Saturday, February 13, 2010

The Failure of Aid

Second in a series.

By William Fisher

The sick, injured and stressed people of Port au Prince are unlikely to be impressed by the small army of reconstruction contractors and development experts who are preparing to descend on Haiti. The reason? They’ve seen it all before.

Over the years, the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere has seen billions of dollars in aid appear – and disappear. They have witnessed aid programs characterized by start-stop-start, shaped largely by American political ideologies. And they have seen the corrupt rulers of the country amass fortunes while ordinary people existed on one or two dollars a day.

The Duvalier family ruled Haiti from 1957 to 1986. Francois "Papa Doc" Duvalier was elected by the largest majority in Haitian history. Once in power, he became a dictator, creating a violent military police force known as the Tonton Macoutes. Papa Doc's son, Jean-Claude "Baby Doc" Duvalier followed his father into power. In 1986, the Haitian people revolted and Baby Doc fled to France with millions of dollars stolen from the Haitian treasury.

Jubilee USA, a network calling for elimination of debt owed by poor countries, estimates that Baby Doc alone diverted at least $500 million in public funds to his private accounts, and that 45 percent of Haiti’s debt in recent decades was accumulated during the corrupt Duvalier reign.

"Since 1804 Haiti has had 30 coups and 20 constitutions," says Robert Muggah, research director of the Geneva-based Small Arms Survey.

So it is not surprising that ordinary Haitians would be cynical about the prospects of post-earthquake aid being substantially different from the past. Most experts say the country’s history as an aid recipient has made it a poster child for how not to administer development assistance.

A 2006 report by the US National Academy of Public Administration, “Why Foreign Aid to Haiti Failed,” outlines the shortcomings of development assistance to Haiti over the long term. Despite an estimated nine billion dollars in aid over the years, Haiti remains near the bottom of global poverty and development indexes. It ranks in 146th place in the most recent UN Human Development Report, for example.

Haiti has also been adversely affected by a brain-drain. The educated usually emigrate, and then support families at home through remittances, which are estimated to total $1.5 billion to $1.8 billion annually. But even many of the uneducated have prospered in the Haitian Diaspora, revealing what many observers describe as their natural strong will to survive.

According to ISN Security Watch, remittances have more of an impact because the funds go directly to poor Haitians, while much development aid goes through corrupt officialdom. ISN is a project of the Center for Security Studies (CSS) at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology (ETH Zurich).

What role will development assistance play in post-earthquake Haiti? To understand where development in Haiti needs to go, it’s important to know where it’s been.

The U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) has generally been the lead organization for development aid to Haiti. Insights into how successful it has been can be found in a September 2000 report by Jess T. Ford, then a senior State Department official.

Assessing the impact of U.S. aid on Haiti’s justice system, Ford wrote, “Over the last six fiscal years, the United States provided about $97 million in assistance to help Haiti establish its first civilian-controlled police force and improve aspects of its judicial sector, which includes various judicial institutions, procedures, and legal codes.”

He reported that, despite some modest achievements, “the police force has not effectively carried out its basic law enforcement responsibilities, and recent events suggest that politicization has compromised the force, according to U.S. and other donor officials. The judicial sector also has serious weaknesses, according to U.S. and other donor officials. The sector has not undergone a major reform and, as a result, lacks independence from the executive branch and has outdated legal codes and cumbersome judicial proceedings. Further, the judicial institutions have personnel shortages; inadequate infrastructure and equipment, such as shortages of vehicles and legal texts; and an ineffective internal oversight organization unable to stem corruption.”

Overall, Ford wrote, these institutions provide justice services to only a small segment of the population, because the institutions rely heavily in judicial proceedings on the use of French rather than Creole -- the language of the majority of the population, he said.

The key factor affecting the lack of success of U.S. assistance has been the Haitian government’s lack of commitment to addressing the major problems of its police and judicial institutions, he said.

Fast-forward to 2005, a critically important USAID year, coming on the heels of a 2004 Haitian rebellion. That coup d'etat happened after conflicts that occurred for several weeks in Haiti during February 2004. It resulted in the premature end of President Jean-Bertrand Aristide's second term. He left Haiti on a U.S. plane accompanied by U.S. military/security personnel, and it is still unclear whether the U.S. forced him to leave.

USAID’s objectives that year included decreasing narcotics trafficking, strengthening democracy, providing humanitarian assistance, stemming the flow of illegal migrants, fighting HIV/AIDS, generating employment, and strengthening civil society’s ability to resist authoritarianism.

The agency’s development menu contained support to the interim government in efforts to stabilize the country in preparation for local, parliamentary and presidential elections later that year, and USAID efforts encourage creation of jobs, support institutions, offer health, education and humanitarian assistance and respond to hurricanes and similar natural disasters.

There were programs for peace and security; governing justly and democratically; supporting Haiti’s social development, access to basic health services and HIV/AIDS prevention; distance-based education; response to the food riots and hurricanes; school feeding programs; and provision of emergency food and shelter in response to increasing food insecurity and hurricanes. Total USAID expenditure for 2005 was approximately $51 million.

But even Haiti’s most generous friends would acknowledge that the country has little to show for that year’s – or arguably any year’s – international aid.

In fact, many experts contend that some aid has done more harm than good. For example, loans from the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the Inter-American Development Bank (IDB) imposed “structural adjustment” conditions on Haiti, opening its economy to cheap U.S. agricultural products.

Farmers, unable to compete, stopped growing rice and moved to the cities to earn low wages, if they were lucky enough to get one of the scarce sweatshop jobs. People in the highlands were driven to deforest the hills, converting wood into salable charcoal, which created an ecological crisis -- destabilizing hillsides, increasing the destructiveness of earthquakes and causing landslides during the rainy season.

A frequently asked question is whether the impact of aid will be different during the post earthquake period, and whether President René Préval is up to the task of managing the huge resources destined to flow into his country in the coming months.

"Préval is the legitimately elected president of Haiti, and the obligation of the international community is to assist him and Prime Minister (Jean-Max Bellerive) in fulfilling their leadership role," says Mark Schneider of the International Crisis Group.

But the current government has no shortage of critics. "I can think of no country in the world that would have so pathetically handled the post-earthquake situation," says Larry Birns, director of the Washington-based Council on Hemispheric Affairs. "It's a caricature of what a government is supposed to be.”

The final installment of this series will explore approaches to more effective aid to Haiti.