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Building Haiti back better

As the painfully slow process of cataloguing the destruction wrought in early October by Hurricane Matthew and assisting its survivors continues, my in-box fills with emails from various organizations soliciting donations for hurricane relief.  I am struck that the messages are usually from the same non-Haitian organizations I heard from following Haiti’s 2010 earthquake. Immediately after the storm, however, an email of a different sort arrived: from the Embassy of Haiti in Washington, DC.  In it, Haiti’s Ambassador does not solicit funds.
Rather, he outlines the known impact of the storm and acknowledges that there will be an urgent feeling among Haiti’s friends “to mobilize and initiate [relief] efforts.”  The ambassador, however, cautions against that instinct, advising that it is more “beneficial” to engage in “a coordinated and strategic relief effort to avoid mistakes from the past.”

Implying that salient among those mistakes was ignoring Haitians and their institutions to support almost exclusively what a former World Bank President once referred to in Haiti as the cacophony of international NGO “flag-draped, feel-good projects,” the ambassador stated that he “strongly encourages all who wish to help to work with the local organizations and institutions on the ground in order to gain their input on the actual needs of the affected communities.”  He advised, in particular, that “(y)ou should know that local municipalities can also be good partners.” In closing his message, he underscored that “(i)t is imperative that we take caution when offering assistance not to contribute to the destruction of local institutions by bypassing or undermining them.”

Strong language, eh?  Those prior missteps must have left deep scars from the perspective of the government (and citizens) represented by Haiti’s Ambassador in Washington, DC.   The cacophony of 2010 post-quake efforts (and funds spent on them) brought little lasting change to ordinary Haitians whose lives had been turned upside down by the natural disaster.  And as seen in early October, Haiti and its people were just as vulnerable to a natural disaster from the sky as they were almost seven years earlier to one from under the ground.

After the ground violently shook in 2010, ‘building back better’ became the mantra of outsiders engaged in post-quake activities.  Their achievements of some newly paved roads, a few shiny new hotels, a flurry of short term NGO ‘projects’ and a sprawling off-shore factory complex outside the quake zone fell way short of sustainably improving Haitian lives.  Such chronic problems that underlie the country’s poverty and that became acutely in need of attention after the disaster were ignored for the most part as the considerable funding for showcase projects channeled to international non-government organizations and for-profit contractors, and their well-positioned Haitian partners, improved the lives of only a few.

So now here comes an opportunity for version two of ‘building back better.’  Reflecting on the ambassador’s exhortations, here are some important considerations for ensuring that this time international actors do a better job:

Do not bypass the government of Haiti. In spite of all the early 21st century international talk for improving aid effectiveness by working directly with local organizations and the government that represents them, only some 1% of all post-disaster resources were managed by Haitian authorities. As a result, coordination of aid resources moving through a chaotic array of mostly non-Haitian, high-overhead contractors was ineffective as Haitian institutions were pushed aside and the inequality and exclusion that are at the root of Haiti’s poverty were not addressed.  In a nutshell, this left the country unprepared for and vulnerable to the next natural disaster.

Support Haitian authorities and local organizations. Granted that the past five years of mis-governance by the Martelly administration does not instill great confidence in the capacity (and intent) of Haitian authorities. And, granted, the country is now being governed by an interim government whose human and economic capacities can be easily overwhelmed by a catastrophe on the scale of Matthew.  Nevertheless, Haitian authorities and Haitian organizations at the national and local levels are ‘on the ground’ and in many cases have been ‘hardened’ by their experience of coping with recovery and development challenges in the post-quake period.  To really have a chance to building Haiti back better, international actors must coordinate with local authorities and respect them as leading the response.  Over the past 10 months, Haitians from all walks of life have struggled hard to regain good governance and a modicum of sovereignty over their nation’s political process.  They deserve respect.  Do not walk around or over them.  Walk with them as they seek to rebuild their country.

Listen to Haitian Voices. In the immediate aftermath of the earthquake, several thousand ordinary Haitians were polled in regards to their views on how their country should be rebuilt.  Their suggestions, memorialized in a document entitled “A Voice for the Voiceless,” offered guidelines for addressing many of the chronic issues of poverty that had become acute in the aftermath of the earthquake.  Predictably, those voices, and their invaluable suggestions, were ignored as foreigners took the lead in post-disaster response.  This cannot happen again.  It is essential that all Haitian voices – not just those who speak English and gain access to the US Embassy compound or have the wherewithal to travel to New York and Washington to make their views known – be listened to.  For the record, the five principal recommendations made by Haiti’s ordinary citizens for building their country back better were:

Insure participation and end exclusion

Decentralize and deconcentrate public services and job opportunities, with increased local management

Invest in people, not things, to include farmers, teachers, small-scale entrepreneurs, craftsmen, and medical personnel, with parallel access to resources, including credit at fair rates

Reinforce, not weaken, Haiti’s sovereignty through external aid

Treat Haitian people equally and with respect so that existing social, economic and geographic inequalities are corrected, not worsened.

By responding to the voices of Haitians who understand how their country’s chronic problems are at the root of the present acute needs, and by heeding the advice of representatives of Haiti’s government, those of us who truly consider ourselves ‘friends of Haiti and its people’ stand a much better chance of assisting Haitians to build their country back better.


Robert “Bob” Maguire. Ph.D.

Focus on Haiti Initiative

Elliott School of International Affairs

The George Washington University, Washington DC

October 18, 2016

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