Will the world honour its commitments to Haiti?

Experts say international community may not be up to long-term challenges of rebuilding devastated country.

WASHINGTON / Even as Barack Obama and other world leaders pledge hundreds of millions of dollars and a sustained effort to rebuild Haiti in the aftermath of the devastating January 12 earthquake, some experts are warning of yet another grim reality: that such promises are likely to go unfulfilled.

Few doubt the sincerity of the world community to help those in need or question the usefulness of aid arriving from international donors. Rescue teams and doctors from around the world have already saved lives and will continue to do so in the months ahead. But many aid experts question the resolve of the world community when it comes to building up a nation from the rubble of a natural disaster, a task that will prove especially difficult in Haiti, the poorest nation in the western hemisphere. World leaders inevitably turn their attention, and resources, to other matters, they say, while the generations-long process of nation-building rarely comes to fruition.

Larry Birns, the director of the Council on Hemispheric Affairs, a Washington-based non-profit organisation that promotes the common interests of western hemisphere countries, said: "New causes come along, new tragedies occur, budgetary priorities shift. "This is almost a matter of the craft of disaster relief, that very often it is long on the rhetoric and short on the delivery. There is a great deal of theatre to all of this," he said.

The world's governments, so far, have pledged more than US$350 million (Dh1.3 billion) to Haiti, including more than $160m from the United States, according to the United Nations' Financial Tracking Service. However, Jonathan Moore, a former US ambassador to the UN and former US co-ordinator of refugee affairs, said he was sceptical that the full scope of pledges would ever materialise. Mr Moore pointed to a long history of underfunded relief efforts, including a UN-led effort in 2008 to raise money for Haiti's recovery from four destructive hurricanes and tropical storms. The so-called UN "flash appeal" for $121m was only 60 per cent funded when the most recent disaster struck the country.

Of the money that is flowing into Haiti, Mr Moore said, only a fraction will go to the long-term development projects necessary to rebuild Haiti, a goal that has surfaced with increasing frequency in the speeches of world leaders. "If you look at all the claims that have come in," he said, "the longer-term development is going to come out last." The majority of the $100m donation from United States is already being used for food aid and search and rescue operations. Securing more funding for Haiti is likely to require congressional approval, raising the spectre of messy political disputes at a time when the United States is saddled with another nation-building exercise, in Afghanistan, and a soaring federal deficit.

Randolph Kent, who directs the Humanitarian Futures Programme at King's College London, said: "Once you start venturing into the developmental aspects of this, you start getting to a far more politicised process. Too few countries are able to be in this for the long term. It's quick and dirty, in and out, instant empathy and then going back [home]." The humanitarian aid community has long referred to a so-called "relief-to-development gap", or the gap between well-funded and politically popular humanitarian aid - providing food, tents and medical care - and the underfunded longer-term efforts such as restoring livelihoods and building up responsible governments.

Few statistics are available to illustrate the gap, but complaints of donor fatigue and underfunded development projects are well known in the field. Donations to help New Orleans rebuild after Hurricane Katrina, for example, paled by comparison to the initial groundswell of assistance in the days and weeks after the storm ravaged the US Gulf Coast, said Albert Ruesga, the president of the Greater New Orleans Foundation.

In recent years, the United Nations Development Programme has sought to close the relief-to-development gap by urging first responders to focus on humanitarian aid and development goals simultaneously. The new emphasis on "early recovery," as it is known, is being applied in Haiti, according to Abi Weaver, a spokeswoman for the American Red Cross, who said teams on the ground are already "thinking in the long-term".

Red Cross relief workers, she said, are focusing on restoring permanent shelter, creating job opportunities, and dealing with the emotional trauma of the disaster. "We are looking to restore their sense of normal," she said. However, restoring normality to Haiti is a tough task that is further complicated by the lack of any strong government or other entity capable of administering a large quantity of development funds. "There literally is nobody to fill out the forms," said Robert Perito, a Haiti specialist at the United States Institute of Peace in Washington. Haiti is not able to adequately track aid money to meet the accountability requirements of international donors, he said.

Mr Perito said, however, that before the quake, there had been new momentum in the international community to help Haiti, including an influx of foreign aid from the United States and Canada. General development assistance, including money to improve education and governance, had risen to $865m in 2008, the highest level in 20 years, according to statistics from the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, which has 30 member countries.

For now, despite the daunting challenges, world leaders have sounded optimistic about Haiti's future. Barack Obama, the US president, has said he is committed for the long haul. Hillary Clinton, the secretary of state, has talked about building Haiti "bigger" and "better into the future". According to some statistics, there is reason to be hopeful. US private donations to Haiti have reached $305m, according to the Chronicle of Philanthropy, a publication that tracks charitable giving, exceeding the $163m raised in the first week after the 2005 Indian Ocean tsunami. The high-profile tsunami recovery effort is regarded as one of the best-funded in history.

As in the tsunami effort, the White House has enlisted two former presidents - in this case George W Bush and Bill Clinton - to lend star power to fund-raising efforts and keep the spotlight on Haiti. Elizabeth Ferris, a humanitarian aid expert at the Washington-based Brookings Institution, praised the international community's response, particularly that of Mr Obama, who, she said, acted brilliantly in mobilising resources quickly.

But she too cautioned that there was "always a gap between promises and results". "It would be better not to make generous promises about the long term in Haiti," she said. @Email:sstanek@thenational.ae