The Total Failure of Global Aid in Haiti

So what about supporting some home-grown solutions?

By Michelle Chen Oct 13, 2010

With his country still in ruins 10 months after disaster struck, Haitian Prime Minister Jean-Max Bellerive recently told Reuters, "If the whole international community cannot solve the problem, along with the Haitians … it raises a lot of questions over the effectiveness and utility of cooperation and international aid."

It’s hard to escape the troubling conclusion that those questions have already been answered. The outpouring of donor sympathy after the earthquake has resulted in a disturbingly slow trickle of tangible help so far. In fact, very few of the promised rebuilding funds have arrived at all. The Associated Press reports that just about $732 million of the $5.3 billion donor countries pledged for 2010-2011 has been dispersed. And none of the promised $1.15 billion in U.S. aid has come, according to AP, because Oklahoma Republican Sen. Tom Coburn objects to the idea of creating a czar to manage the funds. 

Meanwhile, more than a million people have been displaced and prospects for long-term rebuilding remain embryonic. A scathing report released last week by Refugees International describes horrible mismanagement of the relief effort by both local and international authorities. The report cited "arbitrarily appointed or completely absent camp managers," intensifying violence against women, and no real plan for the long-term resettlement of refugees. 

In another recently published accounting, the Institute for Justice and Democracy in Haiti reports "living conditions in the camps continue to violate basic human dignity." Many families lack even the bare minimum for survival:

Our study found that three out of four respondents stated that someone in their family had gone a full day without eating in the week prior to being surveyed…. Over half of the families indicated that their children did not eat for an entire day…. Our survey found that potable water was only available to residents who could pay for it and 61% of our survey respondents listed purchased bottled water as their main source of drinking water.

Basic bathing and sanitation facilities were in chronically short supply. Tarps were still the most common form of shelter–a lucky fifth of respondents got a tent. Residents described the camps as unsafe. Despite some foreign and international police presence, one interviewee resorted to other forms of security: "[Only] God–we have no one. We will have to protect ourselves with rocks."

Women are extremely vulnerable to rape in the camps, according to rights advocates, yet survivors often face apathy and ignorance from security authorities.

These facts reveal a hobbling recovery effort and raise the question of whether the wealthy nations who vowed to reconstruct the country are merely concerned with constructing a certain political image–or, even with flat-out profiteering.

The IMF has indicated it plans to reform Haiti’s loan agreement and thus alleviate crippling debt. But the country still might not be able to escape the bondage of poverty-wage factory work. The U.S., together with the Inter-American Development Bank and a Korean manufacturer, recently announced plans for a massive new industrial park focused on garment production in Port-au-Prince, to bring in an estimated 10,000 jobs. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton announced, "We’re sending a message that Haiti is open for business again."

Odd how the agencies working so hard to pry Haiti open for business take a more lackadaisical attitude toward the Haitians who have languished in squalid camps for 10 months. Then again, this is how foreign donors and investors have been "managing" Haiti’s "development" for years.

Haiti’s history exemplifies the uncomfortable marriage of aid and aggression in foreign-led efforts to "solve" poor countries’ problems: consider Haiti’s military occupation under Wilson, or, at the end of the last century, the imposition of draconian "development" programs. And the little post-quake U.S. aid that has come to the country creates a troubling echo of past policies: Oxfam has condemned Washington for dumping U.S.-grown rice on the Haitian market and undercutting farmers struggling to restore local agriculture.

Republic of NGOs

Post-quake Haiti continues to teeter between two post-colonial projects: obtaining the aid it deserves and leveraging that aid to build long-term economic self-sufficiency. "Accountability" is an often abused political buzzword, but Haiti’s history of political corruption and foreign intervention provide plenty of reasons to doubt the competence of both donor countries and the enfeebled Haitian government.

In response to the vacuum of governance, a dense network of private organizations has cropped up–feeding what Haiti scholar Mark Schuller calls a "republic of NGOs." Today in Haiti, aid behemoths like the International Red Cross, UN bureaucracies, and locally based humanitarian groups all operate parallel to, and often in isolation from, each other, with no comprehensive coordination or monitoring. That means limitless possibilities for innovation, or potentially endless frustration.

Some small scrappy groups do manage to navigate between solidarity and charity. The Haiti Response Coalition has woven together a network of grassroots organizations building solutions in a variety of fields. Some projects involve green rebuilding initiatives, others focus on education, still others on campaigning for free and fair elections to help seed a more responsive government.

One member group, Konpay, is laying out a blueprint for environmental restoration combined with promoting local food security.

During my recent short visit to Haiti, a common criticism I heard from some fellow volunteer workers–and reflected in the international dialogue on foreign aid–was that Haitians lacked "problem solving skills." Their dependence on aid, the logic goes, has bred apathy and dulled their creative drive. It’s an ironic charge, given how little actual aid has arrived.

And it’s a claim that reality disproves. What about groups like those in the Haiti Response Coalition, which are doing the work that far richer, foreign-aid bodies tend to ignore? Maybe those modest but effective efforts don’t count as "problem solving" in Western eyes. Maybe those projects are perceived as too risky to invest in on a broad scale. The donor community prefers to shovel money into internationally managed coffers, even if it means trapping resources indefinitely in bureaucratic bottlenecks, not to mention provoking anger on the Haitian street.

Is Haiti solvable? Depends on who’s doing the solving. And it’s not unfathomable that a different set of people will take the lead this time. In the wake of a global financial collapse and mounting defiance in the Global South, neoliberal development models don’t hold as much sway anymore. Grassroots activists have little political leverage and even less economic clout. But the total vacuum of leadership in the recovery effort has opened a rare space to articulate an economic-justice agenda to make Haiti whole on its own terms.