Lessons From Ineffective NGOs in Haiti

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PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti — In 2010, Haiti was struck by a 7.0 magnitude earthquake in what was one of the most devastating natural disasters in recent history. More than 230,000 people died and buildings and infrastructure across the country crumbled, displacing an additional 1.5 million. Haiti’s government was largely unequipped to provide relief or reinstate order in affected areas around the country.

The scale of Haiti’s earthquake disaster prompted a flood of humanitarian aid, garnering the nickname “Republic of NGOs.” Ten years later, their work and legacy contain valuable lessons.

Haiti at the Time

In order to understand why the earthquake was so devastating, it is important to look at Haiti’s situation before 2010. Haiti was already one of the poorest countries in the world – out of 182 countries in the United Nations (UN) Human Development Index, it ranked 149. More than half of the country was living on less than $2 per day and about 39% were illiterate. In this context, Haiti’s government was clearly struggling to provide essential services under normal circumstances.

It also failed to predict how poverty would compound. At the time of the earthquake – and even now – the Haitian Parliament had not approved any formal building code. Because of this, construction using poor-quality materials and shoddy building practices was commonplace. This widespread cutting of costs resulted in a lack of earthquake-proofing with devastating effects.

In the earthquake’s aftermath, foreign governments and donors quickly pledged more than $5.3 billion to rebuild Haiti. They created the Interim Haitian Reconstruction Commission, headed by Bill Clinton, for the purpose of coordinating aid to the country. Foreign donors announced plans to provide emergency food and housing to people in need while giving Haiti the resources to “build back better” and address longstanding issues in the country.

Relief After the Earthquake

Many of Haiti’s estimated thousands of non-governmental organizations (NGOs) did good work in the immediate aftermath of the disaster. They set up makeshift camps for hundreds of thousands of people and distributed emergency medical care, food and other supplies. Groups such as the Red Cross and the UN saved lives many lives with short-term relief measures.

Over the ensuing decade, however, many NGOs in Haiti have fallen short of the lofty goals they set in 2010. One issue with funneling money to short-term aid groups is that many are ill-equipped to engage in long-term development projects. Haiti’s emergency housing situation exemplifies this. Rather than repair or construct permanent homes, NGOs focused on providing temporary shelters en masse. A few years later, these shelters began to deteriorate and funding for tent camps dried up. Many people found themselves homeless again.

The UN offered inhabitants of tent shelters a $500 relocation stipend. Although, this was more of a band-aid than a solution. In 2020, Haiti’s infrastructure remains woefully inadequate, extreme poverty is still prevalent and 50% of children are unable to attend school.

Are NGOs Preventing Progress?

Observers wonder if the prevalence of NGOs in Haiti is actually holding the country back from developing its own institutions. The Haitian government received less than 1% of emergency relief aid and only 23% of long-term recovery funds. While the government is weak and contends with corruption problems, excluding domestic officials from the discussion has proved unsustainable.

This is what is happening currently. Today, NGOs provide an estimated 80% of public services in Haiti, including much of education and healthcare. This creates a parallel system of governance in which foreign NGOs, lacking accountability to the people they serve or a deep understanding of local culture, are nonetheless able to exert a great deal of influence over the country. Instead of using aid money to empower and employ locals, many NGOs have faced criticism for hiring highly-paid staffers. The vast majority of these NGOs’ faculty are not Haitian, either. Charity watchdogs accused others, including the Red Cross, of mismanaging or wasting funds pledged for relief. The continued prevalence of issues like these emphasizes how little recourse the Haitian government has against NGO malpractice.

Hope For Haiti

Amid these failings, NGO success stories like that of Hope for Haiti provide a blueprint for groups seeking to be more responsible and leave a long-lasting impact. Hope for Haiti is a nonprofit that works to support long-term development projects relating to education, healthcare, infrastructure, clean water and economic opportunity. Critically, they work with a Haitian staff and heavily emphasize relationships with officials in local government.

Recently, The Borgen Project spoke with Skyler Badenoch, the CEO of Hope for Haiti. In the interview, Badenoch described his group’s operation as, “a team of Haitians working to improve the quality of life in their own country.”

By maintaining a largely-Haitian staff, Badenoch believes Hope for Haiti can be sure that its team understands Haitian culture and is deeply invested in improving the country in the long-run. He also emphasized the importance of working with local governments. By cooperating with and listening to the needs of local leaders and community members, the hope is that NGOs can avoid contributing to the problems that parallel systems of NGO governance have caused in Haiti.

Lessons for the Future

Hope for Haiti offers a different path from short-term humanitarian aid by instead focusing on holistic development. “Make sure that whatever you’re trying to do within a country, that you’re empowering people,” advises Badenoch. To do this, Hope for Haiti works with community members to invest in a range of projects. For example, they support more than 6,000 students and direct funds toward school supplies and teacher salaries. The NGO has also improved water systems for more than 39,090 students, thereby pushing to improve public health. Due to its successes in combating poverty and high standards for accountability, Hope for Haiti has become one of the best-regarded NGOs in the country, receiving a 94.32/100 review for overall performance from Charity Navigator.

Haiti’s story is a tragic one with an important lesson: while short-term aid is a crucial part of responding to humanitarian disasters, it is in no way an adequate solution for development. Instead, NGOs in Haiti can follow Hope for Haiti’s example and work to empower the local population by creating training, education, healthcare and physical infrastructures as pathways to achieving long-lasting change.

Jack McMahon
Photo: Flickr

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