U.S. government’s millions having mixed results in Haiti

A woman walks through the Caracol-EKAM housing development built by the U.S. Agency for International Development.
A woman walks through the Caracol-EKAM housing development built by the U.S. Agency for International Development. Miami Herald staff

The U.S. government’s efforts to help Haiti rebuild after its Jan. 12, 2010, earthquake is having mixed results, a new report from the U.S. Government Accountability Office shows.

Auditors reviewed 23 reconstruction projects and found that while some in health and agriculture did well, construction projects continue to suffer from cost overruns and delays. Also, in three cases, the U.S. Agency for International Development’s Haiti mission was forced to scratch projects because of poor performance or insufficient Haitian government support, auditors said.

The release of the report by the GAO, which works for Congress, came a day ahead of a visit to Haiti by U.S. congressional staffers from the House Foreign Affairs committee. Led by Eddy Acevedo, senior policy advisor to U.S. Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, the delegation plans to visit some of the projects, including empty housing plots, where work stalled because the agencies that were supposed to build the homes on behalf of USAID pulled out.

The findings echo past GAO reports examining how USAID has spent $1.7 billion of U.S. taxpayer dollars in Haiti’s reconstruction efforts. As of Sept. 30, 2014, the agency had allocated more than half to health and food security programs.

“Challenges such as overly ambitious plans, inadequate mission staffing, and slow or revised decisions from the Haitian government have led to delays and lower than expected results for most activities,” International Affairs and Trade Director David Gootnick wrote.

Benjamin Edwards, a USAID spokesman, said despite enormous challenges, U.S. assistance is helping Haiti make “significant advances” in food, health, and economic development. For example, 70,000 farmers are enjoying increased crop yields and nearly half the population can access basic healthcare services thanks to USAID technical assistance, financing and cooperation with the health ministry, he said.

Auditors say the challenges have forced USAID to extend its Haiti reconstruction time frame by three years. Its post-earthquake strategy was intended to be in place until 2015. One of the most severely delayed projects is the $83 million state-of-the-art State University Hospital in Port-au-Prince. Financed by the governments of Haiti, the United States and France, its opening is three years behind schedule. It is now expected to open in early 2017.

Agency officials provide a host of reasons for the delays, from the procurement process to land tenure issues to a lack of construction engineering experience among USAID staffers. The lack of technical staff, say observers, is a worldwide USAID problem, not just isolated to Haiti.

Nowhere has that problem been most apparent than in the housing construction program. Among the site visits auditors made was to the poorly constructed Caracol-EKAM housing village in northern Haiti.

Earlier this year, USAID officials told the Miami Herald that they were considering suing the contractors after an inspection of the homes found subpar work.

“We observed unresolved concerns such as blocked drainage pipes and ditches that led to flooding in the settlement after heavy rains, and blocked and crushed sewage pipes. We also observed open water catchment tanks adjacent to some houses that had become breeding areas for mosquitoes,” Gootnick wrote.

Even new efforts to prepare plots of lands and let others do the building continue to be plagued by cost overruns and delays, the report said. For example, a review of USAID’s “New Settlements Program” found that costs had increased from $55 million to $76 million, while the number of planned plots of land were reduced from 15,000 to 4,000.

The number of houses were also reduced by 77 percent, from 4,000 to 906.

Ros-Lehtinen, a Miami Republican, said she remains concerned that the housing program costs increased dramatically “while fewer Haitians were helped.”

“Congress will continue to exercise its oversight responsibilities to ensure that our foreign assistance to Haiti is carried out efficiently and is helping the people of Haiti more than five years after the devastating earthquake near Port-au-Prince,” she said.

One project that did come in under cost and on time was the 10-megawatt Caracol power plant. Still, auditors point out that while it was anticipated that there would be 30,000 residential hookups to electricity, there are only about 7,800 and plans to expand the plant to 25 megawatts had been suspended as of September 2014.

The reason, according to USAID/Haiti officials: lower than expected demand at the Caracol Industrial Park.

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