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The U.S. Is Pledging Aid To Haiti But The Success Of Past Efforts Has Been Mixed

Samantha Power, administrator of the U.S. Agency for International Development, speaks during a joint press conference with Haitian officials at the Toussaint Louverture International Airport, in Port-Au-Prince on Thursday.
Samantha Power, administrator of the U.S. Agency for International Development, speaks during a joint press conference with Haitian officials at the Toussaint Louverture International Airport, in Port-Au-Prince on Thursday.

PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti – The U.S. will send an additional $32 million to fund earthquake relief efforts in Haiti, the U.S. Agency for International Development said Thursday – an amount that will help fund shelters, food aid and medical assistance, though falling well short of the amount the United Nations says is needed to help the island nation recover from the earthquake earlier this month.

The agency's administrator, Samantha Power, made the announcement standing alongside Haiti's interim prime minister, Dr. Ariel Henry, at a press conference at the Port-au-Prince airport, against the backdrop of U.S. military helicopters lifting off on aid missions.

Since the magnitude 7.2 earthquake on Aug. 14, USAID has disbursed more than 160,000 pounds of food aid, built field hospitals and temporary shelters, and flown more than 400 injured Haitians to medical attention in Port-au-Prince and elsewhere.

"When the U.S. goes beyond this emergency phase, we know that there will be shelter needs alongside longer-term public health medical needs, water needs and sanitation," Power said. "We look forward to continuing the very, very specific discussions with specific communities, and how with all of the need across so many sectors, we build this recovery together."

Prime Minister Ariel Henry of Haiti speaks during the joint press conference. Henry assumed office shortly after last month's assassination of President Jovenel Moise
/ Octavio Jones for NPR
Prime Minister Ariel Henry of Haiti speaks during the joint press conference. Henry assumed office shortly after last month's assassination of President Jovenel Moise

Shelter is currently the affected region's greatest need, officials say. More than 50,000 homes were destroyed in the earthquake earlier this month, with more significantly damaged, according to Haitian authorities. Across southwestern Haiti, families are sleeping in schools, fields or homes now missing roofs or walls.

Henry – who took office as prime minister just last month after the shocking assassination of Haiti's president Jovenel Moise – has been dealing with a country thrown into political chaos even before the earthquake. Despite those challenges, he said, his government is active in the emergency response.

"We have a lot of people in the street. They don't have houses. They are suffering from natural disasters. The rain is getting them wet. The sun is burning them. And we need to address this as soon as possible," he said.

The bill for Haiti's needs is far greater than the $32 million committed Thursday by the U.S. The United Nations put the number closer to $200 million in an emergency appeal to international donors made earlier this week.

"We hope that all donors will step forward and contribute to meet these needs," Power said, adding that the dollar figure put forward by the U.N. — $187.3 million – speaks "to the gravity and scope of the needs that are out there."

In addition to shelter, the earthquake caused significant disruptions to healthcare facilities and to infrastructure, like roads and sanitation. With school set to begin in less than two weeks, officials are scrambling to ready buildings across the affected region, many of which were damaged or are now being used as emergency shelters.

A U.S. Army helicopter at the Toussaint Louverture International Airport on Wednesday preparing to deliver humanitarian aid to remote Haitian towns affected by the earthquake.
/ Octavio Jones for NPR
A U.S. Army helicopter at the Toussaint Louverture International Airport on Wednesday preparing to deliver humanitarian aid to remote Haitian towns affected by the earthquake.

Thursday's press conference was the latest effort by officials from the U.S. and Haiti to ehighlight the coordination between the two countries.

Leaders of the U.S. response say their every move is made in alignment with Haitian authorities, while Haitian officials have made repeated public appearances with U.S. counterparts, thanking them for their efforts.

The emphasis on coordination stems from widespread criticism of the international response to the 2010 earthquake that devastated Port-au-Prince, killing more than 200,000 people and displacing over a million.

Dozens of countries and hundreds of humanitarian groups, many of them based in the U.S., rushed into Haiti in the days after the quake. But critics say a lack of coordination led to inefficient spending and haphazard distribution of aid, with some places receiving too much and others too little.

"Perhaps the most important lesson is that no development agency, and no army or diplomatic corps, can just import a perfect humanitarian response from afar," Power said. "I think we will get better over time at knowing what we need to know and all the vast information that we don't know and that Haitians would have unique insight into."

An aerial view of families waiting to receive humanitarian aid delivered by a U.S. Army helicopter, in the town of Anse-a-Veau on Wednesday.
/ Octavio Jones for NPR
An aerial view of families waiting to receive humanitarian aid delivered by a U.S. Army helicopter, in the town of Anse-a-Veau on Wednesday.

But when pressed for specifics about lessons learned, Power pointed to the rush of donations of physical goods like blankets and canned food in 2010 made by the large Haitian-American community and other U.S. citizens.

In emphasizing the importance of cash gifts this time around, Power said such donations in 2010 effectively gummed up the system, delaying more effective relief.

"The big-heartedness of these contributions was incredible. But these goods, which were not coordinated with the needs on the ground — many of them overwhelmed the Port-au-Prince airport, got stuck in customs and unfortunately caused major delays in getting other needed supplies to Haiti," she said.

But questions about the USAID response to the 2010 earthquake go far beyond delays at customs or unneeded physical donations. The agency spent some $2 billion on relief in Haiti, but it was dogged by criticisms that it was spending the money slowly and wastefully.

A 2015 report by the Government Accountability Office found the USAID efforts were hampered by "lack of staff with relevant expertise, unrealistic initial plans, challenges encountered with some implementing partners, and delayed or revised decisions from the Haitian government."

Additional reporting by Carrie Kahn in Port-au-Prince, Haiti.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.