“We don’t just want the money to come to Haiti. Stop sending money. Let’s fix it,” said Haitian President Martin Martelly in 2013, three years after the 7.0 magnitude earthquake in 2010. More money was hardly helping Haiti. In some regards, it was hurting, so Martelly sought reform.
Critics of foreign aid believe that it favors international companies over local businesses and national infrastructure capacity. Today, Haiti is the poorest country in the Americas, with over half of the population living on less than $1 a day. Modest improvements in economic growth have been greatly undermined by a weak and corrupt government and a lack of a strong investment environment. Even new businesses created after the earthquake only survive off the patronage of foreign aid workers, who are bound to leave at some point.
The first Caribbean country to achieve independence, Haiti has now been reduced to dependence on the international community. Through years of an oppressive dictatorship, Haiti scraped by on a rocky foundation, one that crumbled under the earthquake. Four years after one of the largest international responses to a crisis in history, little seems different from the immediate aftermath of the disaster. Although over six billion dollars were pledged to Haiti after the earthquake, this vast sum of money hasn’t caused substantial development to materialize.
Shortcomings in foreign aid to Haiti call for the international community to reimagine how we approach foreign investments worldwide. Ironically, the money that is supposed to do good is ultimately hindering its objectives. Emergency relief organizations did an impressive job rallying support for Haiti, but long-term development strategy has lacked.
A Haitian proverb simply captures the many years of failed foreign aid: “washing your hands, but drying them with dirt.” Foreign groups have repeatedly entered Haiti, created an unsustainable aid project, and left without addressing the root causes. This recurring cycle, sometimes even crafted to force Haiti into this position, has rendered the Haitian government useless and the nation dependent on foreign investors. Highly politicized and highly unreliable, foreign aid has undercut an already weak government. In 2008, only 3% of bilateral aid from the U.S. to Haiti was channeled through the Haitian government, which desperately needed the capital. The unpredictability of funds, which fluctuated from $255 million in 2010 to only $48.8 million in 2011, has complicated the Haitian government’s ability to make long-term strategic plans requiring the capital.
Alex Dupuy, a Wesleyan professor of sociology who focuses on Haitian politics and economics, criticized foreign investors like the US because “foreign aid is not meant to benefit Haiti, but those who are giving the aid.” Historically, many have argued that foreign aid to Haiti simply furthered the donor country’s own geopolitical and economic agenda. For example, U.S. occupation between 1915 and 1934 left Haiti dependent on the US, which only conducted business with Haitian elites. Even though Haiti had a strong, sustainable, and dependable agricultural sector before American occupation, the US forced Haiti to import American rice to benefit the US economy. Even President Clinton acknowledged that this sort of US policy “may have been good for some of my farmers in Arkansas, but it has not worked [in Haiti].”
Without incorporating the Haitian government in their plans, foreign investors lessened the country’s infrastructure building capability and degraded the government’s legitimacy. By only cooperating with Haitian elites, foreign actors provided all the services for the population, while the government slowly atrophied. A weak government only exacerbated problems with development.
The weak Haitian government has continued to be isolated from post-earthquake development efforts. Even before 2010, the lack of a strong Haitian government prevented emergency relief aid from becoming the foundation for sustainable development, forcing Haiti to rely on foreign agencies. Of the $6.04 billion raised from 2010 to 2012 in Haiti, less than 1% went directly into the hands of the Haitian government. Local non-governmental organizations, which would have understood the needs of their community better than foreigners, received less than .6% of this money. Of the money promised, 93% went to United Nations agencies, international NGOs, or never left the donor countries. Only 1.4% of contracts for rebuilding went to local companies, a telling sign of Dupuy’s argument that foreign aid is rarely for the benefit of Haiti. At the whim of foreign money and foreign interests, Haiti was forced to shape its goals around those of the international community, rather than deciding its own fate.
Criticisms abound when examining emergency relief and coordination in response to the Haitian earthquake. However, it is important to note the difference between the immediate short-term response and strategies for post-disaster development. Dupuy lauds emergency relief agencies, such as Doctors Without Borders, which provided tremendous support in the immediate aftermath of the earthquake. He quickly separated these efforts, though, from the biased objectives for reconstruction by the international community, including such actors as the United States, France, the United Nations, the International Monetary Fund, and the World Bank.
It is difficult to determine the boundary between humanitarianism and development. Humanitarian organizations are clearly intended to work during the immediate aftermath of a disaster situation to alleviate people’s immediate suffering. Working within the confines of humanitarianism lends itself to dependency: by design, humanitarians are supposed to work outside the government to remain neutral. What happens when an emergency situation becomes protracted or falls between a short-term emergency and long term development? Current international frameworks fail to address this issue, leaving no one responsible for bridging this crucial gap.
Haiti is a prime example of how emergency aid got drawn out into the development stage, without the necessary adjustments. In the short term, temporary shelters were necessary, but four years later, housing is still a problem. There are still some aspects of fundamental emergency recovery that need to be addressed, as well as long-term development and reconstruction issues.
To bridge the gap between these two forms of aid, the United Nations Development Program (UNDP) has crafted a new, multidimensional framework called Early Recovery. Early Recovery focuses on capacity-building to find sustainable approaches that incorporate the local community and government into rebuilding efforts. One of the 2014 Yale World Fellows, Alejandro Pacheco, currently heads the Early Recovery, Livelihoods, and Poverty Reduction Unit at UNDP. In an interview with The Politic, he noted, “You cannot jump from emergency to development. [Early Recovery] creates the link between immediate response to long-term progress.”
A crucial aspect of Early Recovery is the emphasis on supporting local governments to exercise leadership and take initiative with their own recovery plans. Pacheco believes that emergency aid should only take between three and six months. Now, “emergency aid takes far too long” and “push[es] national ownership and governments away.” Pacheco is quick to acknowledge that while governments will make mistakes, so will the United Nations and foreign aid programs. He adds that the only way is to learn is from mistakes and to have the foreign community support local governments by providing technical assistance. Referring to the cycle of foreign aid, Pacheco noted that “countries have to go through the same problems over and over again because we do not let their governments and states strengthen enough to lead the response.”
“Early Recovery can be implemented into many areas of development,” Pacheco asserted, though this type of aid is rarely funded simply because “it’s not sexy.” Explanations of the rather complicated and intangible effects of capacity-building lack appeal; donors are much more compelled by the thought that their money goes directly to emergency relief. You can see the tent you donated, but it’s much harder to see your contribution to create a stronger government. This funding, however, is crucial since these governments often have a weak tax revenue system, if any at all.
Here, non-governmental organizations have the best insights into their country, but not the tools to effectively act on those insights. Hugh Locke, one of the founders of a Haitian NGO called Smallholder Farmers Alliance, has created a groundbreaking organization that establishes farmer-managed agroforestry cooperatives that become self-sufficient with limited funding and technical support. In an interview with The Politic, Locke reiterated the necessity of capacity-building in his work, which involves “train[ing] the farmers to become the trainers” and “transfer[ring] the capacity for training deeper into the community.” He stressed the importance of exit-strategy aid, in which an organization plans its exit from the country at the beginning of its involvement in order to prevent dependence. Locke criticized the “inherent corrupt[ion] of a system which only leaves 25% of donor [aid] in the country it’s intended for.” People in developing countries, he said, deserve “to be part of the solution.”
Haiti is caught in a catch-22: in order to develop, it needs capital that it currently doesn’t have. Yet at the same time, it should not have to shape its development goals around the foreign investor. Locke noted how difficult it was for local NGOs to obtain resources for their independent missions. Instead, these organizations become “contractors for the donor” while executing whatever plan the donor has for the money.
Dupuy states the necessary conditions for any possibility of Haitian development is “allowing Haitian people to determine their own agenda without foreign interference.” He also claims we need to radically change the power dynamic that exists between advanced nations and Haiti. Haiti must decide the conditions under which it receives foreign aid. Haiti must build the capacity of its state through existing local non-governmental organizations and eventually through a strong government. Likewise, Pacheco highlights the importance of upcoming elections for Haiti to prove its democracy’s legitimacy and ability to engage with civil society.
Lastly, it is crucial to reiterate that Haiti is not an isolated case. “It is not just Haiti that experiences this kind of distortion,” Dupoy explained. “Haiti feels it more because it doesn’t have the resources” to adequately deal with the distortion. Pacheco warns that there will be more failures, and more dependency, if the international community does not address the aid gap.
Haiti is a poor country dependent on foreign aid: still rebuilding and still in need, but poisoned in part by the money coming in. There’s neither a clear solution for Haiti’s woes, nor a straightforward change to U.S. foreign policy with regard to Haiti. Maybe Haiti needs a miracle. Or a miracle worker, at least. Jean-Claude Duvalier, the dictator (nicknamed Baby Doc) who ran Haiti from 1971 until he was booted from office in 1986, died earlier this month. Perhaps now Haiti can begin to look forward, not backward.