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After two years of frustratingly slow reconstruction of their earthquake-battered country, Haitians and Haitian-Americans contend they’ve been shunted aside as American firms soak up most of the work and money dedicated for the nation’s rebuilding effort.

Audits and analysis over the last two years — two by the inspector general of the U.S. Agency for International Development — found problems that have hampered reconstruction and has officials falling short of promises to fairly distribute relief contracts among Haitian Americans and locals on the island.

According to government figures, 1,537 contracts had been awarded for a total of $204,604,670, as of last fall. Only 23 of the contracts went to Haitian companies, totaling $4,841,426.

The U.S. government has committed over $3.1 billion to Haiti, according to figures released last month by the Office of the Haiti Special Coordinator at the U.S. State Department. That includes $1.8 billion for long-term reconstruction over the next five years.

Congress also appropriated $1.14 billion in supplemental funds in July 2010 for Haiti reconstruction, according to the U.S. Government Accountability Office. Most of the funds were provided to the State Department and USAID, which also fund non-governmental organizations (NGOs.) The departments are managing about $412 million earmarked for Haitian infrastructure projects.

Critics say more could be done to make sure a share of the contracting goes to Haitian-owned companies. Instead the money is going to firms familiar to U.S. officials in Washington, D.C., said Bob Remy, a pharmaceutical and medical equipment consultant and president of the Greater Washington Haitian Relief Committee.

“The beltway is known for its lobbying power, especially for companies winning contracts to work in disaster-prone areas,” Remy said. “Whenever there are disasters the same companies line up. For them where there is pain there is gain.”

After reviewing the Federal Procurement Data System, the Washington, D.C.-based Center for Economic and Policy Research said in September 2011 that 2.4 percent of U.S. government contracts went to Haitian firms, while 35.5 percent were awarded to “beltway contractors” located in Washington, Maryland and Virginia.

US officials had insisted they would ensure that contractors hire a good share of Haitians. But according to an inspector general’s audit of USAID spending, dated September 2010, the two largest U.S. contractors for a cash-for-work project in Haiti were hiring just 8,000 Haitians a day, not the 25,000 required by the contract.

“This cash-for-work program was a total joke,” Remy said. “They gave the Haitians buckets and brooms to remove rubble. The reconstruction funding is supposed to clean up the capital and at the same time create jobs.”

Reconstruction has been slowed by delays, according to a report issued last November by the U.S. Government Accountability Office.

The USAID and State Department “have obligated and expended a small amount of funds for infrastructure construction activities,” the GAO report stated. Of the $412 million allocated for infrastructure, only $3.1 million had been spent by September of 2011.

The report said that after the quake, agencies had difficulty staffing the Haiti mission, planning and starting construction projects and awarding contracts.

A complicated task

Reconstructing Haiti is a complicated proposition; the capital city, Port-au-Prince, had a terribly weak infrastructure before the quake. Afterward, major companies and NGOs with extensive experience with natural disasters were needed; firms with technical capabilities, strategic know-how, heavy equipment, and already vetted by the USAID. Those firms were by and large located stateside.

USAID officials said the agency had no choice but to initially rely on American companies for relief efforts given the extensive earthquake damage and the crippling of many Haitian companies.

“The nature of the emergency in Haiti necessitated speed, so USAID engaged many of its traditional partners to ensure a swift, effective response,” an agency spokesperson said in a written response to questions about contracting in Haiti. “The majority of USAID funds for Haiti over the past two years have gone to respond quickly to emergencies and humanitarian crises, including the earthquake, cholera response, supporting stable elections, and the mitigation of effects from the hurricane season.”

Now, post-earthquake relief work is in the development phase, which is already leading to new deals with 500 Haitian organizations and companies, the spokesperson added. “USAID is actively engaging the Government of Haiti and the Haitian people, and coordinating with other donors to work directly with local actors and nascent organizations.”

The State Department is also reaching out to Haitian-Americans who want to do business in Haiti. It hosted a conference in September, 2011 for those interested in “working with the U.S. government in Haiti” and getting government contracts through USAID.

“It became obvious that there was a need among the Haitian Diaspora community who wanted to help rebuild their country,” said Preeti Shah of the Office of the Haiti Special Coordinator, created in 2010 to oversee U.S. engagement with Haiti and implementation of a reconstruction strategy in partnership with the Haitian government.

Albert Cady, a Washington, D.C. patent attorney attended State Department and USAID outreach events and workshops and found them helpful. He is a member of the Haitian Development Advisory Group, an ad-hoc organization of Washington area Haitian-Americans that meet monthly to brainstorm how to help Haiti. While Cady said he understands the frustration among Haitians, and believes they are being unfairly shut out in some cases, Haitian firms and NGOs are hurt by a lack experience. Many can’t afford consultants to craft strong proposals, he said.

Disconnected from the recovery

It’s not just Haitian companies largely left out of the reconstruction, “It’s individuals as well,” said Monique Manigat, a Haitian-American who recently moved back to Haiti.

“Organizations have positions where they only hire foreigners and they pay them these huge amounts of money and they are here living the big life, using money that is supposed to go toward helping the country,” she said.

Manigat said the brain-drain that for years has robbed Haiti of talented citizens must be reversed. “Haiti has lost a lot of good people with great

education and great skills and we need to bring them back.

“We should be here rebuilding our country with our skills,” Manigat said.

Manigat’s father, Leslie Manigat, was president of Haiti for five months in 1988 before being overthrown in a military coup. Her stepmother, Mirlande Manigat, ran for president in Haiti’s 2011 elections.

Haitian’s sense of exclusion from the rebuilding of their own country extended to the influential Interim Haiti Recovery Commission, which had been set up “to ensure that the planning and implementation of the recovery efforts are Haitian-led” and that Haitian officials, donors, and NGOs get a fair shot at funding. The commission continues to be a source of friction between Haitian and international members, even as the Haitian Parliament considers letting the body’s charter sunset.

In December 2010, nine of the commission’s 14 Haitian voting members — there are 14, non-Haitian voting members — wrote to the body’s co-chairs, former U.S. President Bill Clinton — now the U.N. Special Envoy to Haiti — and Jean Max Bellerive, then the prime minister of Haiti. They complained of feeling “completely disconnected from the activities of the IHRC.”

“We risk ending up with a variety of ill-assorted projects, some of which are certainly interesting and useful taken individually, but which collectively can neither meet the urgency nor lay the foundation for the rehabilitation of Haiti, and even less its development” the letter said.

The IHRC acknowledged it initially experienced “growing pains” and didn’t communicate well with its Haitian members, but said things improved after the staff “made a concerted effort to reach out to Haitian Board members more regularly and engage them.”

Jocelyn McCalla, former senior advisor to Leslie Voltaire, Haiti’s former special envoy to the U.N., said he had hoped the IHRC would ensure inclusion for Haitians but “It devolved into heavy-handedness by the Americans. “The entire decision-making process is opaque and it’s really people brought in by Clinton … basically making all the decisions. The Americans are essentially saying that Haitians are not ready to run their own country.”

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