“This is the new Parliament Building?”

30 Jun

Photo: Courtesy The Global Post

That’s what I kept asking people standing around and inside what was, indeed, the building constructed by Chemonics International to replace Haiti’s modernist 60s-style legislative palace that disintegrated during the earthquake.

Covered with cheap, cream-coloured metal siding, the boxy steel frame building looks like nothing so much as two giant portable classrooms piled one on top of the other.

(Was there some hidden message there, part of me wondered? A sort of tacit jibe from its American builders at Haitian lawmakers, who often seem to act like unruly schoolboys, doing little if anything useful to improve the lives of those who elected them while taking home large salaries.)

But in fact this strange pre-fab structure is only temporary, the second temporary parliament building, in fact, and the combined price tag for both has already hit $2.6 million. This one remained empty for months and cost the Haitian government another $700,000 to make it usable, and so begs the question of why it took until November 2011 — a year and a half — to put up the shell. It looks like something that could have been built a few months.

And at $3.3 million altogether, it also begs the question raised by Jean Claude Fignole, country director of ActionAid Haiti. “A lot of people say that with the money spent for temporary buildings, we should have just gone ahead and built a permanent one,” he said.

While the American taxpayer has footed most of this bill through USAID, and a Haitian firm called TEMPO actually did most of the building, it was Washington, D.C.-based Chemonics who sub-contracted the deal and took away a percentage of those millions. What’s more, out of the $700 million USAID has spent in Haiti since the earthquake, Chemonics has reaped almost $174 million, according to Haiti Relief and Reconstruction Watch. That represents more than half the value of all the contracts awarded to private development companies.

Who, or what, is Chemonics? Well, it calls itself “an international development company that aids at-risk populations with long-term solutions for their health, agriculture, governance and other problems.”

Aid watchers routinely refer to it and the many other government contractors based in the D.C. area as Beltway Bandits. They have pointed out the rapid growth in their revenues as the US government bypasses non-profits for poor-country projects and looks to the private sector instead. In 2006, USAID’s inspector general has found major shortcomings in the work Chemonics was paid to do in Afghanistan, declaring that their “reported results fell considerably short of intended results.” Yet Chemonics continues to receive multi-million-dollar contracts — and criticism. The reaction in Haiti to the pre-fab building I visited with such incredulity was harsh. The reaction from the US government was “we said we’d build them a building and we did.”

Recently, USAID amended its regulations (see this recent post) to allow greater freedom in tendering projects to firms actually located in the countries its money is supposed to help develop. It wasn’t a big change, only raising the percentage of funds spent through so-called “local actors” from 11 to 30 percent — and only by 2015.

The private companies that have been making millions from humanitarian dollars have not sat by quietly and taken this blow to their bottom lines with a stiff upper lip, according to William Easterly. They have joined together to pay a high-priced Washington lobbying firm, Podesta Group, to convince Congress of the merits of tradition, one where US companies and food producers are among the biggest recipients of that country’s foreign assistance dollars.

While in Port au Prince, I tried to wrangle an interview with this company only to receive this: “Thanks for reaching out to us. Haiti is certainly an interesting place, and the development work being done there is inspiring. We are working with USAID on our projects in Haiti, so your best bet would be to reach out to them.” — in reply.

As I continue to research the world of aid, therefore, I am not counting on getting any time from Chemonics International. They may say they are helping the poor –and using public monies more efficiently than the non-profits do — but their fear of even cursory scrutiny does not do much to bolster that argument.


2 Responses to ““This is the new Parliament Building?””

  1. luisporter June 30, 2012 at 7:00 pm #

    This is a well written and clarifying article, about a subject very difficult to research and understand. Augusta travelled to Haiti to get info from primary sources, interview key actors of the complicated and long chain and interests that goes from your generosity, or the help of agencies, to the actual people of Haiti. Her findings are facts that contradict human virtues, and show how material interests distort and overwhelm the best intentions. It is outrageous and incredible how this things happens, while we are distracted by macro political problems, up in the high levels, while in the ground floor and basement, misery, hunger, destruction and injustice kill the little hope of many good and decent people.

    • The Global Kiosk June 30, 2012 at 9:40 pm #

      Thank you! I appreciate your comments.

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