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Bill Clinton on Haiti: ‘My job is to keep the work going”

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Haitian President Rene Preval (C) and former US president Bill Clinton (L), who heads UN efforts to rebuild Haiti, make their way to a remembrance ceremony on July 12 2010 on the grounds of the destroyed presidential palace in Port-au-Prince, on the six-month anniversary of the devastating January 12 earthquake. (Getty)

July 13, 2010

PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti (KATAKAMI / BOSTON HERALD) — Six months after the Jan. 12 earthquake, Haiti is still hobbling to get back on its feet.

But former President Bill Clinton, now U.N. Special Envoy to Haiti and co-chairman of Interim Haiti Reconstruction Commission (IHRC), remains optimistic the country can recover despite the enormous challenges _ enough rubble to fill five Superdomes and a lack of land to shelter 1.5 million displaced.

Clinton, who has committed the next three years to helping Haiti become economically competitive, discussed the progress and priorities in an exclusive interview with The Miami Herald’s Jacqueline Charles.

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Former US president Bill Clinton (L), who heads UN efforts to rebuild Haiti, shakes hands with Haitian Himmeler Rebu after he received a medal during a remembrance ceremony on July 12 2010 on the grounds of the destroyed presidential palace in Port-au-Prince, on the six-month anniversary of the devastating January 12 earthquake. (Getty)

Q: It’s been six months since the catastrophic quake. What do you see as progress and challenges?

A: The progress is that people are settled; we’ve moved a lot of people out of the most dangerous areas. Food is being distributed. Water is being distributed. We’re beginning to get new investments. The resumption of NGO activities on rebuilding schools. I think that’s good. Having set up the (Interim Haiti Reconstruction) commission and the U.N. is better coordinated.

(Deputy U.N. Special Envoy) Paul Farmer, for example, has agreed to oversee the building of a genuine national health system for the first time so that when all of these NGOs come in and other people come in wanting to build hospitals or wanting to do other things in health care, he can make sure that whatever they do is consistent with where we want to be three years from now.

I feel good about the economic efforts being undertaken by the group that grew out of the Clinton Global Initiative, headed by (Digicel founder and Chairman) Denis O’Brien and others coming in.

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Former US president Bill Clinton (L), who heads UN efforts to rebuild Haiti, shakes hands with US actor Sean Penn after he received a medal during a remembrance ceremony on July 12 2010 on the grounds of the destroyed presidential palace in Port-au-Prince, on the six-month anniversary of the devastating January 12 earthquake. (Getty)

Q: And the ongoing challenges?

A: The pace of the debris removal is not nearly rapid enough. We need more heavy equipment as well as more people in the Cash-for-Work, working in it. We need a plan for breaking it down, either giving the things that can be recycled to people for recycling or setting up direct recycling.

I’ve asked the U.N. to work on a plan that will allow us, instead of moving everything to a central location, to clear a five-block area and store all of the rubble in one or two places so every place else can start to rebuild. We’ve got to accelerate that.

Q: Even before the earthquake, you spoke of the need for energy independence in Haiti where less than 30 percent of the population has access to power.

A: I think we’re doing pretty good in energy and communications planning. The commission will make a decision to make Haiti as energy independent as possible. We’ve got 20-megawatt windmills going up just across the Haitian border in the Dominican Republic, which is going to be dedicated to Haiti and will be part of a larger effort to deal with the island’s future challenges. All we need is $14 million to interconnect the two grids and the two countries will have a totally interconnected, seamless grid system, which I think is going to be a really important thing.

We’ll be able to do great things with solar, wind and solid waste. We still have a ways to go to get clearer commitments to build up the airport and port capacities and make the cost of operating them competitive so that we can get even more investments, particularly in the manufacturing sector.

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Former US president Bill Clinton (L), who heads UN efforts to rebuild Haiti, attends a remembrance ceremony on July 12 2010 on the grounds of the destroyed presidential palace in Port-au-Prince, on the six-month anniversary of the devastating January 12 earthquake. (Getty)


Q: And the biggest problem in Haiti with this disaster?

A: It’s the biggest problem in every disaster area I’ve ever worked in, including the United States. It’s the housing issue. It’s complicated in Haiti by the fact that most of the people who lost their primary residences were renters. And so just like in relocating these big settlements, the government has to either condemn land or make deals with land owners.

We’re talking about what kinds of arrangements might be made with the people who own property in the larger Port-au-Prince area and who are renting out to people. We’ve got a lot of those buildings that have been certified as safe to move in or could be safe to move in just by clearing rubble or fixing them up. That is, they are not structurally unsound.

But it’s quite complex and it’s the one area that President (Rene) Preval has wanted to keep the Haitian government directly in charge of because of all of the legal issues involved. It looks to me like what we are going to have to do is almost work this out building by building, block by block, although we had discussed whether we can make a deal with the biggest of the landlords. The rubble and the housing are big problems.

Q: Are there things you now want to do in addition as part of the rebuilding effort?

A: We are trying to figure out a much more complete sanitation system in larger Port-au-Prince. It will reduce pollution, public health problems and other things. We want to make sure they’ve got a strategy so that everybody can light their homes at night whether through the LED solar flashlights, which only costs $20 a piece and are very useful, or through low-cost solar reflectors on the roof. We want to do a lot of things that were never done before.

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Former U.S. President and U.N. special envoy for Haiti, Bill Clinton, center, greets workers in charge of the reconstruction during a memorial ceremony for the six-month anniversary of the Jan. 12 earthquake inPort-au-Prince, Monday, July12, 2010. (Getty)


Q: We see a number of schools going up, or desire to build schools. What are your concerns?

A: What I am trying to do is to work with McKinsey (& Company, a global management consulting firm) and others to accelerate the process for a plan that will actually give them a sustainable school system that can enroll all of the children in Haiti where the poor kids won’t have to pay. I figure, if we can do this for five or seven years, then by that time the growth of the economy in Haiti will be such that they will be able to take it over and operate it.

It doesn’t mean the private schools shouldn’t stay there, and shouldn’t continue to educate the kids they are educating. But if you really look at it, there has never really been a time when more than half the kids were in school.

If we can get 100 percent of them in school and the poorest families didn’t have to pay the way they had to do in Mexico and Brazil, I believe that would eliminate 80 to 90 percent of the restavek (child slavery) problem because if you look at these families’ stories, most of these kids are in essence, put in bondage to other families only so the parents can feed the kids that are left at home.

That’s a big challenge, but all of these are by way of making things better.

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A boy points in a camp set up by relief agencies for victims affected by the January 12 earthquake in Port-au-Prince July 10, 2010. Haiti is commemorating on Monday the six-month anniversary of the disaster that killed more than 300,000 people. (Getty)


Q: How is the effort to build communal shelters to help Haitians cope with the current hurricane season?

A: We’ve made some progress in building communal shelters, or rebuilding them in the case of Leogane so that if a storm comes up this season between now and the end of the year, the people in tents and tarps can go some place and not be hurt. I want to speed that up.

Q: What are your main priorities at the moment?

A: My big priorities are speeding up the housing, doing the communal shelters and getting at least a schedule of when the donors are going to give their money.

Q: Only 10 percent of the more than $5 billion pledged at the donors’ conference has been disbursed. Where is the money?

A: I can understand why in this budget climate people want to hold onto their money until the end. We are looking at things like having the commission go ahead and approve projects and go raise the money for them.

To be fair, there has been some rather spirited discussions with the World Bank about what their role is, and what the costs are going to be for small projects, which have been both sources of friction and has slowed us up some.

I think that we can do more planning, if the donors … they may not all want to do what Brazil has done and just go ahead and send ($55 million) to us, but at least if they can tell us when we can look forward to receiving money, we can approve all of these projects and fund them, and they can send the money in on time and we can match it and get the job done.

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Residents are seen sleeping outside of their tent in a makeshift camp for victims affected by the January 12 earthquake in Port-au-Prince July 10, 2010. Haiti is commemorating on Monday the six-month anniversary of the disaster that killed more than 300,000 people. (Getty)


Q: Still, with only 10 percent of the funds some are wondering if the Clinton magic has vanished in your ability to get donors to pay up.

A: A lot of these donors want to know what their money is going to go for. One of the things I intend to do this week, I just got back from my annual trip to Africa and I’ve been working on my projects there, we’re going to have a meeting with Prime Minister (Jean-Max) Bellerive to see where we are with the commission. And then I am going to call a number of the donors and try to get those that have expressed a willingness and can legally give direct budget support to the government.

I am going to try and deal with the budget support piece this coming week, call the donors and see what we can do with that. I think a lot of these donors will come across once they see what we are going to do. The great benefit of this (reconstruction) commission is that all of the big donors are represented on the commission, so they’re there with the Haitians and I expect that to pick up pretty briskly. I’d be surprised if it doesn’t.

Q: With legislative and presidential elections set for Nov. 28, to what extent are you concerned that it will hamper or overshadow reconstruction?

A: No, not if it works the way it should. President Preval can’t succeed himself. The government should be free to focus, once they set up a system for the elections and others start to campaign for office. Everybody else in the government ought to be working full time on this.

It might overshadow reconstruction in terms of what’s in the headlines. But my job is to keep the work going day after day.

You know, when you’ve got something like this, you’ve just got to put one foot in front of another. But I’m far more concerned about being slowed down by the rubble problem. There’s just so much of it. Even in (Indonesia), which was devastated, you didn’t have anything like this volume of rubble because you didn’t have 3 million people concentrated in an urban area, that was basically self-enclosed without an easy way to get all of the rubble collected and moved out somewhere. That and the other more emergency matters concerned me more. …

I expect the elections to come off, and what I think is important is neither the IHRC nor the government itself and their ministers be distracted from the urgent work before us because the best way to ensure that it’ll be continued after the next elections and it will be a seamless transition no matter who wins the elections or what their politics are, is to prove that it is working now.

The looming election should actually intensify the determination of the government to get as much done as possible before its mandate runs out. That’s what normally happens all over the world; people try to get as much done before they leave and there is no significant political impediment in the parliament here unlike many places in the world. I’ve been impressed by the extent to which the parliamentary leaders have been willing to work directly with us, and they have been consulted with and involved in, every step of the way and I will continue to do that.

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A woman prays in a cemetery affected by the January 12 earthquake in Port-au-Prince July 10, 2010. Haiti is commemorating on Monday the six-month anniversary of the disaster that killed more than 300,000 people. (Getty)

Q: You have been pushing the private NGOs to contribute to the public sector. The American Red Cross announced a few days ago that it was giving $7.9 million for health programs, which includes a $3.8 million agreement with Paul Farmer’s Partners In Health to pay the salaries of more than 1,800 Haitian doctors and health care professionals at the state-owned General Hospital. Why is this contribution significant?

A: I believe this is a new direction for them and I’m very grateful they are doing it. I think the Red Cross and Partners In Health have the most cash, and we know that Partners In Health will put all of their money back into Haiti. This is a good deal, and the fact that they’re willing to register their donations on our website and then have them track is a very good deal.

With the smaller NGOs, the ones that don’t have this much money, what I really want them to do, the ones that don’t have a lot of cash amassed as a result of the earthquake, is to make sure that if they want to build a new clinic, they want to build a new hospital, they integrate it as far as possible into the national plan; they work with Paul Farmer, give us advanced notice and that where ever possible, we use people on the ground in Haiti who are part of the public health system and make sure they’re paid.  (*)

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