Right after Haiti’s catastrophic 2010 earthquake, which killed more than 200,000 people, I rode in a U.S. Army helicopter ferrying food and medical supplies into demolished Port-au-Prince neighborhoods.
As we descended near the suburb of Pétionville, and as corpses became visible amid the ruins and campfire smoke billowed up in our faces, the pilot said he couldn’t put us down. Too many people were running to the landing spot, and they risked being killed by the chopper rotors.
The crew had to heave the boxes out, and I pitched in. But while I watched Haitians rush for the cases of Gatorade, bandages and MREs (meals ready to eat), the long-term effect of this biblical disaster hit me like an aftershock: The earthquake would make Haiti, the western hemisphere’s poorest nation, addicted once more to international aid – just when the country finally seemed to be shaking off that dependence.
I thought of that moment last week. A couple days before the quake's Jan. 12 anniversary, the State Department's USAID mission director, John Groarke, told me during a visit to Miami: "We have to change the way we do business in Haiti."
Thanks to the $9 billion the international community has steered to Haiti the past four years – a third of it from the United States – many of the worst post-quake problems have largely been resolved. Those include the rubble and the squalid tent camps that housed 1.5 million refugees. (Almost 90 percent of those homeless people have now been resettled.) Both the U.S. and Haitian President Michel Martelly deserve credit for strides made in areas like agriculture and infrastructure renovation.
But there remains a nagging sense that rebuilding Haiti will take far longer than we (unrealistically?) hoped. One sign of lingering desperation is the recent rise in the number of Haitians dying while trying to leave the country in unsafe boats. Seventeen drowned on Christmas Day. A big reason for the new exodus: it’s estimated that two in three Haitians these days don’t have enough food to eat.
Those are stark reminders that Haiti’s overreliance on foreign support – and its chronic underreliance on its own ample human and natural capital – don’t work. And yet Haiti remains so awash in international non-governmental organizations that it’s often called “The Republic of NGOs.” I’ve even seen SUVs in Port-au-Prince that were marked “Homeopaths Without Borders.”
Groarke no doubt saw this problem when he arrived in Haiti last August. As Washington’s point man for the Haiti aid effort, Groarke realized that for foreign assistance to take more effective root, the U.S. and other international donors “need to see more of our funding go to both the Haitian government and Haitian organizations. We cannot sustain [the current] paradigm. We can’t just sit here indefinitely and say, Well, Haitian organizations don’t have the capacity. We need to help them gain that capacity, and that’s what we’re doing now.”
You can debate how successfully that campaign is going – Haitian firms are receiving more contracts, but they're few – but Groarke's point is important. You can’t reconstruct Haiti if you don’t rebuild Haitians’ sense of stake in that reconstruction.
THE NGO-INDUSTRIAL COMPLEX
Nor can you raise the quality of Haitian leadership. The dominance of the NGO-industrial complex in Haitian affairs too often leaves Haitian presidents less than equipped to step up at critical moments like the 2010 earthquake. Critics say the president at that time, René Preval – who seemed utterly lost after the quake struck – is a case in point.
And while you’d assume that aid dependence at least makes leaders more sensitive to international expectations about things like democratic governance, you might be wrong. Martelly has yet to hold long-overdue parliamentary elections; his government faces a number of corruption charges and he seems largely dismissive of Haiti’s other branches of government.
Leaders like Martelly know, or believe, that donor nations are reluctant to withhold aid for basket-case countries like theirs, no matter their presidential comportment. See Hamid Karzai of Afghanistan.
Groarke acknowledged that Martelly has been more pro-active in areas like improving public security. But he added, “We would like to see more done to establish the rule of law in Haiti,” which is essential to attracting the investors it desperately needs.
In the end, Groarke noted, no NGO or donor country can do that. Only the Haitians can.
Groarke pointed to the recently completed Caracol industrial park in northern Haiti as evidence of what the U.S. and the international community can do. But as he said, what they need to do most is change the way they do business in Haiti. It may be the only way to get Haiti and its leaders to change they way they do business.
Tim Padgett is WLRN's Americas editor. You can read more of his coverage here.
The Latin America Report is sponsored by Espírito Santo Bank and Morrison Brown Argiz and Farra.