World Leaders Aim to Avoid Past Mistakes in Rebuilding Haiti

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rebuilding haitiIn 1995, only months after U.S. soldiers ejected military rulers from Haiti, then-U.S. Sen. Sam Nunn, D-Ga., surveyed the decimated nation and warned: “The international community has a one-year plan and a 10-year challenge.”

World leaders are seeking to avoid repeating that mistake, meeting last month in Montreal to begin sketching a long-term reconstruction plan following Haiti’s Jan. 12 earthquake. Observers have cautiously praised the conference as a good first step from donors and international banks toward a committed restoration.

“This is an important step because at least it was in an orderly and coordinated fashion that people sat down,” said Johanna Mendelson Forman of the Center for Strategic and International Studies. “I think it also reflects the enormity of the task.”

Teams of engineers around the world are now rushing to determine just how enormous that task will be.

The World Bank and other organizations have organized a damage review based on aerial photographs and infrared images of Port-au-Prince and areas southwest of the capital city. An ad hoc group of 500 earthquake experts and engineers in 22 countries volunteered to pore over the images to help estimate how much must be rebuilt ? and address how to fortify the city against future temblors.

“I suspect that’s going to mean a long-term reconstruction project that is the largest ever imagined for a single country,” said Mark Schneider, a former administrator with the U.S. Agency for International Development.

The damage assessment has been complicated because much of the existing imagery of the Port-au-Prince area was destroyed in the earthquake, forcing surveyors to start from scratch, said Stuart Gill, a risk-management expert with the World Bank.

“Everyone died who had the skills to use that data. Basically, we have to rebuild the country’s data about itself,” Gill said.

In addition to the aerial survey, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and other organizations have teams on the ground in Haiti taking more detailed surveys and determining what remaining buildings may have to be razed.

Gill said they have to have a draft of the assessment completed by late March ? in time for a major donor conference planned at the United Nations headquarters in New York. At that meeting, world leaders hope to set a fundraising goal and solidify the aid commitments made by some 19 countries and international organizations at the Montreal conference.

But given the fits and starts of aid to Haiti in the past, some ? including Haitian government leaders ? are skeptical that the United States, Canada and other allies will stick to a sustained effort in Haiti for at least the next 10 years, likely at a cost of tens of billions of dollars.

“There is no reason to believe from the past track record that this is in fact going to materialize,” said Bruce Bagley, chairman of the Department of International Studies at the University of Miami. “I’m really quite pessimistic.”

Haiti has repeatedly received huge aid pledges following the crises ? floods, hurricanes, food shortages, political unrest ? that frequently beset the country. But aid over the long term has waxed and waned, often depending on the harmony ? or lack of it ? between Washington and Port-au-Prince.

In 1994, for example, the U.S. sent troops to Haiti to oust a military junta and restore Haiti’s first elected president, Jean-Bertrand Aristide ? a mission that cost U.S. taxpayers about $2 billion.

But within two years, then-President Bill Clinton withdrew the soldiers, and Congress drastically cut the aid budget to Haiti, citing suspected human-rights abuses under Aristide. Botched elections and overdue debt payments then led other donors to slash Haiti’s funding, and progress sputtered. “Two years was too short a time to fix a society as troubled as Haiti’s,” said James Dobbins, a defense expert with the RAND Corp. and a former U.S. envoy to Haiti, during a Senate hearing on Thursday.

Discredited elections in 2000 again led the U.S. to freeze loans intended to help renovate Haiti’s tattered infrastructure. The tensions finally eased ? and the money began to flow ? after Aristide left office in a bloodless coup in 2004. Since that time, Haiti has received about $1 billion in foreign aid per year, Dobbins testified.

But any recovery for Port-au-Prince will require much more money and more cooperation between donors and Haiti’s government than demonstrated in the past.

SOURCE: The Miami Herald. Distributed by McClatchy-Tribune Information Services (c) 2010.