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Home Publications Blogs Haiti: Relief and Reconstruction Watch A Brief History of Failure in Post-Quake Haiti

A Brief History of Failure in Post-Quake Haiti

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Tuesday, 16 August 2011 10:11

A 11,849-word article by journalist Janet Reitman in the new issue of Rolling Stone provides a sometimes fascinating and always disheartening overview of relief and reconstruction in Haiti since the earthquake. Reitman, who has recently been in the news herself over her new book, Inside Scientology, spent months researching the report, both in the U.S. and in Haiti, and so she is able to cover a good deal of ground. Much of her focus falls on the failings of various initiatives by often prominent individuals and organizations, which often contrast with their public images and their stated goals and intentions. Addressing the role of big NGO’s, for example, Reitman writes

On top of the earthquake, aid workers in Haiti are contending with a cholera crisis, a disease of poverty spread through poor sanitation and contaminated drinking water. These are all things that NGOs like the Red Cross have expertise in fighting, but larger structural issues often trump their best intentions. Because international NGOs get most of their money from large government agencies, they are beholden to the broader policy imperatives of their funders. "The big problem is that most NGOs are only really accountable to their donors, when we should really be accountable to the people we're trying to serve," says Dr. Louise Ivers, senior health and policy adviser for Partners in Health, a Boston-based NGO that has worked in Haiti for 25 years. Some organizations, she notes, "exist only to write grant proposals that respond to specific donor requests. If your mandate is just to follow the money, then the money determines what happens."

CHF International is one NGO that comes in for scrutiny further on:

[American field-office director for CHF International, Ann] Lee admits that [CHF], a vast NGO with relief operations in 25 countries around the world, has never done "micro-urban planning," as she calls it — nor have the half dozen or so other NGOs planning similar projects in Port-au-Prince. "It's a complete learning experience for all of us," she says. All that's needed to make the project a reality, she adds, are more funds.

Critics regard such claims with amusement: CHF, which works out of two spacious mansions in Port-au-Prince and maintains a fleet of brand-new vehicles, is generally considered one of the most ostentatious NGOs in Haiti. It is also one of the largest USAID contractors in Haiti and enjoys a cozy relationship with Washington: Its president and CEO, David Weiss, is a former State Department official and lobbyist.

A good portion of Reitman’s article examines the role that the Clintons – ex-president and co-chair of the Interim Haiti Relief Commission Bill, and Secretary of State Hillary, have made for themselves in post-quake Haiti. These other powerful officials appear the least sympathetic when Reitman allows them to use their own terminology in describing Washington’s Haiti policy:

In Washington, meanwhile, Hillary Clinton was pursuing a Haiti strategy that dovetailed neatly with her husband's efforts. Within the State Department, Haiti was viewed, in the words of one official, as a "laboratory": a petri dish in which America could prove that it could be a force for good in the world. The impulse falls squarely within the Clinton doctrine known as "smart power," which stresses the importance of diplomacy and development to further U.S. interests. For too long, Clinton believed, the West had embraced "development for development's sake," throwing money at poor countries without demanding either accountability or results. Haiti had received so much foreign assistance over the years — more than $300 million annually from the U.S. alone — that it had become a virtual, albeit dysfunctional, ward of the West, and a poster child for the inadequacies of foreign aid.

Reitman’s examination of the role that the Clintons have played in implementing a development plan for Haiti – a process in motion before the quake – is neatly pieced together:

Manufacturing, [Bill] Clinton believed, was "a great opportunity, not only for investors to come and make a profit but for the people of Haiti to have a more secure and a more broadly shared, prosperous future." He also envisioned a myriad of other possibilities, from tourist hotels to outsourced call centers.

By that Christmas, [Hillary Clinton’s Chief-of-Staff, Cheryl] Mills and her team had identified four key pillars for aid — health, energy, agriculture and security — that promised what seemed like the highest return, and were preparing to send a report on the new Haiti strategy to the National Security Council for review. Bill Clinton's hands-on approach had also begun to pay off: Two international hotel chains had committed to projects in Haiti, and new industrial parks were in the works with interest from American, South Korean and Irish investors. The Vietnamese military was in negotiations to buy a controlling share of Haiti's state-owned telephone company, and the Hotel Montana in Port-au-Prince was making plans to open a shopping arcade.

Then came the earthquake. The tragedy put "a dent in expectations," as one State Department official puts it, but it "didn't completely destroy the underlying economic opportunities." Immediately after the quake, in fact, Bill Clinton was not only talking about Haiti's reconstruction but was casting the tragedy as an opportunity for the country to "re-imagine" itself, using a modified version of the Collier plan that had already been endorsed by both the U.S. and Haitian governments. "Is this going to be hard? Yes," Clinton said in a teary-eyed interview with The Miami Herald. "Do I think we can do it? Absolutely, I do."

But these development plans did not work out as planned, and as Reitman reports it, the earthquake is only one reason why. She describes how time, money and opportunities were wasted by poor practices, duplication of efforts, incompetence and a lack of foresight. She quotes USAID expert Bill Vastine:

"I kept telling these State Department people to go and look in their frickin' filing cabinets, but it fell on deaf ears," he says. "It was truly astonishing to me. The amount of previous study on Haiti is immense. But there was no reflection on the existing knowledge base. Instead, they would go out and hire some company to the tune of half a million dollars to barge in equipment from the United States and go punch some holes in the ground, even though we already knew what was down there. Then they'd hire some Ph.D. to study it for six months and do a PowerPoint presentation. Haiti doesn't need any more Ph.D.s to study it. What it needs are some professionals who know what they're doing to go out and do the goddamn work and rebuild it."

For an on-the-ground perspective on the failings of aid and “the Republic of NGO’s” in Haiti – both before and since the earthquake, Reitman turns to Tim Schwartz, anthropologist and author of the book Travesty in Haiti: A true account of Christian missions, orphanages, fraud, food aid and drug trafficking:

"There is a shocking lack of transparency and accountability in aid, and it's crystallized in this relief effort," says Schwartz, the anthropologist. "For an NGO in Haiti, the criteria for success is raising money, filling out paperwork and making sure the money is 'accounted for' — meaning they can show donors that they spent the money. But nobody goes out there and judges the project, or even verifies that the project exists. In the majority of the cases, nobody even talks to the community."

“Most of these NGO people genuinely dupe themselves into thinking this is really going to work," says Schwartz, who spent six months on a USAID-funded survey of Port-au-Prince's housing. What he found is that roughly 85 percent of Haiti's damaged homes, including those deemed irreparable, have been reinhabited by people who either returned to them from the camps or, as with Bertin Voise, never bothered to leave them in the first place, despite warnings that a strong storm could collapse what remains of the structures. Such a disaster, notes Schwartz, could be avoided if money were invested in repairing the homes rather than replacing them. "We have to listen to these people," he says. "They are telling us what they want, and we are ignoring it. That's the real tragedy."

Although there are a few mistakes (it was George H. W. Bush who imposed sanctions on Haiti in 1991 following the first coup against Aristide, not Bill Clinton, who wouldn’t take office until 1993; there was no recount of the 2010 Haitian presidential election, nor did the U.S. push for one, e.g.), Reitman’s article may be one of the best surveys of the sad state of post-quake relief and reconstructions efforts so far.

Tags: aid distribution | cholera | contractors | disease | ngos | reconstruction | red cross | shelter | usaid

 

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