Global Policy Forum

For Honduras and Iran, World's Aid Evaporated


By Ginger Thompson and Nazila Faith*

New York Times
January 11, 2005

The people of San Miguel Arcángel know all too well what it is like to be struck by disaster, and they have watched the world rush to Asia's rescue with sober eyes. Elder Nahum Cáceres said his entire community was swept off a hillside six years ago by Hurricane Mitch. In his wallet he keeps a handwritten list of the dozen international aid organizations that have come and gone since then. "I don't know how much they sent, but they tell me this is a million-dollar project," Mr. Cáceres said, looking down over an unsightly patch of flat gray houses in different stages of completion. "I would like them to see what has happened with all their money." Eric Moscoso, a neighbor of Mr. Cáceres, was more succinct: "We are abandoned."

Six years ago it was scenes from Honduras that filled television newscasts and newspaper pages. Then as now, there was a public outpouring of sympathy and support. Then as now, heads of state pledged huge amounts of aid. International relief agencies committed themselves to "build back better," promising to stay for the long term and provide the tools needed to overcome the social and economic forces that make the poor so vulnerable. It is possible that this time will be different, that the donor nations really will come through with the aid they have promised, and there are reasons for optimism. [In Washington on Monday, President Bush promised a "long-term commitment" to the victims and urged Americans not to reduce charitable giving to other parts of the world.]

In addition, the tsunami catastrophe, in sheer numbers of victims and countries affected, is on a scale far greater than any recent natural disaster. And in the post-9/11 world - particularly the United States, with the war in Iraq and the fight against terrorism - the richer countries now have a strong incentive to demonstrate their sensitivity to the concerns of people in developing countries, and particularly to Muslims, who died in disproportionate numbers in the waves. But all too often when disaster strikes - from here in Honduras to Iran, where the ancient city of Bam was shattered by an earthquake a year ago, to Mozambique, which endured floods in 2000 - that mission seems to last only as long as the media attention.

After the last bodies are counted and public focus shifts, governments stop sending money, pledges are withdrawn, many private relief organizations pack their bags and the poor are left to finish reconstruction projects in the face of the same entrenched systems of corruption and neglect. Walking with Mr. Cáceres through the dirt streets of San Miguel Arcángel, one has a hard time telling whether his neighborhood is doomed or coming back to life. Half of the sturdy, concrete houses have not been properly wired for electricity. A water and sanitation system was installed four months ago, but the main pump broke down over Christmas. There is a school, but mothers say the teachers have worse attendance records than their children. There is a clinic but no doctor, a police post with no officers, and a community meeting hall, but no one in the community has the keys. "We have new houses, but all the rest is the same," Mr. Cáceres said. "It's true we were poor before. And we are still poor. But now we are forgotten."

As aid officials plan how to deal with the challenges facing the battered coasts of Thailand, Sri Lanka, India and Indonesia, some have cautioned that they must do things differently this time. "There is still this feeling that we want to do the right thing, right now, but we don't want to stay in it for the long term," said Eric Schwartz, a former Clinton administration official. As a senior National Security Council official, he helped organize the United States response to Hurricane Mitch. "Maybe the tsunami crisis could be used as a vehicle to educate ourselves about the importance of staying the course," he said. Meeting in Brussels on Jan. 7, directors of Europe's relief agencies looked back at the record of reconstruction efforts in Honduras, Iran and Mozambique to examine how those operations had fallen short.

Mitch was the tsunami of its time, a freak of nature that hovered over this region for nearly five days, dumping rain measured in feet, not inches. It was called the hemisphere's most devastating disaster of the century, one that turned rivers into raging torrents and unleashed landslides, killing and burying its victims all at once. It cost an estimated 9,000 lives and more than $9 billion in property damage.

Pledges Unfulfilled

Soon after the tragedy, the international community pledged about $9 billion to help rebuild Central America. Today, experts at the Center on International Cooperation at New York University say most of that money never materialized. Half of what did was offered as loans, Honduran officials said. Trocaire, the overseas development agency of the Roman Catholic Church in Ireland, said Europe did not even begin its $250 million reconstruction plan in Honduras until three years after the hurricane struck. And it said debt relief meant little to Honduras because the country was still obligated to make interest payments on its debt, estimated at some $219 million last year.

Abby Stoddard, a research assistant at the Center on International Cooperation, said, "In general, relief funds are disbursed quicker than recovery funds, which are needed after the cameras go away, and there is no mechanism for holding governments accountable for living up to their pledges." That pattern was apparent in Iran, too. A year after an earthquake with a magnitude of 6.9 destroyed the central city of Bam, killing more than 40,000 people and leaving almost as many homeless, the streets there are still strewn with mounds of rubble. Tens of thousands of people who lost their homes remain crowded in prefabricated housing. The authorities there promised to have the ancient city rebuilt by now. But navigating Iran's byzantine bureaucracy and legal system held up projects longer than many relief organizations could wait. "Time is crucial" for the relief groups, said Patrick Parson, project coordinator of the British-based medical relief agency Merlin. "A lot of them just got tired of waiting and pulled out."

As a result, Iranian officials reported that they had received only $17 million of the $1 billion pledged by the international community to help rebuild the 2000-year-old city. United Nations officials, including Secretary General Kofi Annan, have recently called on world leaders to fulfill their pledges. "Foreign aid had more positive psychological effect than anything else," said Dr. Hamid Reza Jamshidi, the Iranian health minister's representative in Bam. "People had lost everything, their home and their family. They felt they were not left alone when they saw different groups of foreigners in the city." Central America, as a battlefield of the cold war, has long been accustomed to foreign occupation. But the people of Honduras had never seen anything like the military operations that arrived to bring aid after Hurricane Mitch. Honduras, the region's poorest country, was the hardest hit. The scope of death and destruction pales in comparison to that still unfolding across the Indian Ocean.

Response to Hurricane

But Mitch was considered an unparalleled natural disaster back then, and like the killer tsunamis, it stirred an enormous response. Mexico established a special air route to the affected areas and sent airplanes, helicopters and military ships to transport medicine and food. Canadian air force crews shuttled daily to deliver aid. The United States promised more money than it had for any previous disaster - some $900 million - and sent a military relief force of a scale not seen since the Berlin airlift 50 years earlier. At least nine countries deferred debt payments.

When the waters began to recede, relief workers and Central American authorities looked into the face of the disaster and saw opportunities. They promised more than bricks and mortar to rebuild communities. In a meeting in Stockholm in 1999, about six months after the storm, donor countries and Central American governments committed themselves to channeling money into long-term programs to transform the region.

Donor governments insisted on close scrutiny of the spending. Japan and Switzerland hired only subcontractors from their own countries to rebuild Honduras's major bridges, recalled Moisés Starkman, the former Honduran minister of international cooperation. The United States approved only those infrastructure projects that had been examined by the Army Corps of Engineers. But just as the first new bricks were being laid, the United States Congress set a two-year-deadline on Washington's reconstruction programs, contending that the money was for emergency relief. And when the federal money was gone, so were many private organizations, whether their projects were finished or not.

Phil Gelman, regional adviser for the United States Office of Foreign Disaster Assistance, was working in Honduras for Care International at the time. That deadline, he said, doomed American projects to fail at achieving long-term goals. 'You can build a house in three years," he said. "You can build a house in three months. But rebuilding systems is a different thing. "These countries did not get to be the way they are overnight. They don't change overnight."

That becomes clear during a visit to places like San Miguel Arcángel. It is one of several sprawling housing complexes built for those displaced by Hurricane Mitch in an area known as Amarateca, about 15 miles north of Tegucigalpa. The project began with a single great promise: to provide safe, affordable housing to people who had never had it before. There are some places where the promise for a better life seems clearer, but they are the exception, not the rule. Not far from San Miguel Arcángel is a community built with support of the Spanish government and the Red Cross, called Ciudad España. The 1,300 units have electricity and running water. There is a library, a police post, an elementary and a junior high school, three day care centers and a senior center.

Luis Felipe Quiroz is a leader on the newly elected community council. "The hurricane took everything from me," he said. "From that moment on I was nothing. Now I have my life back." Most of those left homeless by Hurricane Mitch had lived in slums perched on the banks of the Choluteca River, which cuts through the center of the capital. They had unreliable sources of electricity and water. And they were squatting on land declared uninhabitable because of the potential for deadly floods.

Little Time for Planning

Three years after Mitch, 20,000 people were still homeless and living in temporary shelters. Relief agencies complained that the Honduran government provided almost no help in finding sites inside the capital to build new housing complexes. By the time they identified Amarateca - far from ideal because of a 45-minute bus ride from jobs- relief agencies had little time for urban planning. They rushed to put up walls and roofs, before municipal authorities installed basic services. Then the government reneged on its promise to provide the services. The hurricane victims rebelled.

In 2002, about 200 people stormed into a church in the capital and told the priest that no one could leave until the families were permitted to move into permanent housing. Relief agencies relented, but there was no electricity, running water and sanitation in the new homes. A year later, angry residents blocked the major northbound highway to demand basic services. Mr. Cáceres said they finally got electricity six months ago. The United States Army Corps of Engineers installed a water system four months ago; it promptly broke down.

Today, people in San Miguel Arcángel say the houses built by the international community are better than anything they could have ever dreamed of buying on their own. But many are unemployed, and costs have risen. "Just as fast as we built this community, it will disappear, because people do not have what they need to live," Mr. Cáceres said.

About the Authors: Ginger Thompson reported from Honduras for this article and Nazila Fathi from Iran. Stephanie Strom contributed reporting from New York.

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FAIR USE NOTICE: This page contains copyrighted material the use of which has not been specifically authorized by the copyright owner. Global Policy Forum distributes this material without profit to those who have expressed a prior interest in receiving the included information for research and educational purposes. We believe this constitutes a fair use of any such copyrighted material as provided for in 17 U.S.C § 107. If you wish to use copyrighted material from this site for purposes of your own that go beyond fair use, you must obtain permission from the copyright owner.