For the past two years, the international community has been in a terrible bind over Haiti. Results of the tainted May 2000 legislative elections were rejected by the opposition, and since then a combination of political gridlock and governmental abuse has sent the Haitians further into misery. The United States and other donors withheld contributions hoping to spur President Jean-Bertrand Aristide into political and human rights reform and his opposition into negotiations with him. Neither he nor they have complied.

Now, in a shift born largely of exasperation, the Organization of American States, backed by Washington, has decided to unblock millions of dollars in aid on the condition that legislative elections be held next year. This is the right step, an effort to force the hand of both government and opposition while offering relief to the seven million people of a nation whose suffering knows no bounds.

The lives of the majority of the population defy the imagination of most Americans. Life expectancy is less than 50 years, and 55 percent of adults are illiterate. Access to potable water is rare in rural areas. Malnutrition is a leading cause of death among children under 4. Unemployment is near 70 percent. An estimated 80 percent of the population lives in abject poverty.

The elements of the worsening crisis in Haiti remain much the same as those eight years ago when American troops led an invasion to oust a military junta and restore Mr. Aristide, democratically elected, to power. There are fuel shortages, labor unrest, gangs of armed thugs roaming the street, crumbling infrastructure and political fractiousness. A recent World Bank study questioned whether the aid of the previous 15 years had made any difference in reducing poverty, blaming government mismanagement. The seeming intractability of Haiti’s problems makes normalization of its relations with the United States and other nations, as well as with international development banks, no less pressing a concern. Outsiders are discovering that they may not be able to rescue Haiti. But carefully channeled international aid, conditioned on political reform, may help ease the Haitians’ misery.