Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Paradox of aid to Haiti

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It lasted only 35 seconds, but it devastated an entire nation. The earthquake that rocked Haiti on Jan. 10, 2010 killed 316,000 people, left 1.5 million people homeless and destroyed much of the country's infrastructure.

Western nations and non-government organizations -- NGOs, as they are called -- rushed to the rescue, almost tripping over themselves in their eagerness to help Haitians. Now, two years after the event, it seems as if they actually did trip over themselves and their own good intentions. Today, after two years of frenzied activity, or two years of furious rhetoric, depending on the degree of your cynicism, and the infusion of more than $2.5 billion in aid, Haiti is hardly better off.

About 600,000 Haitians still live in squalid tent cities. That's an improvement over the 1.5 million who originally occupied such quarters, but many of them are in what is at best slum housing.

A cholera epidemic killed an additional 7,000 Haitians in the aftermath of the quake and intermittent outbreaks of the disease, which is associated with unsanitary living conditions, continue to claim lives. In the capital city of Port-au-Prince, many of the streets remain so full of quake-caused debris they are impassable and unusable -- the removal of "debris is not a very sexy intervention for the donor community," Haiti's Prime Minister Garry Conille wryly notes.

How does all this happen? You might call it the paradox of aid. Most of the money ends up going back to the donor nations -- less than two per cent of the reconstruction contracts let out so far has gone to Haitian companies. Almost all U.S. aid has gone to U.S. firms.

Still, even though Haiti has received only half the international aid other nations promised after the earthquake, $2.5 billion should buy a lot of relief and rebuilding. So why has it not?

Having the kind of history of corruption Haiti does, the finger almost reflexively points at the government. But that does not seem to be the case, if only because the government of Haiti has effectively been cut off from taking part in the reconstruction of the nation.

Almost none of the billions of aid dollars has gone through the Haitian administrations of previous president Rene Preval and current President Michel (Sweet Micky) Martelly. Only one per cent of American aid passes through government channels and no money at all from Ottawa goes through the administration in Port-au-Prince.

Some critics say the lack of progress in Haiti is the fault of what Mr. Conille calls "the donor community" -- the NGOs that descended on Haiti by the hundreds after the quake. Many of them are not registered with the government, as they should be, and there is little co-ordination of action or purpose among them. Many of them have received grants but have yet to spend them. Haitians are becoming increasingly alienated against these workers in their white SUVs who drive through the streets to what they see as no apparent purpose.

The perceived ineffectiveness of some NGOs has been criticized in other humanitarian crises but in Haiti it seems particularly egregious. This, perhaps, could be corrected by more directly involving the Haitian government in organizing the relief and rebuilding of its own country. Haitians, after all, will one day have to run the whole affair. They could start learning now.

Editorials are the consensus view of the Winnipeg Free Press’ editorial board, comprising Catherine Mitchell, David O’Brien, Shannon Sampert, and Paul Samyn.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition January 13, 2012 A10

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