Good Intentions Haven’t Done Much For Haiti

Joe Mozingo at the Los Angeles Times reports that foreign aid workers do more harm than good.

By Jamilah King Dec 13, 2010

It’s hard not to keep beating the bad-news drum about Haiti, but conditions in the earthquake- ravaged nation just keep getting worse. The humanitarian response to January’s deadly earthquake devolved into a fight over international aid and inevitably deepened the presidential election madness that, unsurprisingly, wasn’t halted by a vicious outbreak of cholera that’s killed upwards of 2,000 people. That deadly outbreak helped fuel the country’s violent reaction to said presidential election, which is now headed for a recount. Talk about compassion fatigue!

The country’s deepening unrest has been buttressed, at least in part, by the continued presence of at least 4,000 foreign aid groups, whose indefinite stays have already proved troublesome and, more recently, deadly. Now Joe Mozingo at the Los Angeles Times is reporting that those stays are also proving too costly, even for the country’s often maligned professional class:

But the international community’s good intentions have created some ambiguous or outright unpleasant side effects: an increase in housing prices that is pushing Haitian professionals out of apartments and offices; political turmoil in the wake of a hastily prepared presidential election; and quite likely the cholera epidemic that has killed more than 2,000 people. 

And the class benefiting the most financially from the international presence? The tiny wealthy elite so often disdained by foreigners for their perceived indifference to the rest of their country’s plight. They own the car dealerships, the high-end grocery stores, the car rental and telecommunications firms, the office buildings, the luxury hotels and restaurants — which are getting more business than ever while more than a million people remain in tent camps.

It’s a scenario that’s not exactly surprising. Dependence on foreign aid has long been part of a complicated puzzle that’s helped keep the country in shambles over the past 400 years. So even while good things sometimes do happen, like the International Monetary Fund canceling over $200 million of the country’s debt or the international community calling on France to repay Haiti century’s-old "independence debt", the inability (or refusal, depending on who you ask) of the country’s leadership to develop its own self-sustaining infrastructure clearly isn’t doing anyone much good. Unless, of course, you’re part of the onslaught of blans (white folk) in disaster relief to make a profit. Which seems to be the trend.

"You wonder where all the money is going besides seeing all the blans driving new 4-by-4s," Steeve Laguere, a longtime Haitian-Canadian aid worker in Port-au-Prnce, quipped to the LA Times. "And people are opening restaurants like there is no tomorrow."

There are surely worthwhile aid efforts to get involved with. Mac McClelland at Mother Jones has got a nice list, and certainly there are more to be found. But then there’s this on foreign workers, also quoted by Mozingo as evidence of how little the aid trickles down to the rest of the country’s population.

"They don’t need to be here," said Isaac Irat, 33. "They don’t give us work. They don’t know what they’re doing. They march out three times a day. They’re looking for women."

It’s not an easy or enviable task to try to undo centuries economic subjugation. But the question in Haiti seems to be weather that’s ever been the point to begin with.