U.S. pledges $1.2 billion in aid to Haiti

U.S. officials on Wednesday pledged $1.2 billion to rebuild Haiti under an ambitious but controversial plan that would hand the country’s government -- long considered corrupt and ineffective -- broad, new control over how to spend the foreign aid money.

Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton announced the two-year U.S. pledge at a donors conference at the United Nations, declaring that world powers “cannot retreat to failed strategies” of working around the Haitian government.

The conference brought together 130 countries to raise aid for Haiti, hit by a devastating earthquake Jan. 12 that plunged the impoverished country into deeper misery. U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said donors went “beyond expectations” to pledge $9.9 billion over more than three years to rebuild the shattered nation. Haiti had appealed for $3.8 billion over two years.

In the last two decades, donor nations seeking to help Haiti have avoided direct aid to the government, funneling it instead to a vast array of private aid groups that have set up in the island nation. But the Obama administration concluded that that approach has produced mixed results while depriving Haitian leaders of any say over how assistance was distributed.

Instead, administration officials have proposed a plan that would rebuild the collapsed ministries and, they hope, help make the officials who run them more honest, efficient and accountable.

“We in the global community must do things differently,” Clinton said in remarks to the donors conference. “It will be tempting to fall back on old habits, to work around the government rather than to work with them as partners.”

But lawmakers and private aid groups have voiced concern about putting a massive influx of international aid under the control of an untested government with a problematic history.

Billions of dollars provided to the Haitian government in the past were “wasted or stolen by corrupt governments controlled by a few wealthy families,” said Sen. Patrick J. Leahy (D-Vt.), who chairs the Senate appropriations subcommittee on foreign operations. “Now the needs are even greater, and we want to see a credible rebuilding plan that learns from the past and avoids those mistakes.”

The new strategy would be guided initially by an oversight organization called the Interim Haitian Recovery Commission, which would include Haitians and representatives of donor nations. The body would be co-chaired by former President Clinton and Haitian Prime Minister Jean-Max Bellerive.

After 18 months, under the plan, Haitians would assume full control.

Samuel A. Worthington, president of InterAction, the largest coalition of U.S. nonprofit groups working for the world’s poor, said the plan for the recovery commission was an “interesting experiment” but unproven.

The commission must approve all reconstruction projects and could represent a “significant bottleneck” to his group’s plans to deliver more than $500 million in aid, Worthington said. In the allied effort to build a more capable government, “they’re taking a calculated risk,” he said.

Leahy said he would insist that any direct U.S. aid be tied to the government’s performance and subject to “effective monitoring to ensure transparency and accountability in how funds are used.”

The administration’s plan, which has support from the U.N. and other world powers, is aimed at building the shattered country into a modern state that would no longer be a ward of international donors.

Ban, the U.N. chief, pointed to the ambitions of the international plan in comments to conference participants. “What we envision today is a wholesale national renewal, a sweeping exercise in nation-building on a scale and scope not seen in generations,” he said.