Earthquake Buries Progress in Haiti

The country had been making strides before Mother Nature intervened.

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Even before last week's massive earthquake, the news from Haiti could seem relentlessly grim, from hurricanes to political violence to desperate poverty. But for the last year or so, things had actually started to look up in the hemisphere's poorest country. The government, which had a reputation for corruption and incompetence, started to improve its performance and accomplished unusually smooth transfers of power after recent elections. A U.N. peacekeeping force provided more security than the country had seen in years. And the Haitian government had laid out an ambitious development plan early last year that was supported by the United States, the International Monetary Fund, and the World Bank.

Because of the improvements in Port-au-Prince, the U.S. government began an interagency policy review, led by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's chief of staff, to work to empower Haiti's government to develop the country itself rather than by depending upon aid agencies. The review was nearly completed, says Bob Maguire, a Haiti expert at the U.S. Institute of Peace: "They were just dotting the i's and crossing the t's." And in June, the IMF and World Bank forgave a large amount of Haiti's debt. "In the past, Haitian government partners were not particularly worthy of robust support," Maguire says. "You now have a viable partner to work with."

That made the earthquake all the more tragic. "We had a good plan," Clinton said Wednesday. "We were just feeling positive about how we could implement that plan. ... There was so much hope about Haiti's future, hope that had not been present for years. And along comes Mother Nature and just flattens it."

The earthquake spurred a massive American aid effort, directed not at developing the country but toward meeting immediate, desperate needs like shelter and food for the estimated 3 million displaced and injured Haitians. President Obama pledged an initial $100 million in disaster aid for the country and the assistance of "every element of our national capacity." The U.S. military deployed in force to deliver aid: Coast Guard cutters, Air Force C-130 transport planes, the Navy aircraft carrier USS Carl Vinson and hospital ship USNS Comfort, a Marine expeditionary unit, and elements of the Army's 82nd Airborne Division were either in Haiti or en route. Civilian emergency rescue teams from Virginia, California, and Florida arrived to help those trapped in rubble.

The secretary of state canceled a scheduled trip to Asia to return to Washington to coordinate the U.S. government response, and former Presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush said they were teaming up to lead the humanitarian aid effort. The United States was not alone: By Thursday, China, Brazil, Spain, and Israel also had sent rescue teams and supplies.

But all of that will, at best, help get Haiti back to where it was before the earthquake, when it was the poorest and least developed country in the hemisphere. Its dreams of lifting itself out of poverty will have to wait.