Global Policy Forum

Why Haiti Should Beware Professional Do-Gooders



January 31, 2010

The devastaing earthquake in Haiti has revealed a number of interesting facts about this tiny country in the Caribbean that were not commonly known before.

For instance, few people knew that Haiti is one of the poorest countries in the Western hemisphere, and has among the worst development indicators that are comparable to the poorest African and Asian countries.

In terms of illiteracy, mortality and general well-being, Haiti falls in the same group as Bangladesh, Chad and Sierra Leone, despite its close proximity to one of the wealthiest nations on earth, the United States.

In many respects, Haiti is very much like a failed African state: its past and present has been marred by political instability and impoverishment brought about by centuries of slavery, colonisation and occupation.

In recent years, the country has experienced coups d'etat and crippling debt. Foreign interests, including France and the United States, have always meddled in its affairs and humanitarian and aid agencies have found a permanent base there.

Natural disasters happen in both rich and poor countries. But when they happen in a poor country that is paralysed by its history, the impact is not just tragic, but catastrophic.

Haiti's chronic poverty made it particularly vulnerable to the destruction caused by the earthquake; the poorest inhabitants live in houses and buildings that cannot withstand a strong storm, let alone an earthquake, and the government does not have the resources to respond adequately.

How Haiti got to this point is something that historians and political scientists may want to ponder and debate, but what I find most revealing about the facts that are emerging on this island is that it has the highest number of NGOs per capita in the world.

Recent statistics indicate that there are some 3,000 NGOs in this country of 10 million people - that's roughly one NGO per 3,000 people.

The presence of a large number of NGOs in a country is not necessarily a bad thing. Former US President Bill Clinton, in a recent edition of Newsweek, noted that co-ordinated effort and sustained funding among these NGOs could help Haiti rebuild itself .

But heavy NGO presence in a country often indicates that the state has either abdicated its responsibilities towards its citizens, or that it is unable to adequately respond to people's needs. As a general rule of thumb, the more NGOs there are in a country, the less developed it is.

The presence of so many NGOS in this small country begs the question: if there are more humanitarian and anti-poverty NGOs inHaiti than in any other, then how come the country never managed to pull itself out of the quagmire of underdevelopment and poverty?

Could it be that the heavy presence of NGOs and other do-gooders actually had the net effect of hindering development and crippling Haiti's efforts at becoming self-sustaining?

The dilemma Haiti finds itself in is one that confronts every poor nation that is unable to meet its citizens' needs in times of crisis.

Opening the door to more foreign donors and humanitarian agencies will mean that Haiti will lose sovereignty over its own affairs; closing the door will mean that it will lose much-needed resources for reconstruction and rehabilitation.

Already, donors are gathering to raise funds for victims of the Haiti earthquake. Millions of dollars will be pledged and countless representatives of donor agencies and NGOs will descend on the devastated country to draw up plans for the rebuilding it.

The scenario has been played before in other countries facing crises, including Afghanistan, Iraq and Sierra Leone. Unfortunately, much of the money raised will end up in the pockets of highly-paid consultants, corrupt government officials and UN bureaucrats; very little of it will go to the people who need it most.

Meanwhile, as donors, NGOs and the international community redouble their efforts to bring humanitarian aid to this devastated country, the Haitian government will increasingly lose grip over running the country as most decisions about its welfare will be made in Washington, Paris or London.

It may appear mean, cruel even, to suggest that donors and NGOs should not help Haiti in its time of need. But the history of development and humanitarian assistance to poor countries has shown that often, a crisis is used a convenient entry point by foreign interests to impose new systems of domination on people.

Iraq and Afghanistan are still reeling from the impact of the post-war humanitarian assistance offered to them by their invaders. Let us hope Haiti does not follow suit.




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