Bill Clinton: Billions To Haiti Are "Modest." Really?

Only in Washington, D.C. political circles, it seems, can billions of dollars be dismissed as a "modest amount."

But that's how former president Bill Clinton characterized the U.S. government's foreign aid to Haiti, saying on CBS's Early Show on Friday that relatively little money has been handed to Haiti over the years. (It's about 2:30 into the nearby video.)

The truth is that, according to a government report, U.S. taxpayers handed "about 1.1 billion in assistance" to Haiti during the 1990s. In the following decade, the sum jumped to around $1.6 billion; it would have been higher if aid had not been cut off from 1999 through mid-2004 after the election of Jean-Bertrand Aristide.

That's not counting other aid that U.S. taxpayers send by paying for the lion's share of the United Nations' budget (now over $1 billion a year from the United States). In addition, according to government data, the U.S. sent an extra $367.55 million in 2006 to UN agencies like UNDP, UNICEF, and UNESCO, and the President's Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief was funded at $6 billion in 2008, with much of that earmarked for Haiti as a high-priority "focus country." Less than a year ago, the U.S. Congress approved another $900 million to fight AIDS, tuberculosis, and malaria.

Nor is it counting the $100 million that President Obama announced this week will be directed to Haiti, and far more that will likely follow once the U.S. Congress becomes involved.

Clinton may be an unusually able politician, but characterizing billion-dollar sums "modest" really is a bit of a stretch.

The ex-pres, of course, was responding to comments from talk show host Rush Limbaugh, who said this week that: "We've already donated to Haiti. It's called the U.S. income tax."

One way to look at it is to say that Limbaugh was narrowly correct: the fact that U.S. taxpayers have been handing over ever-increasing sums to Haiti and the United Nations -- even as their own incomes have been dropping and unemployment has been rising -- looks a lot like having given at the office.

But more broadly, the sad truth is that after taxpayers in wealthy countries have sent billions of dollars over the years, even before the earthquake Haiti was an economic basket case and nearly ungovernable. The U.K.'s Daily Mail notes that "gangs have continued to wreak havoc and murder throughout a country where new graves are guarded to prevent bodies being stolen for voodoo rituals. The most infamous of these killers is the Cannibal Gang, a group of sadists once led by a former prisoner with political aspirations, who was himself shot in the eyes and had his heart cut out in 2004. His gang lives on, murdering innocent people and allegedly eating their organs."

It's not even clear how much aid actually reaches its intended recipients. It can be misused by international bureaucracies like the United Nations, which spent $23 million on an elaborate ceiling sculpture paid for in part by foreign aid funds. In Haiti, free food from the United States is widely sold illegally in the country's markets instead of being distributed to the hungry (it's ranked as one of the 10 most corrupt nations). And of course the lower prices on subsidized food can drive local farmers, who can no longer make a living, out of business.

So perhaps Clinton was more correct than he knew: foreign aid actually reaching the Haitian people may be only a "modest amount." That's all the more reason to give to private-sector organizations, including local charities in and around Port-au-Prince, that will put the money to better use than international government bureaucracies ever could.

Declan McCullagh is a senior correspondent for CBSNews.com. He can be reached at declan@cbsnews.com and can be followed on Twitter as declanm. You can bookmark Declan's Taking Liberties site here, or subscribe to the RSS feed. Before becoming a CBS employee, Declan was the chief political correspondent for CNET, a reporter for Time, and Washington bureau chief for Wired.
  • Declan McCullagh On Twitter»

    Declan McCullagh is the chief political correspondent for CNET. You can e-mail him or follow him on Twitter as declanm. Declan previously was a reporter for Time and the Washington bureau chief for Wired and wrote the Taking Liberties section and Other People's Money column for CBS News' Web site.

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