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Promises for and From Haiti

April 3, 2010; New York Times; Promises for and From Haiti; editorial staff.

This week’s donors conference for Haiti at the United Nations was strikingly hopeful, in good part because of what participants pledged not to do.

The promises of action were important: Nearly 60 nations and organizations said they would give $5.3 billion in the next two years, and almost $10 billion in the next decade, to help Haiti rebuild from the Jan. 12 earthquake. The United States committed $1.15 billion, in addition to the $900 million it has already spent.

Along with that generosity, major donor countries promised not to repeat the old failed strategy of poorly coordinated projects that wither through waste and neglect. Nongovernmental agencies, which — often for sound reasons — are used to bypassing the Haitian government, pledged to channel their efforts through a redevelopment plan proposed by Haiti and jointly administered by Haitian officials and the largest donors.

Haiti’s president, René Préval, and prime minister, Jean-Max Bellerive, acknowledged the need for their notoriously ineffective and corrupt government to do things very differently. They promised to work with the international community to create, and then abide by, new structures to track the billions being given.

The promises are accompanied by an ambitious plan to build new roads, ports, bridges and desperately needed housing outside the shattered capital of Port-au-Prince. It also calls for building the necessities of a functioning society: systems of justice, policing, education.

There are still a lot of buts. Pledges need to turn into donations. While billions of dollars are needed for the future, the government needs hundreds of millions now to meet its payroll and other expenses in the coming year. We, too, are leery of handing cash directly to Haiti’s government, but the call for budget support has the persuasive endorsement of Dominique Strauss-Kahn, the managing director of the International Monetary Fund.

Many excellent-sounding ideas have not yet been fleshed out. One is the plan to create an interim reconstruction committee led by Mr. Bellerive and former President Bill Clinton, a United Nations envoy to Haiti, that would evolve into a Haitian-led Haitian Development Authority — how will that work? How will the diaspora be able to contribute, beyond sending cash? And, perhaps most important, when and how will the system for following the money and the projects be put in place?

The plans are complicated, too, by the deeply inadequate relief effort. More than a million earthquake survivors are homeless. They want to see a new Haiti someday, but right now they need safe shelter, food and water. And they know that the same leaders who are hatching ambitious plans now were also overwhelmed and distressingly absent in the quake’s horrific aftermath.

Haiti is awash in promises. Haitians need to see results. If dismal history repeats itself, this week would be the high point of optimism, followed by a long slide into disillusionment and failure. That must not happen again.

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