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Aid to Haiti: When and If International Assistance Efforts Will Succeed

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  • At the April gathering, international donors pledge $324 million in additional aid to improve living standards in Latin America’s poorest nation
  • Impoverished Haiti has suffered from a woeful history of unproductive aid and misdirected implementation
  • Can future international strategies rectify the mistakes of the past and employ foreign assistance effectively?
  • Revised U.S. trade legislation, coupled with an adept administrator in President Réne Préval presiding in Port-au-Prince, has created the most auspicious opportunity in Haiti’s tragic recent past

  • On April 14, delegates from 28 countries gathered in Washington for the International Donors’ Conference on Haiti and agreed to pledge $324 million in additional aid to Port-au-Prince over the next two years. At the meeting, which was hosted by the Inter-American Development Bank (IDB), contributors promised $15 million in emergency food assistance, $20 million to improve infrastructure, and $2 million to help fight drug trafficking through the U.S.-backed Merida Initiative. Additionally, the recovery plan will target creating an estimated 150,000 desperately needed jobs in the country—a stimulus scenario that would considerably reduce the country’s dependence on foreign assistance in the years ahead.

    Former President Bill Clinton appealed to the donor forum’s participants to alleviate the plight of the stricken nation. “Haiti has a chance. Haiti has good leaders. Haiti has a good plan,” he insisted. “The people have the determination and the ability to carry out the plan. Only you can give them the capacity to do it. If you do it, you will help make the entire Caribbean more secure and you will establish a model that can be followed and adapted in developing countries all across the globe.” This hearty pep talk from Clinton markedly differed from when in his own presidency, he assigned former Ambassador Lawrence A. Pezzullo to cajole, constrain, and arm-twist then Haitian President Jean Bertrand Aristide to prevent him from resuming his rule.

    In spite of the fact that more than 9,000 peacekeeping personnel from the United Nations Stabilization Mission in Haiti (MINUSTAH) are currently on the ground carrying out their sometimes controversial role, and that all told, the international community is providing $3 billion worth of support for projects in the country, its living standards remain fraught with subhuman conditions. A number of experts attribute the perpetual poverty, in part, to a lack of accountability or a seriousness of purpose amongst the aid agencies carrying out projects in the region. Without a doubt, the most recent aid package represents a concerted effort by Haiti’s concerned international benefactors to mitigate the situation in the country. Yet the question remains whether the international aid community has learned from past development initiatives in the region that repeatedly have failed. Until practitioners and donors become more efficient at improving the conditions on the ground, it is likely that last month’s relief initiative will regrettably turn out to be just as futile as past endeavors.

    The Failure of Aid to Haiti
    Despite having allocated billions of dollars in aid relief over the years, Haiti remains to a great extent a country whose socio-economic structure is utterly defective. An underlying cause of this paradox is the reality that many Haitians lack access to basic services. The statistics on Haitian destitution are shocking. As recently as 2008, the dilapidated nation was ranked as the 148th least developed of the world’s 179 countries, according to the United Nations Human Development Index (HDI). The average Haitian’s annual salary is $240 – about 66 cents per day. Only 27 percent of Haitian children complete primary school. Moreover, 50 percent of the population lacks access to potable water and barely 10 percent uses electricity. Perhaps most disconcerting is that Haiti has the highest percentage of people living with HIV/AIDS in the western hemisphere (6 percent of the population, with 30,000 Haitians dying from the illness every year).

    Haiti for long time has been a high-ticket item for the international community. For example, MINUSTAH—the U.N. security force– has an annual budget that exceeds $500 million. Furthermore, in 2008 alone, Canada (historically, a major contributor to Haitian development) distributed $230 million worth of food aid. While there is no simple explanation for the failure of aid, historically, an unstable central government coupled with a decaying social sector has caused, at least in part, a lack of substantive development in the country. Of equal importance, an absence of accountability and vigilance on the part of many NGOs (non-governmental organizations) has been instrumental in Haiti’s inability to efficiently utilize aid coming from all around the world.

    Aid Effectiveness
    To a certain degree, the shortcomings related to any foreign assistance program providing assistance to any developing nation can be attributed to aid practitioners failing to confront full responsibility for the fulfillment of necessary procedures and proper staffing to guarantee a successful project. Part of the problem begins with the widespread notion that over half of international aid goes towards NGO “overhead” costs. Perhaps more significant, however, is that as a result of the absence of a clear injunction to execute a specific task, international relief initiatives often neglect to mitigate the dire human conditions that exists throughout much of the developing world. Teaching a small-scale farmer in rural Tanzania to produce multiple sustainable crops year-round in his fields in order to eliminate his dependence on a single product is indeed a worthy attempt to empower the individual. Yet such poverty reduction strategies are only useful if the involved NGO confirms that the farmer’s adaptations are advantageous in the long run. Has a drought destroyed his crop? Will he be able to take his produce to the local market? This can readily be achieved through periodically evaluating the project and making the appropriate changes when needed.

    On April 16, the Organization of American States (OAS) and the IDB granted more than $1.1 million to improve the conditions along the poverty-stricken 193-mile border that separates Haiti and the Dominican Republic. The project, which will be implemented by the Pan American Development Foundation (PADF), will set out to “improve agricultural training, marketing and planting more profitable crops” on behalf of small-scale farmers. But, as Steve Radelet, of the Center for Global Development explains, in order for initiatives to be useful, “donors and recipients need to establish clear goals, announce them publicly, and be held accountable through independent evaluation.” If a particular undertaking, such as that of PADF, is not realized, the NGO responsible for this ought to be penalized for slighting the initiative.

    Roger Annis, of the Toronto Haiti Action Committee (THAC) professed that during a 2007 visit to the island, his entourage was repeatedly appealed to by locals to publically disseminate news of the failure of aid programs in order to bring about significant solutions to development issues. “I saw no evidence of Canadian aid programs reaching that desperately poor population,” alleged Annis. The underlying reason that aid is often ineffective is that it is simply not reaching the people on the ground. In addition to holding aid agencies accountable for their commitments, incorporating local communities into the decision of how best to use aid is an approach that could readily improve the effectiveness of the distributed funds. Donna Barry, director of advocacy and policy for Partners in Health, argues that, “When you have Haitians on the ground planning, implementing, and evaluating an initiative, their feedback is invaluable to the success of the project.” As an example, a village leader knows best what is needed in the community—whether it is to expand an agricultural plot or hire another schoolteacher. Such a strategy is sustainable in that it reduces the culture of dependency that has long haunted international development.

    The Outlook on Aid to Haiti
    Aid agencies would show great shrewdness by involving the capable Préval administration (a relative rarity in the Haitian political sphere) in future initiatives. Administrations in Washington historically have shied away from directly allocating aid to the Haitian government because of the corrupt autocrats that over the decades have ruled in Port-au-Prince. However, by allocating a portion of the funds raised at the International Donors’ Conference to the current Haitian government, and confirming that the funds are being used properly, the international community would exemplify a bona fide willingness to help lift Haitians out of their current poverty. As early as 2004, the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) suggested establishing a citizen watchdog (known in French as an observatoire citoyen) in order to track budgets and expenditures and encourage the government to resolutely seek out its development goals. “The international community has long provided large scale assistance to Haiti,” argued Kul Gautam, Executive Director of UNICEF at the time. “But they were often looking for quick fixes, instead of the steady hand of accountable spending in the social sector.”

    Although many skeptics claim that development aid has rarely succeeded in accomplishing its often ambiguous objectives, there is no denying that international efforts have, to a certain extent, improved the living standards of millions of the poverty-stricken in developing countries, and thereby have empowered their lives. Aid has the possibility to be an essential tool, yet it must be reformed to ameliorate its previous inefficiencies.

    According to the World Health Organization (WHO), 880,000 people died worldwide of malaria in 2006 in spite of vast resources aimed at combating the disease. Where are these funds going? Why is no one punished for obvious shortcomings? The problem in Haiti may be largely methodological, in the sense that aid programs lack culpability nor exhibit prudence, thus perpetuating the seemingly interminable hardship affecting its beneficiaries. International donors should be wary that last month’s aid package is not a replication of past haphazard relief practices toward Latin America’s poorest nation. While it is naïvely idealistic to aim for the eradication of global poverty entirely, a straightforward process of accountability would drastically improve the effectiveness of foreign aid, at least when it comes to Haiti. To understand the potential force of last month’s aid package, it is important to consider the international community’s mainly shameful record in the historically beleaguered country.

    A People in Peril
    Developed nations with strategic interests in Haiti (which occupies the western third of the Caribbean island of Hispaniola) have acted with indifference if not outright hostility to the Haitian population since the country’s slaves rose up to fight for their libration in 1791. Immediately following the founding of the world’s first independent black republic in 1804, Haitians have endured the imperialist reign of external forces. This fact was clearly manifested in the aftermath of the bloody struggle for autonomy, after which France demanded that its former colony pay the French government 150 million gold francs (over $20 billion today) in exchange for the acknowledgement of Haitian independence. The Haitian elite, convinced that the “reparations” to former French slave-owners were a prerequisite for the stability of their newly formed state, paid these sums over the course of the next 100 years.

    In 2001, the Bush administration in Washington enforced an economic assistance embargo on Haiti. This abhorrent measure was largely a response to President Jean-Bertrand Aristide’s refusal to privatize state-owned companies, as well as his recognition of Cuba’s integral role in the region. The ban served to further cripple Haiti’s already downtrodden financial system. Stephan Lendman, of the Centre for Research on Globalization, asserts that, “It’s no secret that the real power calling the shots in Haiti is not in Port-au-Prince. It’s in Washington making policy, giving orders and letting its approved proxies do its bidding…”

    But the Bush administration’s intervention did not end only with a mean-spirited and unwarranted embargo. Perhaps even more condemnable than the economic sanctions placed on Haiti, was that U.S. officials surreptitiously abducted the democratically-elected Aristide aboard a chartered aircraft and proceeded to transport him to the Central African Republic, just to rid Haiti of him. The consequence of Aristide’s deposition was that “years of hard-won progress towards democracy were erased overnight,” observed Paul Farmer, founder of Partners in Health, and Brian Concannon, director of the Institute for Justice and Democracy in Haiti. In spite of the civil unrest that surfaced as a result of Aristide’s ousting, his election in 1991 undoubtedly represented a step towards political stability and democracy in a country that historically has been plagued by fraudulent electoral processes.

    An Unprecedented Set of Circumstances
    For arguably the first time in the country’s history, Haiti now has a genuine opportunity to sever itself from a past of immense affliction and unjust oppression. The poverty-wracked nation may finally be able to survive in the global market. During a recent visit to the shantytowns of Port-au-Prince, Haitian President René Préval, assured the accompanying United Nations Secretary General, Ban Ki-moon, that, “Haiti is at a turning point. It can slide backwards into darkness and deeper misery, sacrificing all the country’s progress and hard work by the United Nations and international community, including Canada and France. Or it can break out, into the light toward a brighter and more hopeful future.” While the Préval administration’s most recent call for international support was not an abnormal request from a country that has received more than $4 billion in aid from 1990-2003, Haiti’s current conditions present a reasonably solid possibility for substantive change.

    To a major degree, Haiti’s newfound hope is a product of the good work of current President René Préval, known to his supporters as “Ti René,” or Little René. He earlier had served as prime minister under the Aristide administration and then first took over as president in 1996, when Aristide stepped down. In 2006, he was elected by a free and fair ballot as the head of the L’Espwa (Hope) party. According to historian George Michelle, “many Haitians remember Préval’s years in the palace as a sweet time,” due to how he ardently addressed the high unemployment rate, amended flawed economic policies, investigated past human rights abuses committed by the Haitian military, and sought to reform unequal land distribution practices. Following the arrival of the new administration in Washington, Préval promptly met with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to petition her for increased assistance. While the February 5 meeting was only a preliminary discussion, it unquestionably exemplified a willingness on the part of the Obama administration to be responsive to Latin American leaders, many of whom grew increasingly disillusioned with the United States during the Bush years.

    A Mixed Tale
    Legitimate critics of both Préval and MINUSTAH—and there are plenty of them—present a different and most alarming picture which deserves to be heard. Peter Mott, the highly regarded co-editor of Interconnect Newsletter presents an alternative analysis that deservedly may redress this imbalance:

    “In Haiti today, hundreds of political prisoners are jailed under the most inhumane conditions. Arrested during or after the U.S.-orchestrated 2004 coup d’etat that overthrew the democratically elected government of President Jean-Bertrand Aristide, most of these prisoners have never been charged or tried. The United Nations occupying forces, charged with enforcing “law and order,” has been a full participant in these illegal detentions, as has the Haitian government of President Rene Préval. With 9,000 soldiers from 42 countries, led by Brazil, the UN Mission to Stabilize Haiti (MINUSTAH) has spent $2 billion fielding armed patrols throughout Haitian poor neighborhoods to repress and intimidate the people, arbitrarily killing civilians, and sometimes sexually assaulting young girls and women. In the meantime, the economic conditions worsen and the basic needs of the population remain unmet. While MINUSTAH issues glowing reports of progress and political stability, the reality is quite different. Prices of basic commodities have risen, leading to popular uprisings demanding food. Grassroots activists, especially those associated with President Aristide’s Lavalas Party, have continued to be arrested and attacked. Human rights activist Lovinsky Pierre-Antoine was disappeared in August of 2007, and neither the United Nations nor the Préval government has launched a serious investigation into his kidnapping. At the same time, conditions inside Haiti’s prisons grow more horrific each day.”

    A Restored Link with Washington
    Hillary Clinton recently indicated a desire to break with past U.S. immigration polices towards Haiti, which, to date, have not corresponded to those towards neighboring islands such as Cuba. One possible option is that President Obama could grant Haitians Temporary Protected Status (TPS), a preferential benefit that allows visitors from unstable nations to temporarily prolong their stay and continue to work in the U.S after their visas have expired. Such a provision would allow some 30,000 Haitians currently being held on deportation orders, to continue to send money back to their families on the impoverished island. With over 65 percent of the population living under the poverty line, Haitians (especially those living in rural areas with limited opportunity) are highly dependant on the flow of remittances from abroad. In 2008, these accounted for 30 percent of the country’s gross domestic product (GDP). Currently, some 2 million Haitians are living in the U.S., and significant communities also can be found in France as well as in the Canadian province of Québec. The Obama administration could demonstrate great compassion by affording Haitians this special status. Such a move would signify a new and promising era in U.S.-Haitian relations.

    In a recent New York Times editorial, Secretary General Ban maintained that, “Haiti stands a better chance than almost any emerging economy, not only to weather the current economic storms but to prosper.” To some degree, this newly found optimism is due to new U.S. trade legislation, known as the HOPE II Act, which offers Haiti duty free trade opportunities with the U.S. for the next nine years. The act will likely provide a significant boost to the apparel industry, which is presently the island-state’s primary export. In 2007, apparel accounted for over 80 percent of Haiti’s entire exports and 93 percent of the country’s exports to the United States.

    With the Obama administration seeking to drastically reform its hemispheric standing, combined with the unparalleled trade advantage that comes with the HOPE II Act, the conditions for success in Haiti appear to be the best they have been in recent memory. As a result of the April aid meeting, many Haitians will now have the chance to find steady work, thereby lessening the country’s overall economic dependence on other nations and agencies. Haiti’s chance at success may be just around the corner. If the international community is committed to helping Haiti escape its distress and end its ongoing dependency on others, they would be sensible to look to the country’s more than two-century history of receiving foreign aid, and ascertain that the most recent recovery package from the donor countries might actively reach those who need it most.