RENÉ PRÉVAL, president of Haiti, has been in Washington discussing how to help his earthquake-ravaged country ahead of a major international donors conference this month. Unsurprisingly, given Haiti’s history of wasted and purloined foreign aid, he is being asked about the perils of corruption and what measures the Haitian government might devise to minimize misuse and theft of the billions of dollars in recovery assistance flowing into the country and the billions more expected. Surprisingly, he seems utterly unprepared to discuss the matter.
If ever there were a place and time ripe for graft, it’s Haiti circa now. Despite laudable steps by Mr. Préval to get a handle on corruption in recent years, the country remains an extravagantly crooked place in the view of international donors, the business community, and, most important, its own people. Transparency International, which measures perceptions of corruption worldwide, has consistently rated Haiti among the world’s most corrupt countries. Shattered institutions, an anemic state, a history of graft and the sudden deluge of aid money make Haiti a perfect storm for corruption risk, according to Roslyn Hees, an adviser to Transparency International who co-authored a handbook called “Preventing Corruption in Humanitarian Operations.”
No one accuses Mr. Préval of the abuses associated with so many of his predecessors. But his insistence that Haiti’s government has nothing to do with corruption since aid money is funneled from international donors to nongovernmental organizations rings hollow.
While it’s true that the government is notoriously weak and lacks resources, now more than ever, it’s equally true that government officials and their cronies in the private sector have enriched themselves lavishly in the past. To assert, as the president does, that such troubles all belong to history is to turn a deaf ear to donors’ legitimate and pressing concerns.
What’s more, it’s a public relations debacle at just the moment that Haiti needs to burnish its image so that the world’s outpouring of compassion can be fashioned into a long-term, multibillion-dollar recovery package. Mr. Préval, who has scarcely addressed his people in public since the Jan. 12 quake, has not shown a particular knack for outreach and message refinement. If he expects Congress, international financial institutions and the world’s other major donors to pony up billions to rebuild Haiti, he can help his cause by taking concerns about corruption seriously and spelling out ways the government can help the international community to contain it.