By Steven Edwards, Canwest News Service
UNITED NATIONS — The United Nations on Wednesday named Bill Clinton as chief aid and reconstruction co-ordinator for earthquake-ravaged Haiti, a task that puts the former U.S. president at the helm of what is likely to be the world body’s biggest ever nation-rebuilding project.
The appointment by UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon comes as relief promised by countries around the world has topped $2 billion, but in the face of criticism that there seems to be no central co-ordinating body.
UN officials say the hope is that Clinton’s stature on the world stage will be enough to encourage donor countries to remain focused on Haiti even after coverage of earthquake’s aftermath has left the front pages.
“The trick is to get the Haitian people back to where they can stop living from day-to-day, and start living from week-to-week or month-to-month, and start the long-term efforts,” Clinton said in brief public remarks as he and Ban met at UN headquarters in New York.
“The leaders there want to build a functioning modern state for the first time, and I’ll do what I can.”
But one of Clinton’s first tasks may be to oversee aid gaps left by the possible withdrawal of an undetermined number of the 2,000 Canadian soldiers stationed in Haiti because of upcoming commitments in Afghanistan.
Most of the Canadian contingent in the country is from the Royal 22nd Regiment, which is to be deployed to Afghanistan later this year. The approximately 1,000 troops are scheduled to begin training in California in April and would have to leave Haiti by mid-March.
The rest of the Canadian military presence is largely personnel from two warships, HMCS Athabaskan and HMCS Halifax, both stationed off the Haiti coast.
Lieut. (Navy) Kelly Rozenberg, public affairs officer and a member of DART (Disaster Assistance Response Team), who has been in Haiti for nearly three weeks, said the overall situation is gradually improving.
“To me, it looks like life is getting back to normal slowly,” said Rozenberg, in a phone interview Wednesday. “There are people selling things on the street now. A lot of the main routes for transportation have been opened so access to move around is improving.”
She added that Canadian personnel on the ground continue to do a variety of tasks ranging from providing supplies and medical support to engineering work on buildings. The Canadian mission has so far distributed nearly 200,000 meals. More than 5,000 patients have also been seen at various clinics and a field hospital.
“The motivation level is still really high among everybody here,” she said. “We’re just looking forward to seeing improvements and helping bring positive changes in the lives of Haitians.”
UN spokesman Martin Nesirky signalled reinforcements of UN peacekeeping troops could compensate for any drawdown of Canadian forces from their two regions of focus — in Jacmel, southwest of Port-au-Prince, or Leogane, to the capital’s west.
“Those additional forces will be deployed in the coming weeks, and that would allow a rotation out of other components like, for example, the Canadians, who have been on the ground,” he said of some 3,500 additional troops and police the UN Security Council has approved to join the already existing 9,000-strong UN force.
Clinton last Thursday called on global business leaders attending the World Economic Forum in the Swiss resort of Davos to help Haiti rebuild.
He did so as UN special envoy to Haiti — a position he held even before the Jan. 12 quake after Ban asked him to help the Caribbean nation advance economically.
Clinton also has direct experience co-ordinating massive aid projects, having directed reconstruction efforts in the wake of the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami.
But Haiti has been a black hole for aid money for decades: despite receiving some $8.3 billion in foreign aid since 1969, the country’s nine million people are collectively 25 per cent worse off economically than in 1945.
With files from Mike De Souza