Aid in Haiti

Helping Haiti: Is Aid the Cure or the Disease?

The man next to me on the bus strikes up a conversation during a rare smooth section of road from Port-au-Prince to Cap Haitien.

“Are you a missionary?”


“Do you work for a NGO?”


“Then why the heck are you in Haiti?!”

He’s not surprised that I want to visit Haiti – in fact, he thinks Haiti is supremely beautiful. He is shocked, however, because almost all Westerners in Haiti work for either missionary or aid organizations.

The Republic of NGOs

Despite fifty years of receiving considerable aid, Haiti has become poorer every year.

Haiti bears the dubious honor of hosting more NGOs per capita than any other country in the world – a title it held even before the horde of new post-earthquake NGOs. Haitians – and outsiders – sarcastically refer to their country as the “Republic of NGOs.”

In cities, every other car seems to be a shiny new Toyota Land Cruiser adorned with either a UN or NGO logo. Haiti went so far as to create special license plates specifically for NGOs. UN police are omnipresent. They do not have the power to arrest anyone, but they can monopolize all the good parking spots at local bars, as I find out one evening.

Hotel Oloffson -- a favorite expat hang-out

Hotel Oloffson — a favorite expat hang-out

Of all the Haitians I speak with about aid, the most optimistic musters, “In some ways, aid is bad – it takes away local jobs. But since the government remains inefficient, at least someone gets things done.”

But even the optimist concedes, “After the earthquake, it was an excess – every other car was an aid organization, ‘saving’ or ‘helping’ Haiti. Good intentions often did little more than create traffic jams.”

Others express more skepticism. “If I ever become president, I will kick out all the NGOs that give things away. It’s ruining the mentality of Haitians,” fumed one.

The poor often express an even more cynical view. Many believe that aid agencies literally profit off their poverty. One chilling but common belief is that aid in Haiti is like “a doctor that keeps giving you medicine that forcibly keeps you sick.”

My seatmate explains, “NGOs and missionaries are incentivized to only show the poor side of Haiti – otherwise people would stop sending money. Lots of money does come. You see it in fancy cars and offices for NGOs and missionaries. But you don’t see very much actually going to the poor.”

Teach a man to fish

Ironically, two American missionaries sit behind us on the same bus. We strike up a conversation. I ask about their time in Haiti. Their response: “God called us. Things are getting better every day. What people really need is faith and hope.”

I report back to my Haitian seatmate. He responds, “The problem is that most missionaries do not follow the Biblical parable of teaching men how to fish. They continue to give away fish, but do not teach us how to fish for ourselves. If they did, they would no longer have a job.”

I later meet his friend, a local minister, who adds, “While there are some good missionaries in the country, most are either ineffective at best or self-serving at worst.”

Ten Billion Dollars?

What about the $10B that donors pledged to Haiti in the aftermath of the quake? First, less than half ever arrived. Of that, only 2% went to Haitian NGOs or the Haitian government. Two percent.

Haitian businesses received only 1% of all USAID reconstruction dollars. Meanwhile, American firms with Congressional lobbyists received 70%. Worldwide, 93% of all USAID funds ultimately return to the US.

Ten billion dollars suddenly seems much less significant.

Regardless of the dollar amount, many Haitians consider foreign aid to be part of a larger trend of foreign meddling.

Perhaps it’s because since independence in 1804, Haiti endured 32 coups, many fomented by foreign powers. The US occupied Haiti for twenty years in the early 1900s. In the late 1900s, the US both forcibly installed and later removed the same president, Jean-Bertrand Aristide. Concurrently, the American government coerced Haiti to lower import tariffs for rice, sugar, and coffee from 35% to 3%, effectively destroying all three industries. More than once Haitians tell me that “Bill Clinton still personally makes money off rice imports to Haiti.”

Haitians feel frustrated because foreigners do not consult them. Many believe that aid agencies arrive with their own agendas and do not seek local input. One telling example: the UN post-earthquake NGO steering committee did not include a single Haitian.

They also feel angry because foreigners often do clear harm – and refuse to apologize. After the quake, UN peacekeepers dumped untreated waste into rivers, causing a cholera outbreak. The epidemic killed 10,000 Haitians and sickened close to a million. Yet, the UN continues to claim immunity from responsibility.

Haiti's Citadelle could repel foreign armies but not foreign aid

Haiti’s Citadelle could repel foreign armies but not foreign aid

Good intentions gone wrong

Journalists tend not to cover aid as critically as other parts of a disaster. Perhaps it’s because they often depend on aid agencies for logistics, information, and even funding.

Academics remain more independent and have shown how NGOs can do more harm than good. Criticisms include undermining government, sidelining grassroots groups, diverting talent from industry and government, and focusing on packaging over impact. These issues are not limited to Haiti – even in the US, the Red Cross drove around empty trucks in the aftermath of hurricanes to “showcase their brand”.

Even good intentions often lead to negative outcomes. While voluntourism is a growing – and largely unregulated – industry, studies question its effectiveness. Orphans get attached to short-term tourists – or worse, get purposely sent to orphanages for financial reasons. Aid can incentivize showcasing poverty and conflict. The rebels in Sierra Leone claimed that amputating human limbs was an intentional play to garner international attention. Conflicts from Cambodia to Rwanda bear signs of a similar despotic strategy.

In Haiti, examples abound of foreign aid distorting the local economy. It took months for NGOs to stop giving away bottled water shipped from the US – a practice that almost put local water companies out of business, which would have left Haiti even less self-sufficient.

Few development interventions undergo proper scientific testing. Often interventions that seemingly work in one small sample roll out aggressively to new villages and countries, often with different cultures, economics, and politics – and ultimately vastly different efficacy.

Mia Couto, a Mozambician novelist, shares the following story:

A monkey was walking along a river and saw a fish in it. The monkey said, “Look, that animal is under water, he’ll drown, I’ll save him.” He snatched up the fish, and in his hand the fish started to struggle. And the monkey said, Look how happy he is. Of course, the fish died, and the monkey said, “Oh, what a pity, if I had only come sooner I would have saved this guy.”

All doom and gloom?

I realize this all sounds highly pessimistic, but it echoes the general feeling shared by most Haitians. That said – there are exceptions – which Haitians readily admit.

Partners in Health is a commonly cited example. Instead of building a private hospital staffed by expatriates, the organization constructed a public hospitable and focuses on training Haitian doctors and nurses. PIH’s co-founder, Paul Farmer, adamantly believes that including local institutions is critical for the long-term success of aid.

A less-known example is SOIL, an organization I visited which deals with the decidedly unsexy issue of human waste.

SOIL operates a bit differently than the average NGO. It conducts all work in Creole, forcing expats to be fluent. Over 90% of staff are local – not just Haitian – but local to the communities in which they work. They base projects on direct input from communities. SOIL charges for their service and intends to ultimately convert to a model run by local entrepreneurs. An explicit goal of all expats is to make themselves redundant by training local replacements.

One of SOIL’s new employees, Claudel, exemplifies the advantage of focusing on training locals. Not only is he ridiculously smart (his current repertoire of languages includes Creole, French, English, Mandarin, Spanish, and Portuguese) and hard-working to a fault (he refuses to join us on a Saturday hike so he can finish a research paper), but he grew up in a poor part of Port-au-Prince, giving him a much keener sense of what Haitians want and need.

SOIL (credit: Brock Dolman)

SOIL (credit: Brock Dolman)

What’s next?

Aid undeniably pervades every aspect of Haitian society. Foreign aid is almost three times the size of the Haitian government budget. Everyone from senior officials to the poorest of the poor expect and depend on it. But Haitians feel deep wariness and even antipathy toward this “aid industry”.

Yet, stopping aid suddenly would be unequivocally devastating. NGOs have effectively replaced the Haitian government. NGOs provide 70% of healthcare. Private schools, mostly NGO-run, account for 85% of education. Pulling out overnight would cause a collapse of the economy and basic services.

Perhaps the lesson to be learned is that quality of aid matters much more than quantity. Donors should set aside money to test efficacy. Instead of rushing for a photo-op highlighting handouts, agencies should go slower, take local input, build infrastructure, and ultimately spend more time training locals than hiring more expats. Money donated to the country should stay in the country – not enrich well-connected foreign companies.

If they do so, these agencies might just one day achieve what should be their ultimate test of success – putting themselves out of business.

See my overall impressions of Haiti five years after the January 2010 earthquake. You can also find NGOs that have been well-vetted for not only authenticity (like Charity Navigator) but also effectiveness at GiveWell.

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