Corruption alarms ring as billions are poured into shattered Haiti

Experts have warned UN aid chiefs that unscrupulous officials and businessmen in the earthquake-ravaged Caribbean country could line their pockets with reconstruction cash.

Women queue to receive bags of rice during food distribution in downtown Port-au-Prince February 3, 2010. Aid groups and troops from around the world have struggled to distribute food, water and medical care to an estimated 3 million Haitians injured or left homeless in the 7.0-magnitude earthquake that wrecked much of Haiti's capital on Jan. 12, killing as many as 200,000 people. REUTERS/Kena Betancur (HAITI - Tags: DISASTER) *** Local Caption ***  KEZ201_HAITI-_0203_11.JPG *** Local Caption ***  KEZ201_HAITI-_0203_11.JPG

NEW YORK // With billions of dollars already pledged for Haiti, anti-corruption experts have warned UN aid chiefs that unscrupulous officials and businessmen in the earthquake-ravaged Caribbean country could line their pockets with reconstruction cash. Corruption watchdogs say deals involving the UN, Haitian officials and businessmen over acquiring land to build camps around Port-au-Prince for the estimated 1.1 million homeless have already started their alarm bells ringing.

The UN insists that land for camps in the suburbs of Croix de Bouquets and Tabarre, and at Léogâne, 29km west of the capital and close to the epicentre of the magnitude 7 earthquake of January 12, was acquired by the Haitian government free of charge. "This land was either lent or belongs to the government or is donated by the private sector," said Kim Bolduc, the UN's aid co-ordinator in Haiti. "There have been no questions about financial contributions required to obtain the land."

However, Jean Claude Verdier, the Haitian businessman who owns the 40-hectare Croix de Bouquets site being cleared by UN bulldozers to house 10,000 Haitians in tents and then permanent homes, said talks over cash were not over. "It has been given free for one year. Only for one year," Mr Verdier said. "They can use it for one year, after that they have to pay for it. They don't fix the price yet. If they want to use it more they will have to have a second arrangement with me."

Mr Verdier said he was in talks with the Inter-American Development Bank, and had been told that half-built villas from an aborted project he began several years ago would be completed as recompense under the terms of the deal. Roslyn Hees, an adviser to the watchdog Transparency International, based in Germany, said the deal was suspicious. Haiti labours under endemic corruption and ranks among the world's worst most graft-ridden countries, she said.

"We don't know what negotiations have taken place on this - nobody can tell me what was said behind closed doors. It may be that no money was exchanged - but who knows?" Ms Hees said. "There are many cases of political corruption, where people trade favours and no finance is involved. You scratch my back and I'll scratch yours." Ms Hees described a "perfect storm" for corruption in Haiti, with aid and cash flowing to an impoverished country via badly co-ordinated aid agencies, under a government that was weak and shady even before the earthquake killed staff and toppled official buildings.

In previous natural disasters, containers filled with food, medicine and tents "never left airport customs" and were intercepted by corrupt officials, their contents emptied and repackaged before being sold on the streets for cash, she said. Peter Walker, an expert on aid corruption from Tufts University in Massachusetts, said the real difficulties begin when the UN Development Programme and other top-heavy agencies start purchasing building materials and issuing reconstruction contracts .

"One of the biggest problems is the size and speed at which people wish to spend money," Mr Walker said. Corruption was a low-priority concern when millions are hungry and homeless, he said. "The basic rule is, if you're trying to spend a lot of money quickly you're going to screw up." After the Indian Ocean tsunami in 2004, the charity Save the Children was badly stung when subcontractors pocketed cash by building houses without foundations, leaving thousands of Acehan families in a prolonged state of homelessness.

Reconstruction efforts in Afghanistan are similarly plagued by corruption, with funds swallowed in chains of subcontractors, each taking their cut, leaving roads built shoddily with as little as one-quarter of the original tender, Mr Walker said. After witnessing decades of stunted growth and high-level corruption, Port-au-Prince residents are divided as to whether the city's officials and businessmen will seize another chance to make quick cash or behave as philanthropically as overseas donors.

"If you give the aid to the person at the top, he will just put it in his pocket," Jean-Louis Jérôme, a construction worker left homeless by the earthquake, told Reuters. Clifford Rouzeau, a restaurateur, warned of "government that steals everything", but added: "I'm hoping. I've got my fingers crossed. The people here deserve better than they actually have." Cabinet members, in place only two months before the quake, insist that Haiti has changed. Gone are the days when international aid seemed to fizzle, not doing anything to ease rampant poverty in the Western Hemisphere's poorest nation, they said.

Josseline Colimon Fethière, the minister of trade and industry, said: ""They [the people] need food, they need housing, they need to send their children to school, surely the government people would not be so bad as to take that money. After so big a catastrophe, that the money would not go where it needs to go would be impossible." Despite promises from Haitian officials, Edmond Mulet, the top UN envoy in Haiti, said the world body was not taking any chances in the aftermath of a quake that left after least 150,000 dead, insisting that "the government has not received any money, any cash at all" from the UN.

"I am personally in touch with Transparency International and we are going to work with them to establish some mechanisms," he said. "It is not only the government, we have many non-governmental organisations and other people working here [where] supervision and verification has to be established so that there is no controversy, no doubt, that the money is being used properly." Ms Hees said safeguards should already be in place, but that the guidelines espoused by UN officials were unlikely to filter down to the rubble-strewn building sites where crooked deals are likely to be struck.

"Everybody has got lots of guidelines - it's just that they are not really followed down at the site level," she said. "The big hole is the gap between headquarters and their policies and procedures and what happens on the site." With some two million survivors needing aid and many caring for injured relatives and children, experts warn there will be no shortage of Haitians tempted by corruption.