A few weeks ago, the radio show This American Life did an great show focused on aid in Haiti. If you want to understand the roadblocks to improving things in Haiti, it’s worth your time to listen to this show. Notice how some of the blocks are because of policies donors have implemented to try to prevent corruption.
It can be hard to get your mind around, but aid actually sometimes harms people, rather than helping, even in Haiti. There are stories of rice farmers in rural parts of Haiti not being able to sell their crops because, with all the rice donations from other countries, there is no market for products. Would-be Haitian contractors are also missing out on jobs because foreign contractors are being chosen by aid agencies instead. Sometimes cheaper, or even most modern, doesn’t mean better, in the long-term, for local people needing the aid.
Time has a story Haiti’s Failed Recovery: Who’s to Blame? that presents the two camps regarding why recovery in Haiti is failing:
For the anti-NGO camp, Haiti is a case study in the hypocrisy of the global relief bandwagon that descends on poor countries victimized by wars, famine and natural disasters. A growing chorus of critics accuses humanitarian-aid groups of using misery to validate their existence, spending funds inefficiently and creating a culture of dependence among the people they are supposed to help… If you belong to the “blame Haiti” camp, you’re less likely to ascribe the post earthquake mess to outsiders than to the country’s defective political culture. In recent years, development economists have sought to explain why some countries lift themselves out of poverty while others chronically underachieve. Stable, transparent institutions – like police, courts and banks – are critical to the success of poor nations. But Haiti’s long history of disarray has left it with few institutions worthy of trust. For those who emphasize such internal factors, Haiti wouldn’t be saved even if every dollar of aid money were spent and every NGO disappeared tomorrow. Until the country’s political class proves it can govern, Haiti’s people will continue to suffer.
I certainly offer no solution — it’s a systemic problem across sectors that defies a simplistic solution. I will say that aid agencies need to be reading these stories and looking at their messages to the public and to donors. They need to be showing how many local staff they are hiring versus how many foreign staff they are bringing in, and highlighting what steps they are taking so that Haitians are not just contributing to their own relief, they are leading it, and will eventually take over from the aid agency completely. They also have to be open about corruption – don’t shy away from talking about problems with transparency, even if it’s just in internal reports or reports to donors.
It’s not time to give up. But it is time to pay greater attention.
ADDITION ON JAN. 12:
John Mitchell, Director of ALNAP (Active Learning Network for Accountability and Performance in Humanitarian Action) has posted a blog about how the media is portraying what is happening in Haiti. It’s very much worth your time to read.