dependence and institutional infantilism
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
Prince and the passengers were on a mission to help
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
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
all the sadder was the fact he was nice, decent and
humane. It is harsh to identify Ed Hettinga and his
unfolding tragedy. Each member was coming on his and her
own time and dime (air fare alone, Â£980) and was almost
certain to improve the lives of some Haitians.
crippled its former colony with two centuries of immoral
swamping the country with US imports and destroying
homegrown agriculture; donors who have welched on
funding pledges; and
elite, cocooned in luxury and indifference.
But what about people such as Hettinga, a retired dairy
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
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 Â£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
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
organisations. It is a
registered, pay no tax and are not accountable. They
shun cost-benefit analysis but soak up aid money, saying
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
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.
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.