Dozens of governments and aid groups are scheduled to meet at the United Nations later this month to pledge millions, perhaps billions, in assistance to Haiti. My advice to many of those donors: Stay home.
Sure, everyone wants to help rebuild Haiti and finally turn the country into a thriving, self-sustaining state. But after decades of effort, many of the donors themselves have concluded that it's a Sisyphean task without end. By late January, more than $1 billion had been pledged for emergency earthquake recovery. From 1990 through 2009, donors spent nearly $5 billion on projects there, nearly all of it for naught.
The last event before the earthquake to prompt a spasm of foreign aid came in 2004, after Hurricane Jeanne devastated the island and left 700 people dead. The United Nations asked donor countries to provide $59 million in aid for Haiti and Grenada.
That effort spawned introspection because, once again, a flood of money had not changed facts on the ground at all. Haiti remained the poorest nation in the Western Hemisphere. Almost 30 percent of the children still were victims of stunting, meaning they did not grow properly, mentally or physically. Ten percent still suffered from wasting, meaning they were, essentially, starving.
By 2006, the National Academy of Public Administration, a nonpartisan, U.S. government-funded agency, had completed a comprehensive report titled "Why Foreign Aid to Haiti Failed." Its preface states: "This paper explains why, after consuming billions in foreign aid over three decades and hundreds of millions specifically for democratization programs, not to mention billions for other programs, Haiti remains politically dysfunctional and impoverished."
The report's conclusion, put simply: Haiti has no government to speak of. The state offers "dysfunctional budgetary, financial or procurement systems making financial and aid management impossible," the World Bank reported in 2005.
The National Academy described secret, off-the-books budgeting, "sole source contracts and unadvertised bidding" as well as government spending policies that "make it virtually impossible to identify fund uses, beneficiaries or impact." Meanwhile, "budget reductions and low salaries drove away most finance professionals."
All of that screamed: corruption! In fact, at the time of the National Academy report, Transparency International ranked Haiti the most corrupt nation on Earth. (Since then Haiti has climbed up a few notches, bettered by two other American client states, Iraq and Afghanistan.)
Why do you think Haiti's opposition leaders are clamoring to get involved in the foreign-aid funding debate? Perhaps some of them want a voice in rebuilding the nation. More likely, they want direct access to the cash.
Rene Preval, the Haitian president, is not letting them in the door. He may be ineffectual, but he's not stupid.
Even without the corruption problem, how can an aid group do anything useful - build a school, set up a health clinic - without involving the government in deciding where the school or clinic should go, and who the teachers or doctors will be? How will the school get textbooks, where will the clinic get its medications and supplies?
In 1998, the U.S. Agency for International Development concluded that "Haiti's public institutions were too weak and ineffective to provide the level of partnership needed with USAID or other donors to promote development." Almost 10 years later, the World Bank found "a total mismatch between levels of foreign aid and government capacity to absorb it."
The U.S. State Department classifies Haiti as one of the world's two least functional nations.
The other is Somalia, which also has next to no government. So when the donors meet at the United Nations later this month, what should they do? Give up on good governance projects, a favorite of NGOs.
Decades of effort have accomplished practically nothing. As the World Bank put it, "projects in Haiti have unusually low outcome ratings, along with very limited institutional-development impact."
What the world should do is what it has been doing since the earthquake on Jan. 12: Supply emergency food, clothing and medical supplies. Help Haitians rebuild the homes, schools, medical facilities and other infrastructure that collapsed in the quake. Reunite families; help orphans find homes.
Former Presidents George W. Bush and Bill Clinton, who were asked to serve as the chief fundraisers for Haiti, argued in a New York Times opinion article that it was time the West gave enough money "to help the Haitian people realize their dream for a stronger, more secure nation."
That's fine. But learn from the recent past. Don't throw money at programs that have been proved to produce no useful results.
Joel Brinkley, a professor of journalism at Stanford University, is a former foreign correspondent for the New York Times. To comment, e-mailBrinkley@foreign-matters.com. Contact us via our online submissions form at sfgate.com/chronicle/submissions/#1.