Haiti's weak infrastructure may hurt aid

Haitian flag hangs on the ruins of the presidential palace in Port-au-Prince, Haiti.

Brian Atwood

TEXT OF INTERVIEW

Kai Ryssdal: President Obama said this morning the United States is going to offer "swift and coordinated aid" to the people of Haiti. Assistance is coming in from all over the world to a place ill-equipped to receive it. Brian Atwood ran the Agency for International Development during the Clinton administration. He's got experience on the ground in Haiti. Mr. Atwood, good to have you with us.

BRIAN ATWOOD: Nice to be here.

Ryssdal: It must be a tricky thing getting this level of international aid into a place where the infrastructure was already terrible, frankly.

ATWOOD: Yes, it's going to be extraordinarily difficult. And I suspect that they'll have to be using a lot of helicopters and other things to get into some of these remote areas. This has affected probably three million out of the nine million people of Haiti. I can't tell you how devastating this is to a very, very poor country, whose infrastructure was very bad in the first place, which is why the devastation is always worse in a country like that.

Ryssdal: I read this morning that the Haitian economy is basically 80 percent foreign aid. Is that your understanding?

ATWOOD: The GDP of Haiti would be about 80 percent foreign aid. But most of the Haitian economy is not on record. In other words, it's an informal economy. A lot of bartering that goes on, and the like. But there's a huge amount of aid, and in the last few years, that aid has been beginning to pay off. The government has been more stable and the aid has been used a lot more effectively than in the past. And this is going to really create a major setback.

Ryssdal: This is a tricky question, but is there -- do you think -- an opportunity here? Once the rescue and the recovery is done that the rebuilding of Haiti might actually work out for the better, that it might wind up with better infrastructure and better situations for the Haitian people?

ATWOOD: That is the hope. But the first task is going to be to get beyond the chaos created by this earthquake. And that chaos could mean a lot of people using violent means to survive. It will mean a country that really doesn't function as a country. It probably will have to be functioning more as a protectorate of the international community for at least a year or two.

Ryssdal: It does sort of sound like you're saying that there's a limit, though, to what international aid can do.

ATWOOD: There is a limit during the relief period. Of course, there is a great deal of attention paid. As soon as this is no longer on the front page, it's possible that people will turn their back. And I hope that doesn't happen in this case. Because, as you suggest, there is a real opportunity to rebuild Haiti and the Haitian society.

Ryssdal: What do you think it might take for that to happen, for that rebuilding in a positive way to happen?

ATWOOD: Well, I think there's already an inclination on the part of the Obama administration to focus on Haiti. They've been sending people down. Now the issue becomes much more urgent. And I think if they can carry through, and beyond the crisis, there is an opportunity here for Haiti.

Ryssdal: Brian Atwood. He's the dean of the Humphrey Institute of Public Affairs at the University of Minnesota. He was for many years in the Clinton administration the director of USAID. Mr. Atwood, thanks very much for your time.

ATWOOD: Thank you very much.

Brian Atwood

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