Washington — Poverty-stricken Haiti would seem to be the one country in the Western Hemisphere that is the most in need of foreign assistance. But the Haitian government, led by President-for-Life Jean-Claude Duvalier, often makes it difficult for donors to give.
Haiti has a long history of misused aid money, mismanaged public finances, and tax revenues that end up unaccounted for in the presidential palace.
Given that history, it's not surprising that pledges by Haitian government officials to reform the system are greeted with skepticism by some of the experts on international finance here. But Frantz Merceron, Haiti's finance minister, asserts that he is bringing accountability into a system that has long gone without effective accounting.
With the support of the International Monetary Fund (IMF), Mr. Merceron last year commissioned a New York accounting firm to audit the Haitian Central Bank and the National Bank of Credit, known by its French initials as the BNC. The audit, completed toward the end of last year, is reported to pinpoint some of the difficulties that have confronted past reformers. The audit was conducted by Peat, Marwick, Mitchell & Co.
According to a confidential IMF document, the accounting firm's review of the balance sheet of the two government banks revealed ''a large number of nonperforming assets in the BNC (the National Bank of Credit) that weaken its capacity to act as an effective commercial bank.''
The audit also showed that some of these ''nonperforming assets'' related to loans ''proven to be uncollectable,'' made to private companies and businessmen.
Translated into plain English, this meant that some businessmen, presumably including friends of the palace, were getting loans that they never repaid. According to one estimate, the amount of uncollected loans at one point ran as high as $20 million.
Finance Minister Merceron asserts, however, that the Haitian government is now collecting those loans. He says that under laws passed some months ago, those who do not repay the loans will have to go to jail and have their assets seized.
In an interview, the French-trained Merceron, who is regarded by United States officials as one of the most able Haitian ministers, also said that within the next few months, the Haitian government plans to ''dismantle'' the infamous Regie du Tabac system of excise taxes on consumer products.
According to a paper prepared by a former US ambassador to Haiti, Ernest H. Preeg, this system of taxation had ''long provided unbudgeted income'' to the presidential palace.
All of this is of great interest to the IMF and to the US, which is the leader among the foreign nations giving aid to Haiti. Total US aid to Haiti for the fiscal year just ended (1983-84) came to $44.7 million. The current IMF agreement with Haiti is a two-year arrangement involving some $63 million in loans covering the period 1983-85.
The IMF has insisted that the Haitian government institute a fiscal austerity program, and Finance Minister Merceron claims to have been implementing most of the provisions of this program. According to Merceron, these moves have included cuts in government spending over the past two years of more than 25 percent and revenue increases of more than 40 percent.
A US government official said that the Haitian government has made some ''impressive fiscal progress'' but that following the rioting in Haiti which erupted in May and June, the government ''overreacted'' and spent large amounts of money for rice and sugar, exceeding the IMF's fiscal performance targets by some $8 million. Merceron said that the Haitian government would have no trouble bringing Haiti back into compliance with IMF goals.
In the past, however, the IMF has had plenty of trouble with Haiti. According to Ambassador Preeg, a three-year agreement with the IMF begun in 1978 had made technical progress in consolidating the government's financial accounts. But he says a major blow came in December 1980: The IMF disbursed $20 million to help ease Haiti's unfavorable balance-of-payments situation, and shortly thereafter the Central Bank transferred a like amount to the unbudgeted palace account.
Preeg says the Haitian government ''never adequately explained'' where the $ 20 million went, and the IMF for all intents and purposes broke off relations with Haiti. As a result the country's credit-worthiness ''took a nose dive.''
It appears that Haiti's relationship with the IMF has greatly improved since that low point, but IMF spokesmen decline to comment on the current state of negotiations with Haiti, except to say that the program for Haiti has been ''under review.'' An IMF delegation recently visited the Caribbean nation.
The IMF is supposed to help member countries cope with temporary foreign-exchange shortages and problems with their balance of payments.
Efforts by the IMF and other organizations and governments to get the Haitian government to put its fiscal house in order are nothing new. As far back as the 1940s and '50s, Haitian leaders and their friends profited from ''nonfiscal accounts,'' which never appeared in the budget. But under the IMF, a loan is only supposed to be made on the condition that the borrowing nation put its balance of payments and foreign exchange position in order.
In the late 1970s, the IMF began urging the Haitian government to separate its Central Bank from the National Bank of Credit.
One aim was to halt the lending of public revenue to private businessmen connected with President Duvalier, financial experts say. Private foreign banks working in Haiti also advocated such a reform.
Ambassador Preeg says that for two to three years, there was considerable resistance in the Haitian government to the proposed fiscal reforms. They were supposed to include an audit.
In 1982, the Haitian government formally separated the Central Bank from the National Bank of Credit. In February 1982, apparently following suggestions from several aid donors, including the US, Marc Bazin, a respected Haitian from the World Bank, was appointed finance minister.
But according to Preeg, who was ambassador to Haiti at the time, Mr. Bazin was forced out of office within months because through his reform efforts he was ''stepping on too many toes.''
Finance Minister Merceron stated in the interview here, however, that President Duvalier had given a ''strong commitment'' to injecting order into Haiti's financial affairs.
Merceron said that he was in Washington together with two other Cabinet ministers as part of an effort to argue that Haiti's largely negative image here has been unfair to the Caribbean nation and its government. The Haitian ministers met with congressmen and with US government officials.
Merceron attended IMF and World Bank meetings here last week.