Haiti Recovery Effort Boosted by Billions in Pledges at U.N. Conference

BY Larisa Epatko  March 31, 2010 at 5:19 PM EST

Representatives of 130 countries met Wednesday in New York to pledge support and funding for Haiti’s vast rebuilding effort following its devastating January earthquake.

Haiti is seeking $3.8 billion over the next 18 months as the first step in an $11.5 billion package that President Rene Preval has sought to rebuild schools, hospitals and homes.

At the donor conference held at U.N. headquarters, Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton urged nations to contribute toward the initial amount.

The United States promised to send $1.15 billion over the next two years, and the European Union answered the call with 1.235 billion euros, which amounts to about $1.6 billion. Brazil, which has taken the lead in Haiti’s peacekeeping force, also pledged $172 million.

With the promise of so much funding comes the question of how much will actually make it to Haiti.

To help us answer the question, we spoke to Mark Schneider, senior vice president and special adviser on Latin America for the International Crisis Group, who attended the donor conference.

When pledges are made, donors are normally saying they will make good on their funding commitments, assuming there’s no dramatic emergency in their own country and things are progressing in the recipient country, Schneider explained. In this case, he added, the bulk of donors’ initial pledges are likely to be fulfilled since they were mostly promised to be paid in the next 18 months.

“In countries recovering after a conflict, there’s rarely a smooth path forward,” he said.

But natural disasters are easier in terms of contributing funds, he continued, and in Haiti’s case the scope of the disaster is one of the worst in recent history. The Jan. 12 earthquake struck close to the capital of Port-au-Prince, reducing buildings to rubble. The Haitian government has released various death toll estimates ranging from 217,000 to 300,000.

In terms of percentage of population, the death toll in Haiti would be the equivalent of about 7 million people dying in the United States, and the percentage of people displaced in Haiti would equal 30 million in the U.S., Schneider said. “We’re talking about massive amounts of suffering and dislocation.”

Complicating the situation in Haiti, however, was a weak government, though it was beginning to move forward before the quake struck, observers say.

“There’s been a general consensus between the Haitian government and the donors about some of the principles moving forward and how to make the money effective in the long term,” said Schneider. Haiti is developing interim mechanisms for collapsed government systems, and there will be independent auditing of countries’ donations, he said. “What is crucial is insuring a focus on poverty reduction within reconstruction based on decentralization and respect for the rule of law,” he added.