Far from launching an ambitious new initiative, the U.N. was merely repackaging a still-unfunded, year-old effort. Buried in the U.N. press release, in a line only the Miami Herald seemed to notice, was an admission that the "Initiative for the Elimination of Cholera in the Island of Hispaniola" had already been kicked off in January 2012 by the Haitian and Dominican governments with the support of a few U.N. agencies. The "$2.2 billion" figure meanwhile is purely aspirational. The initiative is almost totally unfunded.
Reached by phone, U.N. spokeswoman Vannina Maestracci explained that Ban's press conference was meant simply to raise the Hispaniolan initiative's profile. "What the U.N. is trying to do is boost that initiative ... so it can get the funding it needs," she said. But the organization is not exactly leading by example. As announced in the press release, the U.N. is throwing in just $23.5 million for the 10-year project -- 1 percent of the requested funds. The organization also says it has spent a total of $118 million responding to the cholera epidemic to date. By contrast, it has budgeted $677 million for peacekeeping operations in Haiti for 2012-13 alone.
Ban did announce $215 million in bilateral donations to the initiative from Spain, Japan, the World Bank, and the Inter-American Development Bank. But this was misleading as well. None of that money was new, according to a breakdown provided by the U.N. Office of the Special Envoy for Haiti. Nearly all had already been pledged in the spring of 2010 for rebuilding from the catastrophic earthquake earlier that year. The lone sliver of recent money -- Japan's $800,000 -- was given to UNICEF in response to damage caused by Hurricane Sandy. All those funds were already earmarked for water and sanitation projects that haven't been completed.
Shifting around aid money -- making the same promises over and over without fulfilling them -- is an old game in the development world. But in this case it's especially bold. Donors have been hammered for failing to live up to their pledges for post-quake rebuilding in Haiti. Nearly half the funds pledged after the earthquake for 2010-12 have not been delivered. (The United States has been among the worst of the holdouts, disbursing to date just over a quarter of programmable funds of a $906 million pledge originally made for 2010.) Maybe donors will now promise $2.2 billion more, or just re-label their old pledges once again. But if history is any guide, it's unlikely they'll pay either way.
Whatever the U.N.'s goal in organizing the Dec. 11 press conference, the world body is benefiting from the confusion. One of the primary means by which the U.N. has deflected blame since the beginning has been to insist that efforts to find the source of the epidemic would detract from fighting it. By relaunching an existing Haitian-Dominican effort under the guise of a U.N. initiative, the world body can once again claim to be too busy saving Haitian lives to comment on how those lives were put in danger in the first place. It took no time for this to happen. When an AP reporter asked on Dec. 11 whether humanitarian coordinator Nigel Fisher thought the U.N. caused the cholera epidemic, he refused to comment, saying: "My focus is on today."
It's easy to understand why the U.N. doesn't want to focus on yesterday. Between 1998 and 2008, some $4.8 billion in aid was spent in Haiti, with little to show in terms of development. The international community pledged billions more after the earthquake, but after nearly three years, the promised reconstruction has barely begun. Every time there is a crisis, big promises and fanciful dollar totals grab headlines, only to limp out of the gate. Another event for the cholera initiative is expected in January, when officials are set to release more details about the plan. It may well be pitched as yet another "launch." There will likely be some new donations to announce, and appeals for further support. But while a few journalists might again be thrown off the trail, the U.N. can't evade responsibility forever.