Honoring the Dignity and Capacity of the Haitian People in their Time of Crisis

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Haiti: Earthquake 2010 / European Commission DG ECHO

October 16, 2016; Washington Post

The Washington Post’s Editorial Board forthrightly writes to remind its readers that Haiti’s suffering is growing by orders of magnitude in the aftermath of Hurricane Matthew. There’s little doubt that time is not on the side of the estimated 1.4 million Haitians, more than a tenth of the country’s population, in need of immediate assistance. The threats to life are mounting: shortages of food, fresh water, shelter, and medical supplies; washed-out roads, bridges, canals, and sewer systems; a caretaker government; looting; and the potential for “a spike in Haiti’s already deadly epidemic of cholera.” The Editorial Board encourages its readers to be generous to the NGOs responding to the crisis. And so we should be.

According to the World Food Program, nearly 100 percent of crops and 50 percent of livestock were destroyed in the Grand-Anse region. “A ‘flash appeal’ for Haiti issued by the U.N. humanitarian agency in Geneva was not getting anywhere near the level of support officials are seeking, with only about 5 percent pledged so far of the $120 million requested.”

The New York Times reports in this pictorial that for many Haitians, caves offer the only shelter.

Mary Anastasia O’Grady, a Wall Street Journal editor, makes the case in “The Curse of Charity in Haiti” that supporting the responding NGOs makes humanitarian sense, but our philanthropy may have unintended consequences. O’Grady references the award-winning 2015 documentary “Poverty, Inc.,” which discredits the “aid brigades” as producing the wrong outcomes.

Haitians joke that they live in the land of 10,000 nongovernmental organizations (NGOs.) The country has also been the recipient of billions of dollars in foreign-government bilateral and multilateral aid over the last quarter century. This enormous giving has created harmful distortions in the local economy because when what would otherwise be traded or produced by Haitians is given away, it drives entrepreneurs out of business.

Are all those smart and efficient NGOs and their benefactors mistaken? Might they have been wrong since the founding of the World Bank, the United Nations, and ever since President Harry S. Truman announced the first U.S. foreign aid program in 1949? In 2014, William Easterly, Professor of Economics at New York University and co-director of the NYU Development Research Institute, wrote a book entitled The Tyranny of Experts. In her lengthy and well-worth-reading review of the book for the Washington Post, Marie Arana writes:

If Easterly has it right, the development business is hobbled not only by a tacit racism in which whole regions of Africa, Latin America and Asia are deemed “helpless,” but by a willful neglect of history. The past, geography, ethnic identities, societal nuances—none of these play a part in the present-day development calculus, he tells us. The “Blank Slate” mentality—the conviction that aid needs no analysis beyond comparative statistics and growth rates—is often the rule in development circles.

One largely missed email included in the release of 35,000 of Hillary Clinton’s emails by the U.S. State Department in response to a Freedom of Information Act Lawsuit, was addressed to “Dad, Mom.” [The e-mail in full may be read here.] It provided a blunt assessment of the NGO response to the 2010 earthquake and serves as a fitting conclusion to this Newswire that seeks to honor the dignity and capacity of the Haitian people.

“The incompetence is mind numbing,” she told her parents. “The UN people I encountered were frequently out of touch…anachronistic in their thinking at best and arrogant and incompetent at worst.”

“There is NO accountability in the UN system or international humanitarian system.” The weak Haitian government, which had lost buildings and staff in the disaster, had something of a plan, she noted. Yet because it had failed to articulate its wishes quickly enough, foreigners rushed forward with a “proliferation of ad hoc efforts by the UN and INGOs [international nongovernmental organizations] to ‘help,’ some of which have helped … some of which have hurt … and some which have not happened at all.”

The former first daughter recognized something that scores of other foreigners had missed: that Haitians were not just sitting around waiting for others to do the work. “Haitians in the settlements are very much organizing themselves…Fairly nuanced settlement governance structures have already developed,” she wrote, giving the example of camp home to 40,000 displaced quake survivors who had established a governing committee and a series of sub-committees overseeing security, sanitation, women’s needs and other issues.

“They wanted to help themselves, and they wanted reliability and accountability from their partners,” Chelsea Clinton wrote. But that help was not coming. The aid groups had ignored requests for T-shirts, flashlights and pay for the security committee, and the U.S. military had apparently passed on the committee’s back-up plan that they provide security themselves. “The settlements’ governing bodies—as they shared with me—are beginning to experience UN/INGO fatigue given how often they articulate their needs, willingness to work—and how little is coming their way.”

The world’s NGOs would do well to heed these words in trying to avoid repeating history and perpetuating the misery that seems to cling to Haiti.—James Schaffer

  • Marie-Rose Romain Murphy

    Thank you for this article Jim as its begins to highlight the systematic discounting of Haitians as well as the consistent marginalization of Haitian communities and their leaders from Haiti’s development process.
    My organization ESPWA (which means hope in Haitian Creole) has been setting up a community foundation for Haiti for the past few years. We’re a Haitian-led network and a nonprofit organization which is registered in the US and Haiti. Our network is local, regional, national and international. The Haiti Community Foundation just got set up as a national network of regional funds with a central fund. Our pilot region is the Grand’Anse where we led a regional planning process over the past few years which involved 600 regional leaders. It is also the part of Haiti that has been the hardest hit by Hurricane Matthew.

    Haitian leaders and communities are deeply concerned about the repeat of post-earthquake mistakes whereas:
    • A minute 0.6% of the billions of public and private funds went directly to Haitian businesses and Haitian organizations
    • Aid providers marginalized Haitian leaders and Haitian communities
    • Capacity building was an afterthought and not a priority
    • Aid efforts crushed the local economy as it flooded Haiti’s markets with donated goods which stifled local merchants, drove the costs of living and inflation up, and resulted in increased poverty in the country, especially in rural areas

    Positive Interventions and Changes

    There is positive news on the local context.
    • A little reported fact is that Haitians groups and individuals are contributing to the relief efforts (as they had done after the earthquake). For example, at Ile A Vache, EDEM, Sow A Seed and other groups are working together to provide assistance to community residents.
    • Community residents are helping each other. Many are contributing food, water, clothes and medicines to the affected south.
    • At the government level, various ministries have created coordination units and are conducting joint assessment with local groups to develop better data and encourage more targeted and effective assistance programs. Members of HCF’s Network like Caroline Hudicourt and Dr, Mireille Tribie are involved in these conversations and contributing to these planning efforts.

    The Challenges That We face

    The Centralization of Aid

    Aid providers are concentrating in Jeremie, the capital of the Grand’Anse. It is safer for them (as many have to face security issues and attacks of convoys), and this is what they know. At this stage, it is critical to decentralize aid because of the looming health and community development issues that aid centralization creates. Residents of other communities are converging to Jeremie to find aid even as the city is already in shambles and overpopulated. The systematic outcome in situations like these is that many people who engage in these migration patterns tend to remain (becoming statistics of poverty and dependency).
    The other side of the equation is health. UNICEF, which is leading the WASH cluster established just this week, reported that cholera increased from 24 cases per month in Jeremie, to a frequency of 66 cases per day in city! For accuracy purposes, we must stress that one of the root causes of this exponential was the Hurricane’s flooding of latrines.

    International NGO’s Lack of Community Connections

    Aid providers are mostly International agencies which lack information and community connections. Communities are not engaged in the planning process and their needs are not prioritized.

    The Looming Danger of Local Economic Decline and of The Development of a Culture of Dependency

    Aid providers tend to bring goods as opposed to buying them from local businesses. They also tend to bring their own workers as opposed to hiring local individuals. The impact greatly undermines the economy, creates joblessness and increases the local population’s dependency on aid, charity and services. It is essential that sooner than later aid interventions focus on helping local residents get back on their feet and to become active contributors to the economy.

    The bottom line is that Aid agencies need to start connecting with local groups and the local government and think/act beyond “business as usual” (short-term projects, we are the experts, we know better, we’ll take care of everything mentality). We realize that it will take them beyond their comfort zone. But it is at this point imperative that they do for the sake of Haiti.