U.S., other Haiti allies commit to 10-year rebuilding effort

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MONTREALThe United States and other allies of Haiti agreed Monday to a 10-year effort to rebuild Port-au-Prince and foster the long-term development that has eluded the Caribbean country despite decades of foreign assistance.

The commitment grew from a conference of 19 foreign ministers and international organizations, known informally as the Group of Friends of Haiti, who gathered in Montreal to discuss how to manage what promises to be one of the most daunting reconstruction efforts in modern times.

“It’s not an exaggeration to say that 10 years of hard work — at least — awaits the world in Haiti,” said Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper, who hosted the meeting. “We must hold ourselves and each other accountable for the commitments we make.”

The meeting produced few details about the scope of the damage from Haiti’s Jan. 12 earthquake, or the potential cost of the reconstruction. U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton announced plans to host a more comprehensive conference of donor countries in March at the United Nations headquarters in New York.

By then, Clinton said, the U.N. should have completed a review of all the needs in Port-au-Prince
and the rest of the Haitian provinces, and their estimated costs. With
emergency relief and rubble rescues still ongoing in the Haitian
capital, a larger picture of the devastation and its long-term effects
has yet to emerge.

“The extent of the devastation is almost more than any of us can grasp,” Clinton said.

Haiti’s prime minister, Jean-Max Bellerive,
was noticeably uncomfortable discussing long-term reconstruction plans
while tens of thousands of people in his country went another day
searching for food, water and shelter.

Amid discussions of donor countries’ deference to
Haitian sovereignty, Bellerive made an urgent plea for 200,000 tents
needed to shelter displaced victims, and prosthetics for those who lost
limbs in the catastrophe.

“I could continue on all of these emergencies; there
are many,” he said. “It is very difficult for me to talk reconstruction
when we do not take these matters into account.”

Bellerive said it would likely take four or five years just to restore Port-au-Prince
to what it once was — a sprawling city with too many people and too few
jobs, where much of the population lacked electricity or running water.

But the effects of the earthquake go far beyond the
city. Bellerive said the entire country may have to be remade, as the
displaced flee Port-au-Prince by the thousands for their home provinces — the very areas so many people left for lack of jobs or opportunities.

“The redistribution of people has changed the whole country,” Bellerive said.

The ministers all agreed that any future
redevelopment plans must be led by the Haitian government, not the
international community. How these parties will coordinate is far from
clear, though Clinton offered the tsunami recovery as an example, in
which Indonesia worked mainly with the U.N. and the World Bank with guidance from an executive committee of donor countries.

“It’s important that we see ourselves as partners with Haiti, not patrons,” Clinton said.

Still unclear is how much any reconstruction plan may cost.

Last weekend, The Miami Herald reported that Haitian officials had made a preliminary estimate of $3 billion needed just to restore the capital’s infrastructure, government offices, schools and hospitals.

But Bellerive did not broach the subject during the
meeting, and in a news conference he told reporters that the government
has not made any estimate or formulated an amount of money to request.

In addition to discussing coordination, the foreign
ministers also heard reports from a handful of aid groups and
nongovernmental organizations working in Haiti since the earthquake.

Some groups used the conference to push for debt relief. Haiti owes an estimated $1 billion to foreign lenders and international banks; the interest on the loans has long been a drag on Haiti“s feeble finances.

Critics have said such lending practices have stifled development in Haiti
— one 2008 study found that the Haitian government devoted more of its
budget to debt payments than to health, education and the environment
combined. In the past, the U.S. aid package to Haiti has included money to help the government pay its debts.

“It would be obscene at this time to be spending money on paying off the debts of the past,” said Robert Fox, executive director of the NGO Oxfam Canada.

Before Monday”s conference, Clinton signaled her
support for debt relief, telling reporters: “I think that’s a very
important piece of the puzzle.”

Last summer, the burden on Haiti eased after the World Bank, the Inter-American Development Bank and other lenders agreed to forgive about $1.2 billion in loans, some dating back decades. Haiti has about $38 million in outstanding debt to the World Bank, and owes $441 million to the IDB. In a statement Monday, the IDB said it was considering relieving the rest of Haiti’s debt.

In the days after the earthquake, the U.N. made an appeal for $575 million in emergency aid. As of Monday, the U.N. had reached 47 percent of that goal, with another $120 million in additional soft pledges, said John Holmes, the U.N.’s undersecretary for humanitarian affairs.

A revised appeal will be issued in 12 months. “We need significantly more,” Holmes said.

(c) 2010, The Miami Herald.

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Distributed by McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.

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