How Humanitarian Aid Weakened Post-Earthquake Haiti


Michelle Chen [I love her handle: “Exploring the world of work, from the border to the barricades”] explores the major problems affecting Haitian economic infrastructure today, mainly caused by Western aid efforts and the “revolving door” between NGOs, development companies, and the U.S. government.

More than four years after Port-au-Prince crumbled to the ground, last month’s meeting with a delegation from the American Chamber of Commerce seemed to mark Haiti’s steady new pathway to recovery. Business elites posed for photo-ops and affirmed President Michel Martelly’s goal to “make Haiti an emerging country by 2030.”

Elsewhere on the island, tens of thousands had yet to emerge from the ruins of the 2010 earthquake and were clustered in makeshift encampments, still frozen in the aftermath of the catastrophe. It was on behalf of these Haitians that human rights activist Antonal Mortime paid a visit to Washington, DC, the same week that the AmCham shmoozed in the Haitian capital. In collaboration with the American Jewish World Service, he came to tell US activists that Western aid efforts had harmed far more than they had helped. More than four years since Haiti was flooded by aid money, the chaotic rebuilding effort has widened the country’s social rifts, bringing the first emancipated black republic under the yoke of a new kind of imperialism.

In an interview with The Nation, Mortime, executive secretary of the Platform of Haitian Human Rights Organizations (POHDH), described the social disaster that had unfolded under the banner of humanitarian aid. The money that has trickled down has been absorbed in large part by a phalanx of NGOs jostling chaotically for international grant money. Despite some good intentions, many of these groups, Mortime argues, have funneled money into ill-planned projects with little oversight or accountability, leading to waste and profiteering that have likely impeded the country’s long-term development.

For many of the countless NGOs that have mushroomed post-disaster, Mortime says, “I think it was important for them to go and help Haiti. But the way they went about it was not the right way.” Because some NGOs had haphazardly delivered services in a way that displaced indigenous institutions and local services, he adds, “humanitarian aid actually contributed to a weakening of the state and also to the weakening of local organizations.”

[. . .] In a recent Boston Review essay, CEPR researcher Jake Johnston described the Caracol Industrial Park, an export manufacturing venture funded with Clinton Foundation funds, as a case study in botched humanitarianism. Plans to construct surrounding ports and infrastructure, “have been delayed and plagued by cost overruns,” and the harsh labor conditions have only reproduced the system of exploitation in place prior to the disaster. Johnston concludes, “A revolving door between NGOs, development companies, and the U.S. government has entrenched the system so deeply that any movement for change will be long and difficult.”

The women who work inside Caracol have paid the price. A recent report published by POHDH, based on surveys of Caracol workers in late 2013, found that the women garment workers suffer “extremely difficult conditions, inadequate pay and [lack] any form of effective social protection.” They also had minimal union representation and were exposed to wage theft and sexual harassment at work—reflecting a overarching climate of gender-based violence that has roiled through post-quake Haiti. Despite recent minimum wage hikes, garment workers typically earn between $5 and $7 a day, far less than what’s needed to support a family’s basic needs in Port-au-Prince.

It seems extraordinary that after witnessing so many disasters, human-made and natural, befall his country, Mortime still has faith that a democratic republic can be raised from the ruins of the quake. But he bears in mind that the country’s whole history is rooted in the people’s resilience through waves of political upheaval and colonial dominion.

“We paid a historical consequence for being the first black republic in the hemisphere, in the world,” he says. “We are the poorest country, perhaps, but we are also the country that has the most beautiful history when it comes to independence, and the imperialists will never forgive us for that…. I think all these problems are linked to imperialism.”

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