Does International Aid Keep Haiti Poor?

The Most Dependent Independent Nation in the World
Notes from different corners of the world.
Jan. 4 2011 7:04 AM

Does International Aid Keep Haiti Poor?

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Click here to see a slideshow on Haiti one year after the earthquake.

More than 150 countries and donor groups met in New York City on March 31, 2010, to figure out how to rebuild Haiti after the Jan. 12 earthquake. Eleven billion dollars was pledged for the task, including $1.15 billion from the United States. In between the meetings and pledging sessions attended by heads of state, economists, and policy-makers was a short presentation called "Voice of the Voiceless."

For six weeks before the conference, Haitian civil-society groups had gone into the neighborhoods of Port-au-Prince and villages throughout the country, asking more than 1,700 citizens about their aspirations and hopes for the development of their country. Again and again, people expressed a desire for independence, self-determination, and direct participation in the rebuilding effort after the earthquake. "We saw the National Palace destroyed," said one interviewee. "I would like to see Haitian engineers rebuild it, not the foreign engineers, so we can look at the palace proudly in the future and say that Haitians built the National Palace."

Many of the people interviewed saw the earthquake as an opportunity for renewal and the beginning of a transformative period in which both rich and poor Haitians could participate in the economic development of the country. Aid from the outside should reinforce their country's sovereignty. Among the fishermen, teachers, mothers, unemployed, farmers, and students interviewed, many said they wanted help with agriculture, education, and housing, but they did not want to be passive recipients of the international community's money. The word they used most, according to the report issued after the interviews were conducted, was respè, meaning "respect."

Back in New York, these opinions were drowned out by the mechanics of the massive donor process. "Paul Farmer insisted that we have a place where we could for seven minutes give that report," said Michele Montas, a renowned Haitian radio journalist and former spokesperson for Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon who helped to spearhead the "Voice of the Voiceless" project. Farmer is the medical doctor and anthropologist who has worked in Haiti since the early 1980s and who started the global health organization Partners in Health. "But aside from a few people who cared about what was said, no one else did. Neither those from the international community—those countries meeting at the United Nations—nor the NGOs were there."

In early January 2010, Montas had retired from her job at the United Nations and had moved back to her family home in Petionville, Port-au-Prince. When the earthquake struck, she was asked to return to the United Nations as a special adviser to the organization's Stabilization Mission in Haiti, or MINUSTAH. It's a role that has given her a chance to influence the United Nations' involvement in her country, but it has led to deep frustration, she said. "I'm working with a lot of sophisticated people but who have absolutely no notions of what this country is about," she explained. "I work at the U.N., and every day I have to go to meetings, I'm the only Haitian there, and I have to tell them, 'Your perception is not right.' I feel that it is a lost battle." Haitians have their own systems of survival, she said, but instead of tapping into that creativity, aid groups come in thinking the country is a "clean slate."

This attitude toward Haiti, according to Colin Dayan, an English professor at Vanderbilt University, can be traced back hundreds of years. Typically, foreigners have believed either that Haitian culture is itself the cause of the country's underdevelopment or that Haiti has no culture and is a "passive, neutered object of disaster," she says. Dayan's 1998 book, Haiti, History, and the Gods (which she wrote under the name Joan Dayan),is an attempt to chart the cultural consciousness of the country and to establish a more "Haitian" version of the island's history that uses previously ignored sources, such as voodoo. "If you start thinking about Haitians living in the '60s and '70s, they lived on their own, and they did not have to take charity," said Dayan. "I believe that language makes history, and if people keep representing Haitians as 'powerless,' as 'needy,' as totally 'abject,' then it becomes OK to 'help' them to save themselves by any means possible."

The international community and aid organizations are increasingly seen by Haitians as not representing their best interests. "There is a vicious paradigm to it: If everything is OK, the NGO has no mission. Maybe that begs some questions," said Georges Sassine, a businessman and president of the Haitian Association of Industrialists. "We have to produce a lot more for ourselves. The more we do, the less we will need NGOs." A critical component will be the emergence of new Haitian leadership. "These types of events [like the earthquake] in human history are like a crucible where leaders are created and somebody emerges," said Sassine. That leadership has yet to materialize, according to Sassine. "I'm still hoping, but I'm very disappointed."

These days, Haitians seem to be living in an untenable reality. Theirs is the country that staged the first successful slave uprising and established the first black republic in 1804. The idea and legacy of independence is at the heart of national identity. And yet as a result of the events of 2010—the earthquake, cholera, and flawed elections—there has never been so much unemployment and destitution and dependence on outsiders. "Even dogs live better than us now!" said one man, his voice cracking with anger and emotion during a spontaneous debate on the street in Port-au-Prince. Haitians see that they need assistance, but as Montas described it, they feel disenfranchised by the "help" they are getting.

Recently, a friend told me an anecdote that seemed to capture the essence of Haiti's predicament as it seeks to recover from the disasters of 2010. She was walking along a street in Port-au-Prince, concentrating, as she always does, on avoiding the potholes, rubble, and piles of trash that litter the city. A man who was watching her shouted in Creole, "Hold your head up!" In other words, be proud. Flustered, she stopped walking, trying to figure out how to navigate the road before her and keep her head high at the same time.

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Maura R. O'Connor is a graduate of Columbia Journalism School and a freelance foreign correspondent. She is a 2010 Phillips Foundation fellow.