Interview

Interview: Raymond A. Joseph

Interview: Raymond A. Joseph

Nearly three months after a 7.0-magnitude earthquake devastated Haiti, killing as many as 230,000 and leaving another 1 million homeless, donors met this week in New York to pledge their help in reconstructing the impoverished island state. The aid response so far has been marked by unprecedented generosity — from governments, NGOs, and the world’s citizens. But it has also suffered from poor coordination, a slow start, and logistical complications that have led many Haitians and observers to question how helpful the help has been. Speaking with Foreign Policy‘s Elizabeth Dickinson, Haiti’s ambassador to the United States says that the key to rebuilding his country in the coming months is simple: The money must come quickly, and rather than going through NGOs, it should be channeled through the government. He wants to see an end to Haiti as a "republic of NGOs."

Foreign Policy: You’re just coming out of the donors conference for Haiti. Are you satisfied with the outcome?

Raymond A. Joseph: Very much satisfied. The government was asking for $3.5 billion over the next 18 months, and pledges amounted to $5.168 billion.

Now, it’s going to be [about] disbursements. In the past, donors have pledged, and we’ve had problems getting these disbursements. This time, we have a trust fund in place that will be run by the World Bank. I think all the pieces are now in place for a good management of the money. And because of that, I think we will see quicker disbursement.

FP: How would you evaluate the aid response so far? What has worked and what hasn’t?

RJ: What has not worked well is that about $2 billion have been collected for Haiti, but the Haitian government has only seen about $10 million. The money has been pledged and collected by NGOs. That’s one thing we have to change in the future. Governments [of donor countries] have to work with the government of Haiti. I can understand in the past where they worked with NGOs [because at that time] the Haitian government was not responsible or transparent. However, Haiti has met quite a few benchmarks on corruption and [good governance] such that the international community forgave $1.2 billion of Haiti’s debt last June. The remaining $800 million is being forgiven right now. We’ve shown we’re on the way, so now donors should have more trust in the government to carry out the projects.

The money should not be sent to NGOs because NGOs cannot develop the country: NGOs cannot take care of the infrastructure, they cannot build the roads, and they cannot have electric plants. It has been said that Haiti is a republic of NGOs.

FP: What’s your assessment of the U.S. aid package that was offered at the conference?

RJ: The Haitian government has made a plea for budget support because the earthquake destroyed the economic base of the country. One-fifth of the country was hit, but 80 percent of revenues were affected. For the government to operate, it needs some budget support. The U.S. does not usually give budget support.

I don’t know what happened this time, but I know some of the money that was pledged was budget support. I don’t know how much; we’ll find out after the government figures are out. We’re looking for $350 million, and I hope we got it all.

FP: What’s the best way for the diaspora to contribute to the recovery?

RJ: The diaspora is going to try to find out how to volunteer their services to Haiti, and the government is trying to find [a way] to subsidize some of their pay. I would think we will see more diaspora people coming in. What’s hindered them in the past is that they have to leave their family, they have to pay their bills, and the salary structure in Haiti is too low. So we are probably going back to a [program that took place about 10 years ago], when the Inter-American Development Bank, IDB, would subsidize the pay of some of the employees. I don’t know how they’re going to do it, if the IDB is still going to do it, or if they’re going to do it differently, but I’m quite sure it’s going to be done.

The other thing is that last year parliament acknowledged the need to change the Constitution regarding [the holding of] multiple nationalities. With that change in the Constitution, we expect more Haitian-Americans or hyphenated Haitians who feel a commitment to the country [to return].

FP: In the coming weeks and months, what are your goals in your relationship with U.S. interlocutors? What priorities will you be pushing for?

RJ: When I first came to Washington in 2004, I came with a slogan: "Haiti is open for business." I said the only way for Haiti to be open for business is for Congress to pass certain laws that give Haiti certain benefits, like tariff-free imports of Haitian markets to the American market. That happened with the HOPE Act and Hope Act II. Haiti’s textiles and apparel coming to the United States now are duty free. With HOPE Act III, we hope to extend this from textiles to all other products. In fact, the foreign minister of Brazil, Celso Amorim, made it clear during the conference [that more countries should give Haiti duty-free access].

The other thing that’s very helpful to Haiti is the fact that we have temporary protected status for Haitians, [which allows them to work in the United States for 18 months]. That will allow a lot of Haitians to work here and be able to send more transfers back home. I’m pushing for us to find a mechanism for all this money — remittances that are coming to Haiti — to redirect them from consumption to development.

FP: What’s your prognosis for Haiti’s recovery?

RJ: You have to give the Haitian people credit for their resilience. Although some projects are going to take time to be implemented, I’d like to see Haiti as a beehive of activity, where there are high-intensity jobs to clean up the place and put people to work. I expect to see employment rising in the next 18 months. That will give the people some hope that things are really changing. But if we are waiting for project [funds] to be disbursed and it’s taking months to happen, we’ll have some discouragement and real problems.

I expect also to see a movement toward improved agriculture. The fact that a lot of people left Port-au-Prince after the earthquake — I think it was a very good thing. I’m suggesting that whatever aid is being given now be distributed, for the most part, to the countryside of Haiti. I want to see the rebuilding of the Republic of Haiti and not the rebuilding of the Republic of Port-au-Prince. If we have to rebuild Port-Au-Prince — and I think we will — it should be a streamlined city. We should take the lesson of the earthquake to heart. The minister of finance said that for the month of January he was able to collect only 20 percent of projected revenues. So that shows you the center of life, education, intellectual life — everything was in Port-au-Prince. We don’t need a rocket scientist to tell us that you need to decentralize. So I’m glad that the plan — the vision — presented to the United Nations made decentralization a theme.