The world has pinned its hopes for the future of Haiti on a mirage: a government that barely exists. It had little choice.
On Wednesday, an ambitious $5.3-billion (U.S.), two-year reconstruction plan was unveiled at a UN-sponsored conference on Haiti. Beyond the pledges of billions and former U.S. president Bill Clinton's salesmanship, one thing was made clear: The rebuilding must be directed by Haiti's government, and the money must flow through it.
The trouble is, no one believes Haiti's government alone is capable of handling the massive task of guiding the reconstruction of the quake-shattered country.
"This is a facade," said Robert Fatton Jr., a Haitian-American expert at the University of Virginia. "The reality is that the government is invisible."
Yet if there is to be any hope of breaking the cycle of aid dependency that has haunted the impoverished nation, building up Haiti's government to the point where it can manage its own affairs is critical. Unless that succeeds, de facto trusteeship, perhaps even direct responsibility for the country, could last for years.
In Haiti, the world faces a conundrum that bedevils efforts to assist any country with a weak government, from Afghanistan to Sierra Leone. Lasting progress is impossible unless temporary aid projects can be transformed into permanent public services.
In Afghanistan, Canadian development officials have been frustrated for years by a weak and corrupt government and have been tempted to work around it using local leaders, even though the mission's goal is to develop the very government they seek to avoid. In safer places, building up weak governments has taken far longer than building roads and schools.
Even before the January earthquake flattened government buildings in Port-au-Prince, Haiti's government was ineffective to the point of being unable to spend the aid dollars that poured in.
"They don't have project officers, accountants, program managers, engineers. Run down the line, they don't have it," said Carlo Dade, executive director of the Canadian Foundation for the Americas.
Funds backed up because bureaucrats couldn't sort out how to spend them, and money was wasted by bad planning. Without proper controls, some disappeared to corruption.
With literally thousands of aid agencies and programs funded by several countries, Haiti has a plethora of do-gooders. But advances before January's earthquake were modest.
Politics is partly to blame. U.S. opponents of former Haitian president Jean-Bertrand Aristide had funds directed to non-governmental aid agencies in Haiti, rather than the government. The government therefore remained not only underfunded, but inexperienced at delivering programs to improve the country. Over time, pumping money through the feeble Haitian government seemed to donors a sure way to invite waste and abuse.
Now, seeing the earthquake as an opportunity to build a better country - "to create a new Haiti," in the words of UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon - the international community is pouring in billions more.
At Wednesday's conference at the United Nations in New York, the United States pledged $1.15-billion, the European Union $1.24-billion, and the World Bank $495-million. International Co-operation Minister Bev Oda announced Canada will commit an additional $400-million over two years.
Much will be funnelled through a single trust fund, with reconstruction managed by a commission co-chaired by Mr. Clinton and Haitian President René Préval. In theory, the fund will increasingly be directed by Haiti's government.
But Mr. Dade warns that unless the donors send armies of technocrats to mentor the Haitian bureaucracy, it will end as another failed effort. Money will be wasted and NGOs and foreign governments will still be working on projects years from now, leaving Haiti's government more ineffective than ever.
At that point, responsibility for a desperately poor country with a history of civil conflict might end up directly with the international community. But the country's problems still won't be solved overnight, and foreign trustees won't be welcome long.
"If ultimately things fall apart, what you will eventually get is a full-fledged trusteeship," Mr. Fatton said. "But it's not going to change everything in two months or a year. And people will very quickly become disaffected."