OTTAWA - The U.S. State Department and the United Nations chided Canada's international co-operation minister Wednesday over his controversial remarks about re-tooling aid to impoverished Haiti.
Julian Fantino told a Montreal newspaper last week he wanted to freeze aid to Haiti, only to have his department, the Canadian International Development Agency, backtrack to explain it was conducting a thorough review of Canada's $1-billion contribution to the Caribbean country.
One of the U.S. State Department's top Haiti officials said it sees Canada as a valued partner in the country and doesn't want it to change any of its programs.
"Haiti is not going to become a middle-income country overnight," Eileen Wickstrom Smith, a senior official in the U.S. State Department's Haiti office, said Wednesday.
"We continue our strong partnership with the government of Haiti and the people of Haiti, and we would like to see the Canadian government continue its programs. We think they've been an important contributor, and we would like them to stay that way."
A senior Haiti official from the United Nations Development Program said there's more going on in Haiti than Fantino may have seen on his recent first trip to the country.
"We are saddened actually that Canada, … they are reviewing their support," said Jessica Faieta, a deputy director for the UNDP's Latin American bureau.
"I think for anyone who comes to Haiti for the first time, you normally are actually shocked by the level of challenges that the country has. But we also need to look deep into the context of where the country is coming from."
Smith, speaking on a joint conference call, added: "I would agree with what Jessica has said."
Fantino, who remarked on the garbage he saw strewn about, said he was disappointed by the lack of progress and wanted to find a better way to help Haiti's reconstruction to ensure that Canadian taxpayers' money was well spent.
His remarks last week came just before the third anniversary of the devastating earthquake in Haiti that killed an estimated 300,000 people and left swaths of the country in ruins.
Smith and Faieta said Canada has already been a major player in achieving progress in Haiti.
They, as well as Canadian aid experts, noted Wednesday that Haiti has also been ravaged by a cholera epidemic and three hurricanes since the 2010 earthquake, so it faces no shortage of obstacles.
Moreover, they noted, the country was already the poorest in the Western Hemisphere prior to the massive earthquake.
"I'm not an apologist for all things Haitian, but let's give them a break," said Rosemary McCarney, president of Plan Canada.
"The visual of Haiti is not what people want to see. It's messy and chaotic and hectic, and there's still lots of rubble and there's still lots of broken buildings everywhere.
"Visually, for someone who goes for the first time, it's pretty jarring."
Her organization is focused on education of young children, more than half of whom were not going to school prior to the 2010 earthquake. She called that the closest thing to a "silver bullet" to heal what ails Haiti.
Plan Canada, she said, is not currently receiving any funding from CIDA because it gets what it needs from other donors.
"We've all been very consistent that this is going to be a minimum of a 10-year recovery. Haiti's not for the faint of heart. It's a tough place to work," said McCarney.
Her organization has helped 33,000 children get back to school, helped build 314 classrooms. Meanwhile, another one million people living in tent camps after the earthquake around the capital of Port-au-Prince are back in their communities.
Kevin McCort, president of CARE Canada, said he's not surprised that as a new minister, Fantino wants to review the funding of his department's single largest aid recipient.
"But we want to ensure he consults with us. We have lots of experience in Haiti. We can help explain to him and others about what some of the challenges are in Haiti and why it is having trouble reaching the milestones we all want," said McCort.
"He is right. Haiti has not achieved, in broad measures, the kinds of outcomes we would wish. But there's some really good reasons for that."
CIDA's website lists more than 60 separate operational projects for Haiti, more than 50 that are terminating and more than 40 than have been completed. They run the full gamut from health, education, housing and infrastructure.
Faieta, of the UNDP, said Canada "has been a major player" in achieving progress in Haiti.
"It is not, in our opinion, a time to pull the support from Haiti. On the contrary, it is time to recognize the efforts, to recognize the achievements, and to keep supporting Haiti."
Fantino, meanwhile, will speak at an RCMP ceremony in Montreal on Thursday to honour 14 police and military personnel for their "bravery" and life-saving actions following the earthquake.
RCMP Commissioner Bob Paulson will also speak at the event in which 13 federal, provincial and municipal police officers and one member of the Canadian Forces will receive commendations.