Unravelling the conundrum of US aid to Haiti

In reporting that “not a cent” of the US$1.15 billion the US promised for Haiti reconstruction at the UN donors’ conference in March had reached the stricken nation, the Associated Press largely cast the blame on a single senator - Tom Coburn, a conservative Republican from Oklahoma who had objected to a minor provision in the legislation that authorized the spending.

Coburn had “anonymously pulled” the legislation until his concerns could be addressed, the wire service reported on 28 September, and the senator was swiftly vilified by prominent liberals for sacrificing the poor of Haiti on the altar of his ongoing campaign for fiscal prudence. Comedian Jon Stewart called him an “international a**hole of mystery”, for placing a “secret hold” on the bill. MSNBC broadcaster Keith Olbermann said Coburn was “committing an atrocity against the people of Haiti and doing so in the name of ‘We the People’ of the United States.”

It is true that Coburn has placed a hold on much-needed funds for Haiti - $500 million in fact - but he is not holding up the $1.15 billion that Secretary of State Hillary Clinton promised to a round of applause at the UN donors’ conference.

That money was included in a supplemental spending bill that passed both houses of congress, after months of bureaucratic back and forth, and was signed by President Barack Obama on 29 July 2010. The Obama administration had asked congress for a total of $2.8 billion for Haiti assistance, but the final version of the legislation (H.R. 4899, P.L. 111-212) included a total of $2.93 billion for Haiti. The money was divided into three categories: $1.642 billion was earmarked for relief; $1.140 billion for recovery and reconstruction (the money Clinton promised); and $147 million for diplomatic operations, according to a Congressional Research Service report on 6 August 2010.

As of September, the US Agency for International Development (USAID) reported that more than $1.1 billion of the $1.642 billion for Haiti relief had been spent since the earthquake. But the $1.140 billion for recovery and reconstruction has remained in the US treasury because the vast proportion of this assistance cannot be disbursed until the secretary of state reports to various congressional committees on exactly how the money will be spent and how its oversight will be managed. Senator Coburn has nothing to do with the obstruction of this money.

According to a state department spokesman, Clinton has just begun the process of meeting the requirements set by the legislation. The administration “is still working with the appropriate committees on these issues,” he said. “We have been conducting numerous briefings on the Hill to ensure coordination and consultation.” In the meantime, the US government has reprogrammed “approximately $300 million for Haiti’s initial recovery phase… to lay the foundation for long-term sustainable development.”

He added: “We expect to start obligating our reconstruction assistance soon.”

In responding to the outcry that his hold generated, Coburn pointed out that it was the Obama administration that was responsible for the delay in reconstruction funds, pointing to the tangle of “executive branch bureaucracy” for the hold-up. “Despite the fact that more than 10 weeks have passed since this bill was passed into law, the secretary of state appears to have fulfilled that condition only this week,” he wrote on 7 October.

Two objections

But this does not change the fact that Coburn is holding up $500 million intended for Haiti, part of a different piece of legislation, the Haiti Empowerment, Assistance, and Rebuilding Act, which passed the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on 25 May. The Oklahoma senator had two objections to the bill. He believes that the creation of a senior policy coordinator to advise and coordinate US policy would duplicate tasks already undertaken by the US ambassador to Haiti. He also says the $500 million in the legislation “must be paid for with cuts to lower priority programmes elsewhere within the federal government’s bloated $3.7 trillion annual budget.”

“It is irresponsible to authorize any new spending that is not paid for because the end result will be a lower standard of living for the United States and an inability for our nation to assist others when disasters and other crises occur in the future,” he wrote.

A staffer on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee told IRIN that negotiations were under way with Coburn to achieve a resolution. “We have confidence that we will be able to find a way forward,” he said.

In the meantime, Haiti continues to struggle. Other countries have also delayed sending reconstruction assistance. Less than 15 percent of the money promised at the donors’ conference for 2010-11 has been received. “US procrastination in delivering assistance… sets a negative precedent,” said Dan Beeton of the Center for Economic and Policy Research in Washington D.C. “It could discourage other countries - some of which certainly have far less money available, but which might otherwise be inclined to share more anyway - from supporting Haiti in its hour of greatest need.”