Haiti, a deforested stretch of hurricane-prone island the size of Maryland, was founded by former slaves who threw out their French masters two centuries ago. Ruled by dictators during most of the 20th century, its legacy of slavery, oppression, corruption and coups make it one of the world’s most difficult development challenges. Even before the earthquake of 2010 that shook into rubble half the buildings in Port-au-Prince and left a million residents homeless, three-fourths of its nine million residents eked out an existence on less than $2 a day. Now, with its infrastructure destroyed and its business sector decimated, daily survival has become even more desperate. Aid from around the globe has poured in, as fast as the badly crippled air port and harbor has allowed. Distribution of essential water, rations and medical supplies has been painfully slow and disjointed. Aid workers have only begun to coordinate services. It will take many months of backbreaking effort to clear the debris, open the roads, establish temporary shelter, restore basic electric, water and sanitation systems. Cost estimates to re-establish a modicum of stability exceed an unprecedented $3 billion.
The whole world wants to help, but how? Send more money? Send more volunteers? “The problem is not good will,” says anthropologist Timothy Schwartz, long time Haiti resident who emailed from the midst of the devastation. “I don’t even think the problem is resources…The big problem is lack of accountability, lack of a mechanism to pressure aid agencies into effective, long-term development.” Schwartz has witnessed it all first-hand. Decades of free aid from well-meaning benefactors have produced an entitlement mentality and eroded a spirit of entrepreneurship and self-sufficiency. The outpouring of more aid, though necessary in this moment of unparalleled devastation, is ultimately worsening the underlying problem.
During the 1990’s the US gave over $100 million to Haiti to assist with their justice and policing practices. No measurable improvement. President Clinton led a $2.6 billion international aid effort but cut off payments over allegations of election fraud and corruption. And this was only a trickle in the river of aid that has flooded the island in recent decades. Since 1969 $8.3 billion in foreign aid has flowed into Haiti, yet it is 25% poorer than it was in 1945. Though no other country in the western hemisphere has received the support of more non-profit charitable services, poverty and dysfunction continue to deepen.
Perhaps the earthquake of 2010 will mark a turning point. Perhaps the world will recognize that emergency relief efforts must soon be converted into development activities if a damaged society is to become well. Perhaps we will come to understand that as compassionate as one-way giving may be, and as necessary in times of crisis, it places the recipient in a pitiable position. Perhaps we will see how quickly, how unintentionally, one-way charity can become hurtful to the soul. As one angry Haitian put it as he witnessed the distribution of free food, “It is true we are in need, but don’t treat us like dogs!”
As rescue and recovery efforts have given way to the bulldozers, as the bleeding has stopped and basic food and shelter has been provided, emergency assistance must now begin to shift toward enabling Haitians to regain control of their own lives. If health is to emerge from the destruction, Haiti’s many benevolent friends must shift from “doing for” to “doing with.” Giving must yield to lending and investing, serving to training. Grants will not be ultimately beneficial that fund our own experts to do for the Haitian people what they must develop skills to do for themselves. As Brian Atwood, former USAID administrator says: “It is crucial for the reconstruction effort to create jobs for Haitians, even it if means a less efficient operation than one run by contractors from rich countries.” Though development is a much slower, less efficient and more complex process than charity programs, it ultimately strengthens capacity and increases sustainability. And isn’t that what Haitians really desire?