USAID administrator’s goal: Shift more aid to Haitian groups

USAID Administrator Rajiv Shah said Friday that the goal in earthquake-ravaged Haiti by 2015 is to have 30 percent of U.S. aid go to programs managed by local Haitian groups, rather than international organizations.

Haitians have questioned why so much international money goes to foreign non-governmental organizations and workers when there are Haitian engineers and other professionals able and willing to help in rebuilding their country.

Before the January 2010 earthquake, Shah said less than 9 percent of USAID money was going to Haitian organizations. “We’re over the pre-earthquake level now,’’ said Shah during an interview with The Miami Herald. He wasn’t more specific.

Currently there is language built into the contracts of some international non-governmental organizations that requires transitioning projects to Haitian entities — with financial consequences if goals aren’t met, Shah said.

Despite the sluggishness of rebuilding in Haiti, Shah said, “We see quite a lot of progress.’’ He said two-thirds of the 1.7 million people displaced by the quake have moved to sustainable housing, agricultural production for key crops such as corn and rice is up significantly, the first businesses at the Caracol Industrial Park in northern Haiti have opened and innovative mobile banking solution are increasingly available to the population.

Since he became USAID administrator, Shah said his goals have included encouraging host countries to take more ownership of aid programs and shifting more resources toward areas of the world where the U.S. and the host country “can have a deep partnership.’’

Under Section 109 of the Helms-Burton Act, USAID supports democracy-building programs and those that help create civil society and an “open space’’ for the free flow of information in Cuba.

But Shah acknowledged that Cuba is an exception and the deep relationship that USAID has with many host countries is missing in Cuba. “Cuba is unique compared with the rest of the world,’’ he said.

While some of the civil society programs have benefitted government opponents, Shah said, “I wouldn’t characterize it as aid for the opposition,’’ but rather across-the-board support to various groups to encourage the creation of civil society and the free flow of information to the island.

Shah’s one-day Miami visit also included a stop at Florida International University where he announced the establishment of the USAID Fall Semester program, which is aimed at getting young people involved with improving the lives of people around the world and looking for innovative ways to address poverty, hunger, health, violence, injustice and environmental degradation.

Students can apply for internships and fellowships around the world or join a virtual foreign service where, without leaving their campuses, they can take on duties such as translating SMS messages for disaster relief.

USAID Fall Semester also offers opportunities for young people to volunteer abroad and compete for prizes in the Grand Challenges for Development initiative where they will be asked for their best ideas on addressing the world’s pressing developmental problems.

Shah has already visited the campuses of Mississippi State University and Clemson University this fall to launch the program.