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Foreign state donors and Haitian elites have misappropriated and stolen billions that were meant to rebuild Haiti.


Story Transcript

MARC STEINER: Welcome to The Real News. I’m Marc Steiner. Good to have you with us.

A little over 10 years ago, as we all know, Haiti was struck by a huge earthquake from which he had never recovered. One can argue that Haiti never really recovered from the tribute they had to pay to France to become independent in 1804. And more recently from the coup sponsored by the US under Reagan, and the popular President Aristide overthrown under George Bush. And now, with massive demonstrations calling for the ouster of President Jovenel Moise, accused of being part of stealing the billions of PetroCaribe dollars that Venezuela gave Haiti to rebuild.

All this time, when people are looking at what happens after for the 10th anniversary of the disastrous earthquake, we still don’t know how many people died in Haiti. We don’t know. The statistics of waste, fraud, and corruption are staggering. As the almost 2.5 billion USAID dollars spent, over 54% of that money stayed in the United States paying our contractors. Most of the rest squandered and plundered by the corrupt elite of Haiti. Of the hundreds of million dollars spent for housing. Barely 2000 houses were built, each at exorbitant costs. So now, it’s no wonder that thousands of Haitians are calling for Moise to go. But also, they chant, “And the whole damn system.”

Well, we’re joined now by Jake Johnson; senior research associate at the Center for Economic and Policy Research, where he is the leading author of the report Haiti: Relief and Reconstruction Watch blog as the author of numerous papers on Haiti, covering the cholera epidemic, aid accountability, and transparency of US foreign aid–or lack of it. And Jake, welcome. Good to have you here with us on The Real News.

JAKE JOHNSON: Thanks for having me.

MARC STEINER: You know, when I read your list that you put out about the money spent and all the things that happened in these 10 years, let’s just start with the amount of money that both USAID and other agencies have spent on housing. It’s amounted to nothing. Talk a bit about that.

JAKE JOHNSON: Yeah, exactly. After the earthquake you had billions of dollars, over $10 billion, pled by international donors. And the mantra was Build Back Better. And at the heart of that was to provide safe and durable housing, right? The magnitude of the destruction and the damage and the death from this earthquake had so much to do with poor quality building of houses. This was a way to stimulate local construction jobs, to stimulate local industry and to really live up to that mantra to Build Back Better. And as you pointed out, what we’ve seen instead has been very haphazard efforts in the housing sector. Minimal results.

I’ve looked tremendously in detail at USAID’s flagship housing program. Now, originally this was designed to build 15,000 homes across the country and predominantly right near Port-au-Prince, where the epicenter of the earthquake was around that area. In the end, what we saw was only about 900 homes built. 750 of which were more than 100 miles north of Port-au-Prince and Caracol near an industrial park that was built also with international funding. And those homes, while they were initially designed to just cost $8,000 each, ended up costing over $75,000 each. And there’s been no accountability, no follow up, and really no transparency around what really happened and who was involved in that scandal.

MARC STEINER: It leads to so many questions. I mean, one of the things in your statistics that I mentioned at the top was that 54% of all that money stayed in the United States inside the beltway, to American contractors. Never got to Haiti. And the fact that, if you couple that with the idea we really do not understand or know how many Haitian people died in that earthquake. To me these are both obscenities, and how can we just let that happen?

JAKE JOHNSON: No, I think that’s right. And I think you look and so many people come back 10 years later after this earthquake and say, “Hey, where did all this money go? What have we done?” But this is the system that that exists, right? This is the system that all developed countries have consolidated and continue to perpetuate in terms of foreign aid. And the way it works is that most of the money goes right back to companies of those donor countries.

So as you pointed out with USAID, more than 50% of the money went to companies located here inside the beltway, where I work, in Washington; Maryland; Virginia. Now only 2.4% of that money of total USAID spending went directly to Haitian organizations, Haitian companies, local civil society organizations. So yes, some of that money that goes to foreign companies does eventually trickle down to the ground. But it’s not $10 billion, right?

MARC STEINER: Right.

JAKE JOHNSON: Each layer taking overhead, taking salaries, spent on security, etc. Then you have to look at what the money was actually spent on. So much of foreign aid goes to these very short term solutions. Bottles of water after the earthquake who delivers these things, which sure can save lives in the short term. But in terms of a longterm development, in terms of coming back 10 years later and seeing some durable progress, that foreign aid was never going to do that.

MARC STEINER: When you take what’s going on right now in Haiti, with all the money that was given by Venezuela when Chavez was head of Venezuela, billions of dollars, four point something billion dollars, all missing. Nobody knows what happened to it. I was reading this morning stories about $80 million being deposited in the President’s account. The corruption has stolen the life of the Haitian people both inside of Haiti by the folks who are tied to the United States. And in terms of how the money was never spent overseen, and there’s no accountability and no one seems to care.

JAKE JOHNSON: Yeah, exactly. I think it’s clear that the Haitian people are caring.

MARC STEINER: Yes, the Haitian people care.

JAKE JOHNSON: And I think that’s tremendously important that that’s happening. I think when you take a step back and you look at the PetroCaribe program, this aid from Venezuela, it was an extremely different model than traditional foreign aid. That it was money that went to the government, and it was a long term loan at very low interest rates. But this was money that was actually in the government’s hands as opposed to traditional foreign aid, which totally bypass the government.

In terms of actually strengthen the government, having these long term impacts, channeling money through the government is certainly a more effective strategy. But of course there has to be checks and balances on that. Right? And I think what you saw after the earthquake was basically a deal between foreign actors and the Haitian government. Which was, you take the Venezuela money and do whatever you want. You leave us alone to do whatever we want with these billions in aid dollars that we’re controlling. It was just as simple as that. And I think just now we’re starting to actually see what really happened with this money and who is ultimately accountable for how it was spent and how it was mismanaged.

MARC STEINER: So let’s talk now with the time we have about Chemonics International, this company, and also this kind of coalition for international development companies. That kind of scandalous thing also overlooked in most of the major media and this country doesn’t even pay attention to it.

JAKE JOHNSON: That’s exactly right. I think most people when they think about foreign aid, they think of like a mom and pop NGO or a little organization that’s just a charitable organization, an NGO. But in reality, our foreign aid system has seen the exact same developments as our military. Whereas, you have the military industrial complex, here you have the foreign aid industrial complex. You have for-profit development companies, which Chemonics is one of, that is dominating this field globally in terms of where US money goes.

So of course that has tremendous implications in terms of how that money is actually spent, what portion of it is actually getting to the ground and issues in terms of accountability and transparency. I’ve spent years trying to FOIA information, to get more detailed spending data and breakdowns from Chemonics. And from other private companies like Developmental Alternatives Incorporated. And, I’ve really come up basically empty handed. All of these things are considered trade secrets and proprietary business information in terms of US government policy.

MARC STEINER: It’s interesting, what you just said, makes you think of when this shift occurred. International aid has always had its issues, but in some ways,  it may have worked better in the decades before the 1960s. And now you’re talking about for profit companies controlling aid money. I mean that in itself seems to be a massive contradiction.

JAKE JOHNSON: Yeah, exactly right. And I think it manifests itself in different ways. So one, there was a big effort to reform foreign aid and specifically with the United States and after the earthquake. There was a big program USAID Forward, which aim to increase the amount of local procurement, to break up these private cartels that run the aid industry.

And yet, as soon as that started being implemented you saw all of these companies form a lobbying coalition and immediately hire a well-connected, democratic leader; one of the Podestas. And they were lobbying against these commonsense reforms. They had a very receptive audience in the US Congress where the rationale for foreign aid is not the development of foreign countries, but rather how it benefits their home districts right here in the United States.

MARC STEINER: Let’s take a look at this present moment, what’s happening in Haiti. There are massive demonstrations, again, not being covered in any way by the major press. Maybe by the Miami Herald, because of some of the staff people that they have there who actually cover Haiti. The demonstrations taking place against President Jovenel Moise, who has really become in some ways, I don’t want to over-play it, but almost like a stooge of the Americans who just shifted his stance against Venezuela to appease the Americans who are helping keep him in office. And people want him out. He’s clearly saying he’s not leaving. So let’s talk a bit about the present political situation. Now, it fits into all the work you’ve done in terms of [crosstalk 00:09:33].

JAKE JOHNSON: Yeah, exactly. To begin with, a few weeks ago we had the 10th anniversary of the earthquake. And a lot of people didn’t realize that the very next day, on January 13th, the terms of parliament expired because there had not been elections held last year. So Jovenel Moise, the president of Haiti, is currently ruling without any legislative oversight. It’s a, sort of, de facto rule by decree scenario, if you will. I think when you look at US relationships with Haiti, obviously you can go back, over 100 years of the US occupation. 100 years before that to their enforcing of the reparations, the money paid to France for their freedom.

But even more recently, you look at just this post-earthquake period, and I think you have to make the connection between how foreign aid is used and how that manifests itself in the political reality in Haiti. And so, you’ve seen over decades this erosion of the state and the replacement of the state by this foreign aid system. Now the implication of that, or the result of that, is that you have a state that’s tremendously dependent on international actors. And that can come in handy when you’re trying to get a state to do what you want. You saw that in 2010, there was an election held after the earthquake. There was over a million people still displaced. This was a very, very difficult context for having an election, it probably never should have happened.

But, as it’s so often the case in Haiti, it’s short term stability at the expensive of long term development. And so they held this election and it was a total mess, as everyone expected. And yet, instead of recognizing that fault, realizing that foundations for reconstruction for development had to have been based on real democracy, a real mandate from the Haitian people. The organization of American States was brought into Haiti, without any statistical basis for doing so, changed the results of the election and put Michel Martelly into the runoff election. As opposed to the person who had been there, which was the successor of the President at the time of the earthquake, Renee Preval.

Now, he had become an impediment for those international actors looking to take over the control of this aid apparatus on the ground in Haiti after the earthquake. And I think when you look at today and the US roll in Jovenel Moise, who is himself the chosen successor of Martelly, you have to go back to that 2010 election. The discrediting of these international actors as neutral arbiters, or as some sort of arbiter of justice for democracy in Haiti, their credibility is shot. And so when they say, “We’re going to support this or we want to see this,” currently this week, the UN and the OIOS are trying to convene a dialogue to try and bring folks around the table and meet with Jovenel Moise. But their credibility is gone.

For the last 10 years, Haitians have seen the United States side with this political movement that has, frankly, and as we continue to see more and more, pilfered millions and millions of dollars from this country. And benefited themselves at the expense of the Haitian people.

MARC STEINER: When you look back in the 1990s and the victory of Jean-Bertrand Aristide as president, an overwhelming majority voted for Aristide. And now you will have Jovenel Moise, clearly doesn’t have the support of the people of Haiti. And so this disintegration of this country continues. Let me just conclude by asking, not that you’re pressed into having a crystal ball, but just talk a bit about where you think this might go. The people in the Haiti or are arising up throughout the island, from everything I’ve heard from people down there and reading the reports. Where do you think this ends up? Where does this go?

JAKE JOHNSON: First, a quick point on Jovenel Moise and his mandate. He did win an election, but I think you have to note that that election had 18% participation.

MARC STEINER: Exactly, that’s what I’m saying.

JAKE JOHNSON: He came to office with less than 600,000 votes in a country of 11 million people. So you can’t be surprised when you see these protests or people not respecting the legitimacy of his “democratic mandate.” I mean, what sort of mandate could you ever get with that sort of participation and turnout in a country like this? It just doesn’t exist. So I think that’s the first point. I think as you go forward, it’s clear there’s been a significant effort over previous months to try and push Jovenel Moise out of office. And he’s resisted that and maintains an office today.

And again, I don’t think anybody knows exactly what’s going to happen, but I think we have been here before and we can have some idea about what the strategy is going to be from international actors and from the Haitian government. In 2015, Martelly, Jovenel Moise’s predecessor also hadn’t held elections and was ruling in this de facto by decree scenario for about a year. And the strategy was basically to name a government and move to elections as soon as possible.

And I think there’s a tremendous risk with this strategy. Because without these fundamental reforms that Haitians have been asking for, without this greater transparency, without addressing the impunity prices, the corruption crisis and the democratic deficit of Haiti’s current political class, holding elections is only likely to exacerbate these tensions and result in a similar mandate Jovenel Moise has today; which, as you’ve seen, is not nearly sustainable.

MARC STEINER: Well, Jake Johnson, A) let me thank you for the work that you do. And I’m glad we hear it. The Real News will stay on top of Haiti, as we have, to keep covering what other people will not cover. Because this is a hugely important story for not just the Haitians; for the hemisphere and our country. And thank you so much for joining us today.

JAKE JOHNSON: Thanks for having me.

MARC STEINER: And I’m Marc Steiner here with The Real News Network. Thank you all for joining us. Please let us know what you think. Take care.


Marc Steiner

Managing Editor

Marc Steiner, interim co-Editor at TRNN, is a Peabody Award-winning journalist who has spent his life working on issues of social justice. He walked his first picket line at age 13 and at age 16 became the youngest person in Maryland arrested for Civil Rights protests, in the Freedom Rides through Cambridge. As part of the Poor People’s Campaign in 1968, Marc helped organize poor white communities with the Young Patriots, the white Appalachian counterpart to the Black Panthers. Early in his career he counseled at-risk youth in therapeutic settings and founded a theater program in the Maryland State prison system. He also taught Theatre for 10 years at the Baltimore School for the Arts. From 1993 through 1997 his signature “Marc Steiner Show” aired on Baltimore’s public radio airwaves, both WYPR – which Marc co-founded – and Morgan State University’s WEAA.