GAO: U.S. Efforts in Haiti Have Begun

May 26, 2011

As we previously mentioned, last week the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO), the independent government agency tasked with evaluating the performance of the federal government in selected areas, released their assessment of U.S. efforts in Haiti.  The report – which bears the less-than-optimistic title “Haiti Reconstruction: U.S. Efforts Have Begun, Expanded Oversight Still to be Implemented” – offers more a description of the general framework of the relief effort than a critical examination of its results to date.  For those not aware of where and how hundreds of millions of dollars of federal funding are being channeled in Haiti, the report has a number of useful pie charts, flow charts and bar graphs that provide a clearer picture of where U.S. funds are being spent, and where they aren’t.  Although the report offers no examination of whether the programs implemented by the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) are actually effective, it does shine a light on some of the structural problems affecting the international relief mission.

The four broad sectors receiving U.S. funding are 1) Infrastructure and Energy (46% of total funds); 2) Governance and Rule of Law (16%); Health and other basic services (13%); and Food and Economic Security (7%).  The breakdown of spending within each sector provides evidence of misplaced priorities.  For instance, while significant funds are being channeled towards improving Haiti’s energy infrastructure, roads and permanent housing, only a comparatively small amount of allocations are going to rubble removal ($25 million), although the continued presence of rubble throughout Port-au-Prince remains the biggest obstacle to the reconstruction of Haiti’s devastated capital city.

Though the U.S. has allocated over $98 million to health care, only $10 million is being channeled to education (or approximately 1% of total U.S. spending on Haiti’s reconstruction).   Haiti’s education sector was in crisis well before the earthquake – with over 60% of students dropping out of school before the sixth grade and the literacy rate hovering around 50%.  There are now heaps of rubble where many schools stood and the vast majority of the hundreds of thousands of children in tent camps have no access to any form of education.  Given the crucial role that education must play in Haiti’s reconstruction, it’s difficult to understand why this “sub-sector” is receiving so little funding.

With regard to the broader international relief mission, a particularly troubling issue that the GAO report highlights is the dysfunctional nature of the much-touted Interim Haiti Recovery Commission (IHRC).  Co-chaired by the Haitian prime minister and former President Bill Clinton and tasked with planning and overseeing all bilateral and multilateral reconstruction projects in Haiti, the IHRC is, in theory, the key player in the recovery effort.  As the GAO signals, “its functions will transfer to a permanent Haitian development agency when its mandate expires” in October 2011.

The GAO makes clear that, at less than 5 months from its “expiry” date, the IHRC remains in a sorry state.  A table in the report reveals the stark understaffing of the commission: only 2 out of 5 “Director” positions have been filled; and in many areas no positions have been filled.  Of 34 positions that are called for in the commission’s organizational structure, twenty-two have yet to be filled.  The crucial Performance and Anticorruption Office (PAO), which performs the key task of oversight of the projects approved by the Commission, has no staff and a role that has yet to be defined by Haitian and foreign partners.

Unsurprisingly, the GAO notes that “the absence of staff has affected the project review process” and that no risk analyses of projects have been conducted by the PAO since the monitoring agency has no staff at all.  International donors have “filled some of the commission’s day-to-day staffing needs with consultants and temporary staff” but these stop-gap measures are clearly not enough to make the agency functional and may in fact undermine what little independence the IHRC may have.

Another limitation to the IHRC’s efficiency is the fact, outlined by the GAO, that the IHRC has very little control over where funds are allocated since “it can be difficult to convince donors to fund some priority areas, such as rubble removal…”  As a result, the IHRC has signaled that “funding for reconstruction projects is unevenly spread among sectors and does not necessarily reflect Haitian government priorities.”  There is also, according to the GAO, a “lack of  clarity” about the Haitian government’s priorities given that its Action Plan provides very little “detailed guidance” and given that “not all priority sectors have strategic plans.”  This is hardly surprising when one considers the grossly underfunded and understaffed state of the Haitian government.

Despite a dire shortage of staff and the lack of a clear over-arching plan, IHRC has managed to approve an estimated $3.2 billion in reconstruction projects (most of which remain unfunded).  It is difficult to imagine that many of the selected projects are well adapted to Haiti’s urgent needs.

Finally, an issue unmentioned in the report is the controversial character of the IHRC in Haiti, where there have been complaints over the alleged shutting out of many of the Haitian members of the commission.  The nominee for prime minister, Daniel Gerard-Rouzier, has sought to tap into the popular resentment toward the commission by announcing his intention to do away with the IHRC, Martelly quickly backtracked, saying he was

“very open and willing to begin discussions” with Clinton and the international community about the commission to “make it more efficient” as its members seek to rebuild Haiti from the devastating 2010 earthquake.

In any case, as the commission is only mandated to exist for five more months, Rouzier’s statements would seem to amount to little more than benign political grandstanding.  As Trenton Daniel of AP noted, Rouzier “must [still] be confirmed by the Senate, which is controlled by the opposition and where there is deep resentment over the foreign-controlled commission.”

Again, the GAO report is helpful in providing a detailed description of the way in which U.S funds are spent, and also highlights some of the most egregious structural flaws that cripple the reconstruction effort; however, it provides no objective assessment of the results of U.S. assistance on the ground.  Indeed, though the report’s authors state that they met with “USAID implementing partners and local recipients of U.S. assistance”, nearly all the citations in the report come from U.S. and IHRC officials.  Thankfully, the USAID Inspector General has begun a series of audits that have, so far, provided more informed and frank assessments of the dismal state of international relief efforts.

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