WASHINGTON — Political squabbling is impeding efforts to rebuild Haiti following the devastating January 2010 earthquake in the Caribbean nation, a key member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee said Thursday.
Sen. Robert Menendez, D-N.J., cited the "unsettled political environment" following Haitian lawmakers' rejection this week of President Michel Martelly's choice for prime minister.
Martelly, a popular musician who took office on May 14, has been unable to form a government to tackle the immense rebuilding challenges following the deadly quake. Experts told the Senate committee that sexual assault and diseases such as cholera also continue to devastate the country.
"I hope that the Haitian parliament understands that for us to move forward, we need not the politics of the past but the opportunity to move into the future," Menendez said, warning that bickering politicians don't "bode well for investment."
Joseph Bernadel, a board member of the Interim Haiti Reconstruction Commission, a joint Haitian-international organization that's supposed to coordinate the rebuilding effort, told the committee that "members of the Haitian diaspora want to convey the same anxieties" about the political situation.
The vote on Tuesday to reject Martelly's choice, Daniel-Gerard Rouzier, as Haiti's No. 2 official, was a blow to the commission, whose co-chairmanship is supposed to be held by the Haitian prime minister. The other co-chairman is former President Bill Clinton, but experts said that the organization couldn't operate effectively without a duly appointed Haitian leader.
The commission was established to help direct the vast international aid efforts by trying to ensure that money is spent wisely and helps to build up local government capacity, rather than continue the culture of aid dependency that has long plagued Haiti.
Menendez also said he was "disappointed in the administration" for canceling the expected appearance of Rajiv Shah, the head of the U.S. Agency for International Development, and hoped to have him testify soon.
Lawmakers also said that the country has to develop "a more business friendly environment," rebuild key infrastructure such as its port and ensure the rule of law and property rights in order to improve Haiti's private sector economy, based on industries such as agriculture and garment production.
The interest in Haiti — which is scheduled to receive almost $1 billion in U.S. aid this fiscal year — wasn't matched, however, by attendance at the hearing. Only one other senator, Ben Cardin, D-Md., was present.
Robert Muggah, a Haiti expert at the Graduate Institute of International and Development Studies in Geneva, said in an interview that he rated the reconstruction effort so far a "D."
One aid expert also warned of the risks of international donors focusing on reconstruction without fully addressing the immediate humanitarian needs of Haitians, of which more than 600,000 are still living in camps or other temporary shelters.
"While many donors are eager to leave behind the relief phase to move to long-term development, many Haitians are still displaced and living in tent camps," said Gary Shaye, the Haiti country director of Save the Children.
With the start of the Atlantic hurricane season this month, people living in those camps would be in peril if a major tropical storm bore down on Haiti, Shaye said. Many Haitian women are at particular risk on a daily basis, he said.
"Women and girls are the most affected and vulnerable populations. ...We have anecdotal reports of increases in transactional sex and other forms of sexual exploitation as women live in desperate conditions seek ways to earn income," he said.
Thousands of Haitians also have died from cholera, which continues to devastate communities that lack access to clean drinking water and sanitation facilities.
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