Haiti: broken promises and aid fatigue

On Oct. 27, Kwantlen Polytechnic University’s Documentary Film Festival will screen Kombit (Creole for cooperative), a film about efforts by Haitian agronomist Timote Georges and Canadian development worker Hugh Lock, co-founders of the Smallholder Farmers Alliance, to reforest Haiti and build a more sustainable agricultural future. Kombit’s trailer alludes to the monumental failure of foreign aid initiatives in Haiti, and distinguishes the Kombit project, farmer cooperatives initially financed by the Timberland footwear company and the Clinton Global Initiative, as a more inclusive initiative that is succeeding where others have failed. Time will tell.

Photo courtesy of Kombit The Cooperative Film Project

Photo courtesy of Kombit The Cooperative Film Project

It is hard not to be cynical about aid projects in Haiti. The World Bank’s measure of poverty and equity shows that the proportion of Haitians living in poverty has barely budged from 2001 (55.6 per cent) to 2016 (53.9 per cent). This is not for lack of attention; if anything, Haiti, a country of 10.32 million people and half the area of Nova Scotia, seems overrun with NGOs, which provide 80 per cent of the basic services. Kombit states that 12,000 NGOs are operating in Haiti; other estimates vary between 10,000 and 20,000, prompting Haitians to mockingly refer to their country as the “Republic of NGOs.” This begs the obvious question: if so many groups are operating in Haiti, ostensibly there to “build capacity” or “empower” the locals, to borrow some of the favourite buzzwords in development parlance, why is Haiti still so economically poor and heavily reliant on aid after several decades?

This is an important question as Haiti deals with its latest disaster, the Category Four storm Hurricane Matthew, which struck the nation on Oct. 4. Once again, the heartbreak of mass death, destruction and disease is playing out in Haiti: 546 dead, 438 injured, 128 missing, 175,000 living in temporary shelters and a surge in cholera cases (1,421). Haiti’s Ministry of the Interior and the UN estimate that over two million people have been affected and 1.5 million need humanitarian assistance. Haiti is still recovering from the devastating 2010 earthquake that left over 200,000 dead and ushered in a cholera epidemic that has killed roughly 10,000. Cholera, a disease not present in Haiti for at least a century, became endemic in the country through UN peacekeepers, something the UN still has not fully accepted responsibility for.

In the wake of Hurricane Matthew, an uncomfortable (and perhaps mean-spirited) question arises: which NGOs are going to profit this time? Charities in Canada and elsewhere are asking for donations to meet urgent food, housing, medical and other basic needs, and many ordinary people want to help. Unfortunately, the actions of some organizations have incited skepticism and aid fatigue. Ban Ki Moon, the UN Secretary General, has expressed disappointment that as of Oct. 19 only 13 per cent of the US$120 million requested for three months of emergency relief has been raised. Following the 2010 earthquake, donors pledged US$10 billion to help Haiti. From the American Red Cross’s inexplicable squandering of US$500 million (with only six permanent new homes to show for it) to Chemonics International’s CEO receiving a US$2.5 million bonus despite the company’s failures on building permanent housing, the results have been, to put it charitably, scandalous and underwhelming.

At least one crucial problem underlies these failures, which Georges alludes to more diplomatically in Kombit: many international organizations in Haiti suffer from arrogance and pay lip service to engaging with Haitians and understanding the local environment. The American Red Cross and others paid extraordinary amounts to foreign staff in salaries, hardship pay and other benefits, hiring few Haitians. Outsourcing essential local services and reconstruction efforts to expensive foreign staff defeats the whole purpose of building local capacity to advance poverty reduction and lessen the impact of future disasters. Just as importantly, clearly those highly paid expats were not so great at doing that either.

So, what can be done? There is no simple pat solution.
Renowned Haitian-American writer Edwidge Danticat provides a possible starting point by urging people to support Haitian-led organizations, or at least ones that show evidence of truly engaging with locals. The Canada Haiti Action Network’s slogan seems apt: “Solidarity and national sovereignty, not charity.” Hopefully, initiatives like the Kombit project will bear real fruit and replace the recurring need for mass mobilizations of humanitarian assistance in Haiti.