Mills was chosen by Clinton to steer the review. An elegant, 46-year-old graduate of Stanford Law School, Mills was as strong a Clinton loyalist as anyone in Washington. She had worked in the White House office of legal counsel throughout Bill's presidency, defending him during his impeachment hearing. She also served as Hillary's chief counsel and unofficial campaign manager during her 2008 presidential campaign. "If something's on the other side of a brick wall and the Clintons need it," said one former White House colleague, "she'll find a way to get to it: over, around or through."
But Mills, to some minds, was a questionable choice to lead what became the State Department's Haiti Task Force. She had no prior experience in international development, nor did she think she needed it. Her role, as she saw it, was as a problem solver: In order to come up with the best policy possible, the United States needed to maximize its resources, cut costs and leverage the expertise of as many people as it could, including those in the private sector.
"Cheryl Mills came in and started asking very hard questions, like 'Why is it that we've put all this money and all this time into Haiti and gotten nothing out of it?'" recalls Robert Maguire, chairman of the Haiti Working Group at the U.S. Institute of Peace, who was part of a kitchen cabinet of experts who met with Mills to discuss Haiti policy. Mills was appalled, Maguire recalls, by the abysmal record of U.S. aid in Haiti, and was particularly critical of the NGOs, many of which had spent decades there without producing any lasting change. She was unhappy that so much money was outsourced to private development agencies, whose accomplishments rarely justified their exorbitant fees. Mills was also frustrated with the inflexibility of development purists in accepting new ideas.
The purists, in turn, criticized Mills as a political operative who, for all of her good intentions, was "not qualified to engineer sophisticated development approaches to Haiti," as one puts it. Maguire, however, was impressed. "This old, established system had been deficient in the worst possible way, and Cheryl was determined to figure out a new way of doing things that would be more effective, both for the U.S. and for Haiti," he says. "She was not accepting business as usual. And because of that, she stepped on a lot of toes."
Mills was particularly unpopular at USAID, the long-troubled, deeply understaffed agency that has been at the helm of development programs for the past five decades. Since the end of the Cold War, USAID has suffered tremendous budget cuts that have resulted in its role being almost entirely absorbed by the State Department, which controls its budget. For those at USAID who resented this loss of autonomy, Mills became a symbol of their agency's emasculation. To those she favored, Mills could be warm, funny, witty and supportive. But like the Clintons, she could also be vindictive to those who crossed her. "I don't doubt that Cheryl means well," says one State Department official, "but she scares the shit out of everyone."
During the summer and fall of 2009, Mills dispatched several teams of experts to Haiti to assess the best investment options. They paid particular attention to a strategy drawn up by Oxford University economist Paul Collier, who maintained that with its low-paid workforce and loose labor regulations, Haiti could become a major supplier for the apparel industry. The ideas weren't dissimilar from the policies that had been foisted on Haiti as far back as the Duvalier era. "That same model of T-shirt manufacturing was tried in the 1970s, and was an utter failure," notes a U.N. official. "The entire model is based on paying people so little that it doesn't activate the economy. It keeps the labor force subsisting, but there's not enough surplus in their salaries to do more than keep their family alive."
Mills nonetheless embraced Collier's idea, as did Bill Clinton, who made a special trip to Haiti in the fall of 2009, escorting international CEOs around Haiti's farms and factories and promoting its tourism potential. Manufacturing, Clinton believed, was "a great opportunity, not only for investors to come and make a profit but for the people of Haiti to have a more secure and a more broadly shared, prosperous future." He also envisioned a myriad of other possibilities, from tourist hotels to outsourced call centers.
By that Christmas, Mills and her team had identified four key pillars for aid — health, energy, agriculture and security — that promised what seemed like the highest return, and were preparing to send a report on the new Haiti strategy to the National Security Council for review. Bill Clinton's hands-on approach had also begun to pay off: Two international hotel chains had committed to projects in Haiti, and new industrial parks were in the works with interest from American, South Korean and Irish investors. The Vietnamese military was in negotiations to buy a controlling share of Haiti's state-owned telephone company, and the Hotel Montana in Port-au-Prince was making plans to open a shopping arcade.
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