Monday, November 22, 2010

Save Haiti From Aid Tourists

Save Haiti From Aid Tourists

The 'republic of NGOs' is in a vicious circle of

dependence and institutional infantilism

Rory Carroll

The Guardian

16 November 2010


There was so much goodness packed on to the plane there

was almost no room for me. I had a boarding pass but by

the time I got to the gate every seat was filled. This

was American Airlines flight 575 from Miami to Port-au-

Prince and the passengers were on a mission to help

Haiti. A volunteer agreed to take a later flight and I squeezed on.


The front rows had people in orange T-shirts, further on

there were blue ones and at the back lime-green, each

with a Haiti-related logo. Instead of the in-flight

magazine, people were reading engineering manuals,

budget reports, the Bible and books with titles such as

Touching Them Now and Forever.


Spirits were high. We were on our way to another world,

which would provide a sense of purpose, not to mention

adventure. "Welcome aboard!" beamed the steward. Two

hours later, as we trooped off into blinding Caribbean

sun, the steward was still beaming. "Bye bye!"


I was too depressed to smile back. During the flight I

had been reminded by the passenger seated beside me how

do-gooding outsiders can screw up Haiti. What made it

all the sadder was the fact he was nice, decent and

humane. It is harsh to identify Ed Hettinga and his

group, Mission to Haiti Canada, as exemplars of an

unfolding tragedy. Each member was coming on his and her

own time and dime (air fare alone, £980) and was almost

certain to improve the lives of some Haitians.


Villains in Haiti's suffering include France, which

crippled its former colony with two centuries of immoral

debt; the US, which bullied Haiti to cut food tariffs,

swamping the country with US imports and destroying

homegrown agriculture; donors who have welched on

funding pledges; and Haiti's political and business

elite, cocooned in luxury and indifference.


But what about people such as Hettinga, a retired dairy

farmer from Ontario who is treasurer of a well-meaning

non-governmental organisation? Where other westerners

wring their hands, he wraps his around buckets of cement

and builds houses. Hettinga can be admired, and his

heart is in the right place. But in Haiti's ongoing

disaster, his NGO - and thousands of others - is one

reason why so much international goodwill has added up

to so little.


Mission to Haiti Canada, founded in 1997, raised £32m

after January's earthquake for medical treatment, drugs,

housing and to run six schools and an orphanage. "We are

faith-based but non-denominational," said Ed. "We don't

evangelise and don't care if people are voodoo or

whatever. We just want to help."


In April a team of 28 Canadians and 38 Haitians built a

hurricane-proof two-room house. "It cost $6,000 and we

did it right, just like back home. Why should we expect

people here to live in garbage?" says Hettinga. The plan

was for locals to build dozens more. "We're teaching

them. The idea is to be self-sustaining." The NGO spent

$10,000 shipping a container with three big tents,

clothes, rice and beans. They felt they were filling a

vacuum left by a useless, predatory state.


Sounds noble, but consider this: more than 1 million

homeless people urgently need housing. Here you can

build a decent home for a fraction of what the Canadians

spend. The group, which does not speak Creole, relies on

a young local fixer to select beneficiaries, disburse

funds and keep records. Locals have no realistic way to

build in the absence of occasional Canadian visitors.

The group has zero contact, and therefore no

coordination, with the housing, health or education

ministries. Hettinga's cheerful countenance briefly

clouded as he acknowledged some problems. "As soon as we

leave, everything stops. You try to teach . . . but

really you just touch the people you deal with directly."


Better than nothing? Consider that this picture is

multiplied across Haiti via more than 9,000

organisations. It is a republic of NGOs. Most are not

registered, pay no tax and are not accountable. They

shun cost-benefit analysis but soak up aid money, saying

Haiti's state is incompetent and corrupt. The latter may

be true but is a self-serving argument, which starves

the government of resources and legitimacy, creating a

vicious circle of dependence and institutional infantilism.


How can Haitians make policy when foreign-run fiefdoms

suck up funds for pet projects? How can local farmers

harvest crops when free food floods markets? These

questions were far from the minds of the passengers of

Flight 575 as they spilled out of the plane rubbing

their hands with anti-bacterial gel and shooing away

tip-hungry porters. "I'm just here for the ride,"

grinned an amiable, skinny teen from Kentucky's Grace

Foundation. "I'm not sure what we're going to do. Build

a wall, I think, move some concrete."


There are some professional NGOs that are registered and

do excellent work - Christian Aid, MSF and Oxfam, among

others - but despite jargon about "capacity building"

they too breed dependence. The solution is not for all

foreigners to pack up and leave. Haiti needs NGO help.

But it also needs to rein in aid tourists who turn the

country into a zoo and to fold the serious NGOs into a

coherent, Haitian-directed strategy. Fingers crossed the

28 November election produces a strong government to

start the process.




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