she and Bill Clinton shared a deep and difficult history with the country. The former president "fell in love" with the island during his honeymoon there in 1975, and the Clinton homes in New York and Washington were decorated with Haitian art. But his policies only drove the country deeper into despair. Clinton imposed harsh sanctions on the island after its democratically elected leader, Jean-Bertrand Aristide, was deposed by a military coup in 1991. He also backed an ambitious program of "structural adjustment" designed by the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund to turn Haiti into a Caribbean Taiwan, refocusing its resources away from farming toward more lucrative sectors like export manufacturing. It was known as the "American Plan."

The strategy was a disaster. Small farms were crushed by a sudden influx of subsidized food imported from the United States. No longer able to sell their produce, hundreds of thousands of peasants were driven off their farms and into the cities and shantytowns, mostly in Port-au-Prince, where they competed for jobs at American-owned assembly plants, earning less than $2 a day. Last year, Clinton apologized for the plan. "We made this devil's bargain, and it wasn't the right thing to do," he said. "It was a mistake that I was a party to. I did that. I have to live every day with the consequences."

The earthquake, say some involved with the relief effort, seemed to offer Clinton a chance to make amends. "Personally, I think Bill Clinton wants to redeem himself," says Joseph, Haiti's former ambassador. "He realizes he made mistakes. So now, if he can do something good for Haiti, leave a legacy, then he can say, OK, I cleared my name."

In the fall of 2008, a year and a half before the earthquake, Clinton appealed to world leaders and other members of his Clinton Global Initiative to help Haiti recover from a series of devastating hurricanes. By the end of the year, CGI members had committed more than $100 million to Haiti relief. The U.N., which had launched its own appeal, raised less than half that amount.

In the winter of 2009, U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon invited Clinton to Haiti, and soon afterward asked him to serve as his special envoy, using his unique brand of star power and political clout to garner much-needed investments for the country. It was a job Clinton had done before, drumming up aid after the catastrophic tsunami in Asia. In Haiti, he hoped to do even more. "Clinton had this idea of a grid," one adviser recalls. "He was going to figure out what all the needs were in Haiti, chart them, and then match them up with the people who had the money. The idea was to get every base covered, to fill in all those boxes, not just the ones that were sexy. And he thought he could do it quickly."

In Washington, meanwhile, Hillary Clinton was pursuing a Haiti strategy that dovetailed neatly with her husband's efforts. Within the State Department, Haiti was viewed, in the words of one official, as a "laboratory": a petri dish in which America could prove that it could be a force for good in the world. The impulse falls squarely within the Clinton doctrine known as "smart power," which stresses the importance of diplomacy and development to further U.S. interests. For too long, Clinton believed, the West had embraced "development for development's sake," throwing money at poor countries without demanding either accountability or results. Haiti had received so much foreign assistance over the years — more than $300 million annually from the U.S. alone — that it had become a virtual, albeit dysfunctional, ward of the West, and a poster child for the inadequacies of foreign aid.

In April 2009, Clinton ordered a thorough review of U.S. policy toward Haiti. She wanted a new strategy grounded in "evidence-based solutions." "The idea," recalls Cheryl Mills, Clinton's chief of staff, "was that if we're putting in the assistance, we need to know what the outcomes are going to be."

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