With government and private contributions pouring into Haiti relief, the question is not how much aid Haiti needs, but how it can be spent effectively.
First, of course, is the response to a desperate emergency. Minutes matter. Lives must be saved both from the rubble and from the shortage of water and food.
Second, however, Port-au-Prince must be rebuilt. And third, given Haiti's history of failed aid programs, largely due to political and market corruption, there must be immediate attention paid to the distribution of aid and its uses.
In addition to its altruistic interest, the U.S. has a distinct, enlightened self-interest in the effort to relieve suffering and to build a credible government. It must build the confidence of the Haitian people that the aid will be effectively spent in the days and months ahead so that a refugee crisis does not occur.
Thus far, Obama administration representatives point to the fact that U.S. Agency for International Development (AID) will take the lead until U.N. agencies and the Haitian government are back on their feet. Over 10,000 U.S. troops and reservists will attempt to keep the distribution of public and private assistance as peaceful as possible.
U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, en route to Haiti, said, "We should not waste one dollar of aid." He stated the U.N. priorities: saving lives, humanitarian assistance and the coordination of the huge amount of money flowing to Haiti.
As short-term goals, that is what is needed. But in the longer term, the U.S. resources will have to be directed in a way that builds Haiti's ability to govern itself in a transparent manner and leads to a more stable more democratic government.
For the Obama administration, appointing former Presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush to oversee the aid was a way to keep the relief effort "out of politics." Keeping in mind that the entire country of 9 million people is desperate for basic services and jobs. The Obama administration has to look forward to see how to prevent a political crisis.
Both Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and former President Clinton know first-hand the problems of confronting refugee crises. The 1990s were turbulent years in Haiti. After Jean-Bertrand Aristide was elected and overthrown in a military coup led by the Armed Forces of Haiti Commander-in-Chief Raoul Cédras, the government and paramilitary forces oversaw years of widespread human rights abuses and many Haitians fled to the United States in inner tubes and small boats. At that time President George H.W. Bush, instituted a policy of returning the Haitians to Haiti.
President Clinton maintained the policy and began a policy of bringing Haitians to Guantánamo Bay Naval Base in Cuba, on the basis that it was "outside U.S. jurisdiction."
During the 1994 refugee crisis, we saw first-hand that the feeling of desperation resulting from political persecution, led the Haitians to flee in small boats and inner tubes across the Florida straights.
The policy was challenged in a Supreme Court case, Sale v. Haitian Centers Council in 1993, and the Clinton administration won the case, claiming the right – under an executive order and consistent with the U.N. Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees – to direct the Coast Guard to intercept fleeing Haitians and returning them to Haiti, without first determining whether they qualify as refugees.
With tension growing and more Haitians leaving, former President Clinton sent military forces to Haiti and restored Aristide to power and the Haitians in Guantánamo were repatriated to Haiti.
There is a long history of Haitians trying to migrate to the U.S. At times they came for political asylum, at others for economic reasons. The Obama administration has gathered its interagency efforts to deal with a possible crisis, including the Department of Homeland Security, the U.S. Coast Guard, U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services and Customs.
There have been no signs of a refugee crisis, but the administration has said it will consider using the Guantanamo Bay naval base, if there is.
"Guantánamo is going to be an enormously valuable asset as we go through this," State Department Spokesman P.J. Crowley said to reporters this week.
When I traveled to Guantanamo in 1994, when it was a processing center for Haitian and Cuban refugees, it was a no-man's land and hardly an answer to the humanitarian crisis in Haiti.
The current administration is aware that since the 2004 Supreme Court decision regarding the Afghanistan war detainees, Rasul v. Bush, detainees brought to the base have rights to action in federal court, under the U.S. Constitution.
President Obama's Legal Advisor Harold Koh wrote in 2005 that as a Yale professor he was part of the legal team that brought suit against the direct-return policy of Haitian refugees.
There are differences between the 1994 crisis and the crisis today. Today, Haitians fleeing on boats would not be claiming political asylum. The Haitian government is not persecuting opposition leaders. If a large number of Haitians flee, it be out of desperation and a lack of confidence that the aid efforts will be distributed.
With good reason, Mr. Obama has delayed the return of Haitians in the United States on a humanitarian basis. But the bottom line is that if Haitians decide to leave, the administration will encounter problems if it attempts to use Guántanamo as a place to house Haitian refugees while the relief money gets around Haiti.
The United Nations suffered a devastating blow to its Mission in Haiti (MINUSTAH). Senior U.N. officials died and U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon met with President René Préval and mapped out a plan to coordinate relief agencies. He also met with his former spokesperson, Michele Montas, who is Haitian and whose husband Jean Dominique, a prominent journalist, was assassinated during the violent days of 2000.
The situation is still an emergency and the private and public relief to Haiti has been enormous. Search and rescue teams continue to work around the clock and water and food supplies are being delivered under difficult conditions.
Within the next few weeks, the huge amount of money that is being sent to Haiti will be visible in Port-au-Prince and around Haiti and the administration will need to make sure that all the private and public relief efforts built confidence in Haiti's future as the world turns its attention to the next crisis.