The fact that Haiti was mired in dysfunction well before the earthquake, despite having received more than $5 billion in aid over about two decades, is fuelling a contentious debate on whether a grand reconstruction plan can finally fix the country or would be doomed to repeat previous failures.

One side argues that Haiti should be temporarily taken over by an international organisation, which would govern it and oversee its rebuilding. On the other extreme, minimalists fervently believe that years of failed, foreign-imposed aid projects underscore that this time Haitians need to develop and implement their own plans. And in between are those who argue for a joint Haitian-international reconstruction agency to administer a kind of Marshall Plan.

Such is the scale of day-to-day demands now, however, that even medium-term reconstruction efforts seem distant. Jeffrey Sachs, a Columbia University economist, proposed that boatloads of aid include at least one ship crammed with fertilizer to jump-start the planting season in March — the country desperately needs to grow more food and to encourage those fleeing the devastated capital to farm. But there were no immediate takers in the official aid flotilla, leaving Mr. Sachs lobbying private shippers.

Indeed, the international aid effort is failing to meet the earliest goals pronounced by the U.N. Secretary-General, Ban Ki-moon. Mr. Ban said repeatedly that by the end of last week, the World Food Programme and related organisations would have delivered food to 1 million Haitians; just half of the 2 million he said needed help. On Friday, the number fed stood at 600,000, well short of his goal.

Mr. Ban also promoted a cash-for-work programme to help bring stability, with jobs clearing the rubble at $4 to $5 per day. The organisation’s $575 million emergency appeal for Haiti included $41 million for that programme, but by Friday the jobs programme had only attracted $4.3 million in donations and had employed more than 12,000 Haitians out of an anticipated 200,000, the U.N. Development Programme said.

The United Nations is supposed to excel as ringmaster during international disasters, but rebuilding Haiti may test its limits. Mr. Ban had appointed Bill Clinton as his special envoy to Haiti months before the earthquake, and the former U.S. President met some success in attracting outside investors with his “I honeymooned in Haiti and you should too” mantra. This year, Haiti had anticipated its first economic growth in years, projected to be 4 per cent. But there were still hurdles, not least that the country lacked basics like dependable electric and water supplies. A donor conference last April attracted $402 million in pledges, but only $61 million in actual payments, according to the United Nations.

Mr. Ban is expected to announce any day that Mr. Clinton will take on an expanded role in coordinating U.N. efforts to resurrect Haiti. Indeed, the former President’s high profile has fuelled suggestions that he become the Haiti reconstruction czar. Even before the earthquake, Mr. Clinton had been deflecting criticism that he was becoming a colonial proconsul, and at a news conference last Monday he emphasised the role for Haitians, saying, “In the end, it is their country and their future.”

He also compared the potential for change in Haiti to that of the Lower Ninth Ward in New Orleans, where destruction by Hurricane Katrina became a catalyst for building better, environmentally sound housing.

But the $400 million the U.S. has already spent, with significantly more expected, has prompted calls for an expansive outside supervisory role. “Is it too wild a suggestion to be talking about at least temporarily some sort of receivership?” Sen. Christopher J. Dodd asked during hearings on Thursday in the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, noting that Haiti risked slipping back into its old pattern of a few greedy families running the country. Sen. Bob Corker echoed that thought, adding, “I think something far more draconian than just us working behind the scenes to prod reforms and those kinds of things is going to be necessary.”

The three witnesses at the hearing demurred, noting that the U.S. had a mixed record in reconstruction efforts like rebuilding electric plants in Iraq. One of them, Dr. Paul Farmer, the deputy U.N. envoy and a founder of Partners in Health, which has been working in Haiti for more than 20 years, said that the long history of Washington overthrowing or blockading Haitian governments helped create the current dysfunctional government.

A more blunt U.N. official derided the idea of a “Batman-like world plot” to swoop in to rescue Haiti’s future, particularly since the world will be likely to lose interest in a project that could well take a decade.

Some suggest that the reconstruction model might be Aceh, Indonesia, where after the 2004 tsunami a multi-donor fund disbursed some $700 million, mostly to local projects, with an Indonesian, a World Bank representative and the European Union, the biggest donor, each given one oversight vote apiece.

The problem with that model for Haiti, noted David Harland, a senior U.N. official on Latin America, is that the Aceh fund was a minor piece of a strong, wealthy Indonesian government. In impoverished Haiti, a wealthy development agency could well supplant a government just finding its feet economically.

Aid projects already planned had anticipated factory jobs sewing clothes jumping to 150,000 from 24,000 because of a deal giving them 10-year, duty-free access to the U.S. market. Experts believe such plans should move ahead, along with new plans for construction projects that would put tens of thousands of people to work. Many said creating jobs is much more important than outright aid, as the latter could foster dependency.

The debate on whether aid spurs development has been raging for years, and William Easterly of New York University is among those who argue for a minimalist approach to reconstruction with money disbursed to local governments parched for resources. “I think the whole idea of the earthquake being an opportunity for foreigners to do more aggressive interventions is really problematic and objectionable,” he said in an interview, arguing for modest, homegrown plans. “We have tried basically everything in the book already in Haiti as far as grandiose plans, and those haven’t worked.”

Haitians themselves have mixed emotions. Staggering from the destruction, they want foreign help and remain wary of its past. But the central problem worrying them is how their own government, having so utterly failed to deliver services for decades, can muster the capacity, the knowledge, the will and the credibility needed for such a complex task, said John Miller Beauvoir, a 28-year-old Haitian.

Mr. Beauvoir founded an organisation to get young people like him more involved in civic affairs. He thinks non-governmental Haitian organisations and successful Haitians living abroad should get a legal voice in allocating aid money. — © 2010 The New York Times News Service

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