Birdsall Tells Congress Haiti Needs More than Aid—And More Flexibility from Congress Itself

March 19, 2010
Read all of CGD's Fresh Ideas for Haiti on trade, migration, debt and more.
The U.S. response in Haiti must be about more than aid, CGD president Nancy Birdsall told Congress this week. She urged members of Congress to push for better trade and migration policies—in addition to more flexibility with our assistance efforts—to help Haiti rebuild after the earthquake. In her testimony before the House Financial Services Subcommittee on International Monetary Policy and Trade, Birdsall outlined three principles and three priority actions for U.S. efforts in support of Haiti:
  1. It’s about more than aid.
  2. Ultimately, only the Haitian government can coordinate the donors; meanwhile the United States should lead on transparency.
  3. Put USAID more clearly in charge of the U.S. effort, innovation and evaluation.
  1. Improve trade with the United States through permanent duty-free, quota-free access for Haitian exports, including apparel.
  2. Create a Golden Door Visa for a limited number of Haitians to emigrate to the U.S.
  3. Channel more resources through the multilateral development banks.
The hearing focused on “Rebuilding Haiti’s Competitiveness and Private Sector” and included testimony from Mark D’Sa, senior director for sourcing and production with Gap Inc. Like Birdsall, D’Sa urged that the United States greatly reduce barriers to imports from Haiti:
The apparel industry employed approximately 28,000 people before the quake and we believe more sustainable jobs could created in textiles and apparel if the current trade legislation were amended to allow a wider mix of products from Haiti to have duty free access to the U.S.
Birdsall called for the U.S. to lift the current quota on apparel exports, provide full product coverage, allow for broader sourcing of fabric and other inputs, and make preferences for Haiti permanent. Chairman Meeks (D-NY) asked Birdsall what could be done to restore Haiti’s government capacity, saying it had lost 40 percent of its public servants. Birdsall encouraged the committee and outside funders to consider a program modeled after the Scott Family Liberia Fellows that would support young people—particularly those among the Haiti diaspora—to return to Haiti to work as special assistants to key government ministers. While the hearing helped to draw attention Haiti’s longer-terms needs, broader framing around “aid, trade and investment for Haiti’s future” would have drawn a larger audience and member participation. That said, Reps. Meeks (D-NY), Miller (R-CA), Bachus (R-AL), Waters (D-CA), and Clay (D-MO) are clearly focused on how the United States can help Haiti move forward.  Rep. Waters, just back from Haiti, said that local business owners met with a USAID contracting officer while she was there to find out how they could participate in recovery efforts. They were given USAID doing business guidelines (in English only) stipulating that partners need three years of audited receipts—a cruelly impossible requirement for those whose homes and offices are in ruins. Birdsall urged Congress to have Haiti be the “leading wedge” of broader U.S. development policy reform and said Congress should consider giving USAID some special flexibilities to help Haiti rebuild. Watch the interchange below (and in future, I have to remember that I’m on camera too during these hearings. Note to self: must work on poker face! ): 
BIRDSALL: When I was listening to Congresswoman Waters, and Congressman Clay, I got a little depressed. You, with all due respect, you representing the Congress are part of the problem of USAID’s complex arrangements...If you want to have something happen differently in Haiti, one important step would be to support AID having the flexibility to do the kinds of things Congresswoman Waters talking about without having to worry so much about an accretion of rules, an accretion of procurement arrangements. One approach would be to say, since Haiti so special, so close to U.S., let us give the new administrator of USAID some special period of greater flexibility and test it out and see what happens.

REP. CLAY: So their hands are tied now? BIRDSALL: Their hands are largely tied. So I think if this subcommittee could use Haiti as a vehicle for also helping our administration get much greater value for money, and work much more effectively with the government of Haiti, building government capacity, that would be tremendously good.
It seems to me that success or failure in Haiti (and Pakistan for that matter) will have a lasting impact not only on the citizens of those countries, but on the future of U.S. foreign assistance and development policy for years to come. I agree that given what is at stake, the administration and Congress should be focused on using all of our development policy tools and experimenting with greater flexibility to try and get it right. [For more on Congress’ efforts to cancel Haiti’s debt, see my colleague David Roodman’s post Truthiness and Justiness at the Haiti Debt Hearing.]

Update 3/29/10: The New York Times published an editorial today on “Making Haiti Whole”. It argues the United Nations donors’ conference on Haiti this week should focus on transparency, leveraging the multi-donor trust fund, selecting one sector per donor, expanding trade access, and tapping the Haitian diaspora. It’s great to see the similarity in these ideas and those proposed by Birdsall in her congressional testimony. I hope the donors’ conference similarly reflects this confluence of ideas!


CGD blog posts reflect the views of the authors, drawing on prior research and experience in their areas of expertise. CGD is a nonpartisan, independent organization and does not take institutional positions.