Learning from past mistakes in Haiti


Learning from past mistakes in Haiti. January 11, 2013  Nelson rosales, The Record.com

original article here

Haiti is back in the news. The third anniversary of the Jan. 12, 2010 earthquake that killed an estimated 300,000 is a natural time to take stock.

Julian Fantino, Canada’s Minister for International Co-operation, for one expressed disappointment with the progress of reconstruction during a recent visit to Haiti. Indignant, he also announced Canada will freeze new aid until officials complete a review of current assistance approaches.

Even Hockey Night in Canada commentator Don Cherry weighed in this week, asking his nearly 118,000 Twitter followers, “Are we nuts?” — the implication being that Canada is wasting taxpayers’ money in Haiti. Both Fantino and Cherry are right to be outraged, but for the wrong reasons.

Recovery from the disaster in Haiti has, by any measure, been slow. The hundreds of thousands of earthquake victims who continue to live in dangerous tent cities, lacking proper access to water and toilets, should anger us all. Widespread misery persists largely unabated despite the more than $6 billion in aid disbursed over 2010—2011 by international donors. When images of the earthquake hit the news in 2010, Canadians and others responded with a massive outpouring of good will and money. So what went wrong?

Put simply, Haitians have been excluded from decision making. A study by the Center for Global Development in the U.S. found the Haitian government received less than one per cent of the aid flowing into the country. Local civil society groups and businesses have likewise been left out.

Foreign governments — including Canada — and international aid agencies have largely taken over, setting the agenda, priorities and pace of reconstruction work. Often this has put well-meaning outsiders with little experience of working in Haiti in decision-making positions, to disastrous results.

A first-hand example: the last time I visited Haiti, I was shocked to see an abandoned housing project. When I asked how this could be, given the urgent and massive need for shelter, I learned that the project had been built with such poor materials that they began to deteriorate after the first rainy season. They were also constructed in the middle of distant arid plains with no access to proper water and sanitation services, or to transportation, farm land or jobs.

The same pattern holds true at a national level. The same Center for Global Development study found that donor country governments have spent five times the amount requested by Haiti on transportation, while devoting less than 20 per cent of the amount requested in strengthening democratic structures.

An important byproduct of this pattern of exclusion of local people has been to further weaken the Haitian state. This in turn undermined the possibility of an ordered and co-ordinated plan of action for reconstruction. Strengthening local capacities, democracy and long-term sustainability should have been top priorities not afterthoughts.

All this does not to deny that homegrown problems exist in Haiti. But to what extent can we hold the Haitian government and people responsible for lack of progress when governments like ours and aid agencies have largely sidestepped them?

To be fair, the magnitude and complexity of the reconstruction work was bound to make all efforts at reconstruction slow and difficult. Donors were also burdened with a history of paternalistic approaches that have backfired. Former U.S, president Bill Clinton, for instance, has famously apologized for forcing Haiti to import American rice. Intended as food aid, the rice bankrupted Haitian farmers who couldn’t compete with subsidized, industrially produced grain.

It was never going to be easy to break with this history. Betsy Wall, director of the Canadian charitable organization Foundation for International Development Assistance and a partner of my organization, World Accord, calls Haiti “the graveyard of good intentions.”

Amid all this, the view of Haitians, the people most affected by these questions, is often forgotten. Most Haitians are reportedly tired of aid that deepens dependency, and robs them of dignity. Many people I spoke to are by now resentful of foreign officials, religious missionaries and occupying security forces. They want change.

So what should we do?

Certainly not walk away, as Don Cherry glibly suggests. Human decency and our own role in creating the problem dictate that we must act. First, our government must abandon the arrogant “we know best” approaches of the past. As citizens we can call for this. As donors, we can also demand that the charities we channel our money through ensure real local control over their projects.

Haitians don’t want charity. They want work and dignity, like all of us. Let’s hope that Fantino’s call for a new approach helps him and us move beyond superficial fixes, so we can learn from our past mistakes.

Nelson Rosales works for World Accord, an international development agency based in Waterloo Region for the last 30 years.

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