by Jane Regan
(IPS) PORT-AU-PRINCE -- After a slow start, foreign money is starting to trickle into the country classified as the poorest, hungriest, most environmentally degraded, least electrified, sickest, most unemployed and least educated in the Americas.
"It's not coming as soon as we wanted, and maybe it won't be the amount we wanted, but it will be coming," recently installed Minister of Economy and Finances Henri Bazin told IPS.
It is coming, if one goes by recent promises. The European Union, France, the United States and others have guaranteed grants and assistance totalling over $200 million in recent weeks. That is in addition to $350 million in loans that the Inter-American Development Bank (IDB) has said it is ready to disburse.
But that cash flow is not fast enough for many.
Bazin and the other ministers in Prime Minister Gerard Latortue's cabinet -- a U.S.-created interim team that is supposed to be replaced after elections in 2005 -- have been in office for only about two-and-a-half months. For Haiti's population of eight million, who see food and medicine prices going up, garbage choking streets, criminals still rampaging freely and cities cloaked by nightlong blackouts, that period seems like ages.
Never spared from regional calamities, this week the nation that shares the Caribbean Sea island of Hispaniola with the Dominican Republic was slapped by another woe when flash flooding from a tropical depression killed hundreds of people and animals and destroyed houses and crops as water roared out of treeless hillsides and rivers jumped their banks.
It is estimated that more than 500 people are dead or missing, and roads remain sliced in two by the mountains of mud left behind.
"The foreigners said they would help us once [former President Jean-Bertrand] Aristide left, but so far we have only seen more suffering," Ernst Pierre, a farmer, told IPS as he sat on a stump of a wall, all that was left of his neighbour's home, in Fond Verettes.
Local authorities there say 158 people, including a former parliamentarian, were washed away by the torrent in that town alone. The river devastated the valley, carrying away as many as 500 houses, according to United Nations officials.
This is the third time in a decade that Fond Verettes has been decimated by torrential floods. The town is located below one of Haiti's three parks, the Pine Forest Park, where the administrations of Aristide and his successor Rene Preval did little to halt rampant tree-cutting and farming.
A $22.5 million World Bank environmental grant to protect that park and others was largely squandered and finally shut down after $14 million had been spent on projects that local and World Bank evaluators say brought no sustainable results.
"The forest up through here has been completely destroyed," Latortue told reporters during a visit to what was left of the town Tuesday.
"We have to go to the root of the problem - and the root of the problem is that we have to go and reforest the hill. Until we do that, every two, three, four years, after some heavy rain, the same thing will happen," he added.
Many bilateral and multilateral donors and lenders held up aid and loans to the Haitian government beginning in the late nineties, even before Aristide took office in 2001 to serve his second term. The former priest was previously elected in 1990, when he became the first democratically chosen leader of this nation of former slaves who fought and won independence from France 200 years ago. He was overthrown in a coup in 1991, fled to the U.S., which restored him to power in 1994. Aristede was re-elected in 2000.
Donors and lenders said they were disappointed with Aristide and his predecessor Preval for their tolerance of poor governance and corruption and for endless political squabbling and human rights abuses.
About $500 million in aid was blocked and tens of millions more rerouted to non-governmental organizations (NGOs).
Aristide, who left the country on a U.S. jet Feb. 29 after a civil and armed paramilitary movement swept the country, frequently accused foreign governments and multilateral institutions of deliberately weakening his rule with an "aid embargo."
The former priest still maintains he was kidnapped by U.S. forces, an accusation that has caused leaders of fellow countries in the Caribbean Community to delay recognising Latortue's administration.
But recent promises indicate that donors in the North approve of Latortue and that the "embargo" is over.
"Aristide resigned. This resignation opened a new period, a new epoch, a new stage in the life of this country," French Minister of Foreign Affairs Michel Barnier said earlier this month when he promised one million Euros (1.2 million U.S. dollars) to help the government pay teachers' salaries that Aristide and Preval promised but never delivered.
When U.S. Ambassador James B Foley made a surprise announcement May 23 that Washington was mobilising $100 million for Haiti -- much of it slated to go straight into the treasury's coffers -- he could not have been clearer. The money will help the nation recover from the "wilful destruction and pillage" carried out by Aristide officials, he said.
Bazin, an economist who formerly worked at the United Nations, is pleased the money is starting to come in, but he stressed his government does not intend to earn a beggar's reputation.
"We think there is an unfulfilled potential for increased tax revenues here.. Contraband, incompetence and tax evasion have kept the government from getting all that it could," Bazin said.
"There is a saying -- 'Sweep in front of your own door before you ask others to do the same'. We are trying to maximise our internal resources at the same time as we seek external assistance."
Port-au-Prince will know the full extent of that external assistance after a pledging conference to be attended by a full slate of bilateral and multilateral funders in late June in Ottawa, Canada.
Bazin is enthusiastic about the meeting, not only at the prospect of much needed cash for social services, education, infrastructure and other urgent needs, but also because of the way his government and its donors are preparing for the meetings.
"Contrary to what was done in the past, where there were little grants here and there, now we are going to organise things in programmes, coordinated programmes, so donors don't fight with each other and so that we as Haitians can also make our voices heard," he said.
The government also hopes the World Bank and other multilateral donors will agree to classify the country as "post-conflict."
"You get advantages you wouldn't otherwise get," the minister said. "First of all you get grants rather than loans, and second of all you get them quickly."
Bank officials say they are considering the request, which is supported by the governments of the United States, Canada and France, according to Bazin..
But grants and loans are only part of the answer. Presenting its 2003 version of an 'Economic and Social Report Card' study yesterday, the local UN Development Programme office and members of the Haitian Association of Economists painted a bleak picture..
Among other things, in 2003 Haiti's economy shrunk.
"Concretely there has been no growth," economist Jean-Claude Paulvin told journalists. "Instead there was a negative growth of 1.6 percent."
When Aristide was returned to power in 1994 in the U.S.-led "Operation Restore Democracy" -- an estimated three billion dollars was spent on and in Haiti. But 10 years later, experts agree, it was neither enough nor was it well spent.
In a report he issued last month, UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan said his institution previously "failed to develop necessary sustainable partnerships with the Haitian society at all levels," and that the aid "did not bear fruit to the extent expected because it was at times ill-targeted and did not take into account the deficiencies in local absorptive capacity."
As Haiti and its donors head for another round of "nation-building," bets are still out on whether this time money and efforts will do any good.
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