PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti – Yolette Pierre says thank you, America. She points to the plastic over her head, to a gray sack on the dirt floor, to a bucket in the corner. Thank you for the tarp. Thank you for the rice. Thank you for the water, too.

She’s as sincere as she is poor.

The $3.5 billion in international relief spent after the worst natural disaster in a generation succeeded in its main mission.

“We kept Haitians alive,” said Nigel Fisher, chief of the U.N. humanitarian mission.

Now the really hard part begins.

To weary Haitians such as Pierre, mired in a fetid camp, hoping to sweep away the tons of earthquake rubble and remake broken lives, the wait for $6 billion in rebuilding money promised in March by the United States and other donor nations is more than frustrating. It is almost cruel.

Ten months after the earthquake left more than a million people homeless, only a small fraction of that recovery money has been put into projects that Haitians can see.

Of the $6 billion pledged for 2010 and 2011 at the U.N. donors conference in March, $2 billion has been committed, but only $732 million has been disbursed. Much of that money has gone to rebuild the government of Haiti: paying salaries, plugging in computers, erecting large, white air-conditioned tents.

The delays in reconstruction reflect bureaucratic red tape in donor nations and the complexity of rebuilding the Western Hemisphere’s poorest country, which had little infrastructure, a snarled land-title system and a barely functioning government before the disaster. One-third of the government’s employees and most of its buildings were lost in the earthquake, which killed 300,000. A recent cholera epidemic has killed hundreds more.

Robert Perito, a Haiti expert at the U.S. Institute of Peace, said the emergency response went well. “The reason for that is, we’re really good at it. . . . We have all this capacity, these wonderful teams that deploy. It’s nonpolitical. It’s humanitarian. There’s not a lot of decisions to be made.”

In contrast, reconstruction is all about deciding where and what to build. “This is a classic conundrum in development theory,” he said. “It’s called the development gap: How do you fill the gap between the emergency phase and the long-term development phase?”

The U.S. government has provided more than $1 billion in relief assistance to Haiti. It pledged $1.15 billion more at the March meeting, which includes $917 million for Haiti’s redevelopment. The rest is debt relief.

After wending its way through Congress, in legislation made more complex because it included money for Iraq and Afghanistan, the first $120 million in U.S. funds for reconstruction were sent to the World Bank on Nov. 9.

Donor nations are not the only ones lagging. The Clinton Bush Haiti Fund, for example, has raised $52 million in pledges for long-term development but has only disbursed $6 million.

“I understand the frustration,” said Kenneth Merten, the U.S. ambassador to Haiti.

But Merten and other officials defend the process. “Compared to other large-scale disasters, we’re on track,” Merten said. “The United States pledged the money in March, President Obama signed the legislation in July, and the money is here in November.” Compared with other large supplemental appropriations, “that is warp speed.”

Some media outlets erroneously reported that U.S. funding for Haiti was being held up by a “secret hold” on the bill placed by Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla. But Coburn’s hold was on a separate bill, and State Department officials say it hasn’t blocked money from flowing to Haiti.

Some donors say they don’t want to turn over development money until there are firm plans for spending it. Haitian and international officials acknowledge that it is much easier to hand out water than to plan modern sanitation systems in a country that has never had any.

“You ask: Why are people still in camps? You might as well ask: Why are Haitians poor? It is not rebuilding in Haiti. It is building,” said Fisher, the U.N. official.

Nongovernmental organizations – charities, missionaries and aid contractors – form a kind of parallel state in Haiti, but their efforts are often uncoordinated and unsustainable. Many have focused on building schools and clinics, not removing the rubble that clogs much of the city.

“The problem with rubble removal is it’s not very sexy,” said Tom Adams, the Haiti special coordinator at the State Department. The U.S. government has been paying over half of the rubble-removal costs in Haiti.

Alice Blanchet, special counsel to the prime minister, said 15 percent of the aid has gone to the Haitian government to spend. “Let’s be realistic. Where is the aid going? Not to government but to the NGOs, who only answer to their boards. Whereas we are a government. We have to negotiate with factions, with politicians, with the private sector, the press.”

To spend record amounts of money, the government of Haiti and its donors created the Haiti Relief Fund, overseen by the World Bank, and the Interim Haiti Recovery Commission, chaired by former President Bill Clinton and Haitian Prime Minister Jean-Max Bellerive, which has met three times and approved 49 projects costing $2.4 billion.

Donor nations have insisted that Haiti allow unprecedented oversight, transparency and veto powers for outsiders to guard against corruption and waste. Setting up those processes, too, has been slow. The Interim Haiti Recovery Commission has not hired anyone to run its anti-corruption office.

American officials initially thought the earthquake had destroyed most housing in Port-au-Prince. “We quickly realized that’s not the case,” said Paul Weisenfeld of the U.S. Agency for International Development.

About half of the houses in the capital have been assessed as structurally solid or “green,” while about one-quarter are “yellow,” or can be fixed in a few days by spending less than $4,000 per house, he said.

But people have been reluctant to move home because they fear another quake. The camps, as bad as they are, serve as a magnet, because they provide schooling, security, free water and health care.

In addition, most of the displaced Port-au-Prince residents were renters and thus would have to pay if they moved back into their houses. Some have heard rumors that camp dwellers will get free homes. International donors and the Haitian government are reluctant to spend money fixing homes for free for landlords without some concessions, such as cheap rent.

Eduardo Almeida, head of the Inter-American Development Bank in Haiti, said housing is complicated by poverty. In a country where people live on $400 a year, if they receive a house, “they’ll sell it,” he said.