Helping Haiti Help Itself

After the earthquake, enable Haitians to make progress on their own terms

It has been nearly a year since the earthquake that left Haiti—already the poorest country in the Western hemisphere—in shambles.  With 1.3 million people displaced by the earthquake living in squalid conditions outside Port-au-Prince, 284 confirmed deaths in a recent cholera outbreak, and 19 candidates in the upcoming presidential elections, it seems as if international help and continued support would be welcome now more than ever.  However, although there are nearly 14,000 NGOs and relief agencies operating in Haiti currently, their fragmented and isolated approach to work in Haiti has also indirectly caused long-term harm. Now that the “rescue” part of the “rescue, recovery, and reconstruction” plan is complete, it is time for the people, the government, and the foreign influence in Haiti to develop comprehensive and communicative plans that will allow Haitians a larger role in their country’s recovery.

After gaining independence from France in a slave revolt in 1804, Haiti had a hard time gaining recognition in the international arena, and soon fell into debt as it had to pay reparations to France’s slaveholders, setting a precursor to its poor and troubled economy. The response of NGOs and other nations after the Haitian earthquake was certainly necessary—and still is. But even before the earthquake, Haiti had gained a reputation as “A Republic of NGOs,” which has consequently somewhat delegitimized and crippled its economy.  The lack of coordination between NGOs and the government will only continue to amount to  “short-term solutions” to long-term problems.

In Dambisa Moyo’s book “Dead Aid,” she argues that aid has been hurting Africa because it leads to corruption in government, foreign interests that aren’t in the country’s best interests, but mostly “band-aids” that only barely scrape the surface of solving immediate problems rather than building an educated workforce that can govern and provide for themselves.  These effects have been seen in Haiti as well with the import of foreign food to feed Haitians, instead of, as President Rene Preval complains, providing money to restart Haiti’s agricultural-based economy.  Many Haitians have been migrating to Port-au-Prince for work, and many homeless after the earthquake have been living in camp dwellings on the periphery of the city. If NGOs and foreign aid focused on developing Haiti’s agricultural industry, they would encourage Haitians to disperse from the city and give them the tools to feed themselves and generate their own income. USAID has recently jumped on board to this idea and is pledging $126 million over the next five years to support Haitians living in rural areas, and is providing two grants for Haitians to buy local.

Though some well-meaning NGOs and aid may provide temporary relief, there are a few organizations that should set an example for the framework between immediate care and lasting development and integration into the country. Partners in Health, co-founded by Harvard’s own Paul Farmer, has been providing healthcare and training Haitians to deliver healthcare since 1987.  After the earthquake, PIH treated over 10,000 patients a week in the capital city. And although it continues to provide healthcare in eight cities, it is also in the midst of constructing a $15 million teaching hospital in Haiti that will work to equip even more Haitians with the resources and knowledge they need to stand on their own.

Former Prime Minister of Haiti Michele Pierre-Louis, is currently a fellow at the Institute of Politics and leads a study group every week on how to govern a “fragile state.” She embodies the missing link needed in effective reconstruction work in Haiti because in addition to her efforts to better Haiti during her time as Prime Minister, she also heads up a Haitian-run NGO, FOKAL, that works on providing educational support and libraries to the country’s youth in addition to using innovative approaches to provide clean water to Haitians (only 21 percent of the population has access to running water). “We are very grateful to all the countries and organizations which responded spontaneously to the disaster. But now is the time to plan the reconstruction,” Pierre-Louis said in response to foreign presence in Haiti. “And this is the difficult part. We need to provide decent housing to a million and a half people who are homeless today. We need to create jobs. But most and foremost, we need to plan, urban and city planning, construction codes, land tenure. And of course education, at all levels particularly higher education. These are the issues today so that we can ‘build back better.’”

Increased dialogue between different NGOs and the government will hopefully lead to collaboration on programs and policies that will foster economic opportunity for Haitians (someone is going to have to re-build, so it would be more effective to pay Haitians for doing these tasks, rather than bringing in outside forces) and education for the next generation. We should support organizations like PIH and FOKAL that help Haitians help themselves long after the recovery from the earthquake is complete.

Meredith C. Baker ’13, a Crimson editorial writer, is a social studies concentrator in Currier House. Her column appears on alternate Thursdays. She is a liaison for Michele Pierre-Louis at the Institute of Politics.