Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Aid Windfall Propels Sweeping Change in Haiti

Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Aid Windfall Propels Sweeping Change in Haiti

Article excerpt

THE people of Haiti have their best chance in more than a century to create a new country. But to accomplish this, they must overcome huge obstacles.

"It's the people of Haiti ... who will change the country's situation," says Dumy Simeon, an unemployed accountant in Haiti's capital.

Among the greatest challenges for Haiti:

* Revamping a tattered economy. Haitians are the poorest people in the Western Hemisphere. In 1990, average income was $440 a year - a figure that has fallen sharply since 1991 with the country under an international embargo.

* Developing the rural economy. More than two-thirds of Haitians live in the countryside, scratching a living from farms that are too small and eroded to feed the nation.

* Rebuilding institutions, especially the public school system. Haiti has a public sector so shriveled that most institutions do not work anymore: the police, the judiciary, the state-owned telephone company, and the schools.

These problems may seem too overwhelming to solve. But Haiti has two factors in its favor. Its first democratically elected President Jean-Bertrand Aristide has returned to tremendous popular support. And Haiti will receive international aid for road-building, jobs programs, and humanitarian assistance. This week, the Monitor examines this poor Caribbean nation's effort to launch a new beginning in three articles.

Haiti has spent 200 years going backward, economically. As a French colony, it thrived by exporting sugar to Europe. In the 1790s, its trade with France was more than double Britain's trade with all its colonial holdings combined. But uninspired and corrupt leaders, combined with decades of diplomatic and economic isolation, turned that powerhouse into a basket case.

Despite the country's deep-rooted problems, economists are upbeat about President Aristide's potential to reverse the decline.

"This is a historic change that has tremendous possibilities," says Bob Maguire, coordinator of the Hopkins-Georgetown Haiti Project, an interuniversity project funded by the Ford Foundation. Short-term `cluster bomb'

Aristide's plan has two components. The first is massive short-term aid. United States Agency for International Development (USAID) and the World Bank are spearheading an effort to raise $555 million from the world community for aid to Haiti in the next year. Nearly half of that should be available within the next three to four months. The aid involves everything from programs to provide 50,000 short-term jobs to subsidies for fuel imports.

The main complaint from economists is that the aid package may be too massive, hurting the private sector more than it helps the nation.

"There's going to be a lot of pressure to cluster-bomb Haiti with dollars," Professor Maguire says. "It's going to be a tough call for Haiti to absorb this money. …

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