A Prescription for Haiti’s NGO-Related Problems: Heal Thyself

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July 28, 2014; Foreign Policy

How quickly our sector drops issues! Remember the vigorous debate about the benefits and damage from the international assistance delivered to Haiti in the wake of the nation’s devastating January 2010 earthquake? Clare Lockhart, the founder and executive director of the Institute for State Effectiveness, and Johanna Mendelson Forman, a senior advisor at the Stimson Center, have written in a recent issue of Foreign Policy online a powerful reminder of Haiti’s development and NGO problems that merits plenty of attention in the nonprofit sector.

The two authors remind us that the earthquake, centered on the Haitian capital, Port-au-Prince, killed an estimated 300,000 people and made one-tenth of the nation’s population instantaneously homeless. Donor nations pledged $5 billion in short term aid and $10 billion in long term aid, with much positive results—90 percent of the homeless resettled, 80 percent of the earthquake rubble cleared.

On the other hand, 100,000 Haitians still live in camps that the authors describe as “squalid” and “characterized by poverty, cholera epidemics, and sexual violence toward women.” The nation is still the poorest nation in the Western Hemisphere, much poorer than citizens of the Dominican Republic who occupy the other half of the island of Hispaniola. Lockhart and Forman report, “The Haitian government still depends on donor assistance and remittances from abroad for nearly all of its revenue.” With the bulk of Haitian policing still handled by UN troops, and with the government still dependent on donor assistance for its revenues, Haitians feel “they are an occupied nation.” NGOs still don’t trust governmental institutions as reliable partners and have created “parallel administrative structures that undermined Haiti’s government and alienated its people.”

What can get Haiti out of this devastatingly difficult trap of deep poverty and weak sovereignty? Lockhart and Forman call for a “national discussion” that would “take stock of Haiti’s considerable assets and generate grassroots pressure to transform the Haitian political and governmental system.” Citing successful models from Mexico, Guatemala, Peru, and Chile, they envision “a national dialogue that would cut across traditional class, party, and geographical lines, giving voices outside the usual political elites an opportunity to participate in shaping the national agenda.”

Given the challenges that Lockhart and Forman detail in the article, which is based on a longer report, a Haitian national discussion seems well intentioned but difficult to imagine getting very far. They report, for example, that political office is seen as the only means of upward mobility; political incumbents will “resort to any means to secure their inherently precarious political positions” and, as a result, a “narrow, kleptocratic elite has captured key positions in government agencies and civil society organizations.” However, the international donor community is in a weak position to call for governmental and civil society reforms in the country.

“Donors themselves set a poor example of successful finance management and transparency,” Lockhart and Forman write. “The U.N. agencies, NGOs, and contractors have yet to publish accounts of financial expenditure that are readily available to Haitian citizens. They waste time and money on duplicating inefficient projects because they fail to coordinate with one another or with local governments. Meanwhile, they are complicit in the siphoning off of significant foreign-aid dollars for favored NGO and U.N. contractors. Only 10 percent of the $6.04 billion in funding donated between 2010 and 2012 went to the Haitian government, and less than 0.6 percent went to Haitian organizations and businesses. By circumventing Haitian institutions in the effort to deliver aid, the donor community missed an opportunity to use its resources to reform the institutions themselves.”

From our vantage point, it seems that the NGO community and the donor nations on the international scene need to pursue their own self-improvement dialogue. Given their financial dominance of the nation, their practices could well frustrate any positive outcomes from the Haitian national dialogue Lockhart and Forman call for. Poor Haiti has been subject to all kinds of prescriptions from well-meaning external actors that would fix and cure the nation’s ailments. However, given the track record of NGOs in Haiti, it might be a critically important moment for donors and NGOs to hear and heed the message, “doctor, heal thyself.”—Rick Cohen

  • Marie-Rose Romain Murphy

    It is very validating to see a number of institutions support what we Haitians have been seeing and saying for years: international aid has been ineffective in Haiti. The understatement of the century.

    I have to smile when I hear that the solution seems to be a national discussion on government reform. If anyone knows the Haitian socio-political context, one would have to say that it is the last thing that we need right now especially given the critical socio-economic problems that we face.

    I am the Director of a Haitian-led organization called ESPWA- Economic Stimulus Projects for Work and Action. We are the Lead Agency for the Haiti Community Foundation Initiative. For the past five years, we have been working on a comprehensive and inclusive process to set up a Haiti-based, Haiti-led and Haiti-beneficial Haiti Community Foundation.

    Thanks to the support of a growing number of Haitian leaders and organizations from all sectors and thanks to the support international partners such as the Global Fund for Community Foundations, the Inter-American Foundation, the Haiti Fund at the Boston Foundation and the Ansara Family Foundation, we have made some significant progress against all odds. I say against all odds because of the politics of setting up a Haiti-based and Haiti-led Haiti Community Foundation through a bottom-up process have been (to put it bluntly) gruesome.

    International NGOs and various external stakeholders have been pretty defensive from the start as if the term “Haiti-led” implied an insult. Let’s face it, Haiti’s development context is dominated and controlled by INGOs and foreign aid agencies (a billion dollar industry) and the idea that we Haitians want to shape our development agenda and run our country is threatening and/or offensive or even presumptuous to them. The truth is that we don’t want them “out”. Not given our current unfortunate stage of dependency. We would not want them “out” even if we were independent. This is not the point. We just want them to become true partners and support the local leadership paradigm. I am not trying to be over simplistic and depict all INGOs as “bad guys.” It would be unfair. I am trying to depict the reality of our context and its systems, no matter how politically incorrect it sounds.

    The figures of local procurement speak for themselves: only 0.6% of the billions that went to Haiti after the 2010 earthquake went to Haitian businesses and organizations. This money cannot be tracked down. USAID’s local procurement went from 5% in 2012 to 2% in 2013. I may get killed as a messenger, but it will be for a good cause if the message can generate some change and some action. Let’s not ignore the pink elephant with blue polka dots which is standing in the room. We, Haitians are not at the table and we are not the decision-makers when it comes to our development. This is the current status quo.

    My advice to INGOs, international funders and donor countries at this stage is to “walk their talk” and to start investing in local capacity-building and long-term transformative initiatives as opposed to focusing on short-term projects. It would also help for them to begin to think about exit strategies even if it means a 20 to 30 year-plan. Many of us living in Haiti or abroad are qualified and eager to do so. Last time, I checked few INGOs have country directors or senior executives who are Haitians and I am not sure at this stage if many of them have advisory committees composed of Haitians. We need “real” change.

    Haiti became the first Black republic in 1804. We should not have to fight so hard for our independence and sovereignty 210 years later.

  • Ronald

    As the article notes, Haitian recovery remains complex, requiring action from international donors, neighboring states, and obviously the Haitian government and people as well. Possibly no country has ever had so many aid organizations on the ground, yet not accomplishing a common mission…Haitian recovery and stability. At a micro level, however, there are many success stories of wonderful people and organizations accomplishing concrete results. This has not resulted in success at anything …