Key Lawmakers Request Improvements to State Department Reports on Haiti Assistance

Democrats and Republicans may not see eye to eye on much these days, but one thing a number of them do strongly agree on is the need for greater accountability and transparency around U.S. assistance to Haiti. Last year, Republican representatives Ileana Ros-Lehtinen and Ed Royce joined senior Democrats from the Senate and the House of Representatives in supporting the Assessing Progress in Haiti Act (APHA), a bill originally introduced by progressive California Democrat Barbara Lee. In a rare display of constructive bipartisanship, the bill was quickly passed by both houses of Congress last July and signed into law by President Obama in early August. 

Now, members of Congress from both sides of the aisle are again working to try to ensure that the APHA is properly implemented.  In a July 6 letter to Secretary of State John Kerry, 12 House representatives called for the APHA to be implemented “in accordance with both the spirit and the letter of the legislation” and requested that the State Department make a number of significant improvements to the APHA-mandated annual reports on the “status of post-earthquake recovery and development efforts in Haiti.”

The letter cannot be easily ignored by the State Department. It is signed by some of the most senior members of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, including its chair, Ed Royce (R-Calif.); its ranking member, Eliot Engel (D-N.Y.); and other top-ranking members like Ileana Ros Lehtinen (R-Fla.), Jeff Duncan (R-S.C.), Albio Sires (D-N.J.) and Gregory Meeks (D-N.Y.).  It is also signed by nearly every Congressional Black Caucus member who is focused on Haiti, including Barbara Lee (D-Calif.), Maxine Waters (D-Calif.), John Conyers (D-Mich.), Charles Rangel (D-N.Y.), Yvette Clarke (D-N.Y.) and Frederica Wilson (D-Fla.).

The annual report that the congressional members want to see improved is the centerpiece of the Assessing Progress Act. It includes reporting requirements designed to provide policymakers and the public with a clear picture of exactly how U.S. funds are used in Haiti aid programs and what progress is being made toward meeting pre-defined objectives and benchmarks. Having written extensively about the glaring lack of transparency around U.S. aid programs, we were supportive of the passage of the APHA and pleased to see that its reporting requirements took into account a number of our recommendations.

When the State Department’s first report was made public in January of this year, we noted that it provided a lot of useful information for researchers to work with but that often the information provided was incomplete and that there were “instances where State’s reporting may formally comply with the letter of the law, but not with its clear intent of providing lawmakers and the public with a better idea of the concrete results of U.S. Haiti assistance.”

The lawmakers who signed the July 6 letter to Kerry appear to agree with this assessment. They first lay out a global request:  that future reports “be presented and delivered in a cohesive and readily accessible document, so that Members of Congress, their staffs, and any interested party may review them without impediment.”

Later in the letter, the lawmakers provide more specific requests:

In terms of report content, we would request that future reports provide further details in the list of projects, including project milestones achieved to date, and projects’ relation to the benchmarks and goals outlined elsewhere in the report and attachments. Furthermore, in order to have a clearer picture of aid implementation at the subprime level, the following information about subprime awardees should be provided: location of contractor, funds received (both obligated and disbursed), and a description of the specific task assigned to the subprime awardee. The information on the sub-awardees country of origin is especially important, as it allows members of Congress and the public to better evaluate the involvement of local businesses and organizations in the recovery effort.

And also:

We would request that future reports incorporate any updates or adjustments made to the three-year strategy [a separate document that is also mandated by APHA], as well as ample discussion of aid programs aimed at improvement of Haitian governance and democracy. In the name of transparency, we would also request that you consider providing a translation of the main report text into Haitian Kreyol to allow for review by Haitians.

The next APHA report is due by the end of 2015, leaving the State Department with nearly six months to implement these congressional requests.  If State takes these requests seriously – and they should if they value their relations with all of the key lawmakers working on Haiti policy – we will soon have a much clearer picture of where U.S. money is going in Haiti.

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