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Haitians Need their Own Voice

Reading Time: 6 minutesInternational donors have overlooked civil society’s role in reconstruction–but local organizations must also learn, adapt and develop roots in their communities.
Reading Time: 6 minutes

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Reading Time: 6 minutes

Six months after the earthquake, Haiti’s situation has barely improved. Rubble still clutters the streets of Port-au-Prince; over a million residents remain homeless and without access to basic services; and only 28,000 semi-permanent shelters have been built. Despite the slow recovery, United Nations officials are also quick to add that “what hasn’t happened is worth noting.” Haiti has not seen an outbreak of disease or a breakdown in security. Unfortunately, equally noteworthy is the absence of the Haitian government’s leadership in the reconstruction process and the billions pledged by the international community that have not yet materialized.

When major global donors met in New York in March 2010, they not only made long-term financial commitments to Haiti, they also promised to work with Haitian institutions instead of working through the myriad international NGOs that have driven Haiti’s development assistance. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said at the time, “The leaders of Haiti must take responsibility for their country’s reconstruction” and encouraged donors to break away from their old habit of working “around the government rather than to work with them as partners…”

While the international community has since made a commitment to channel aid through the Haitian government, it has been silent about the role of Haitian civil society. Without a strong local civil society, uncurbed government power could deteriorate into disengagement from citizens, widespread corruption, authoritarian rule, or worse. As in all democracies, Haitian civil society has an important role to play in providing citizen oversight to government spending, articulating citizen priorities, and engaging elected leaders in a constructive dialogue about the country’s future. The international community must ensure that these voices are heard and that this process remains truly Haitian.

It’s All about Balance

Over the past decades, Haiti has received billions in international assistance. Despite this, the tiny island nation was considered a fragile—some may even argue failed—state before the earthquake. Poor coordination and planning, lack of a sustained international commitment and corruption undermined the effectiveness of aid. Moreover, many donors channeled their assistance through international NGOs, bypassing Haitian institutions and building the capacity of international instead of local actors. International NGOs have made important contributions. But as Haiti’s sad history demonstrates, they have failed to address the root problems of Haiti’s underdevelopment. With 70 percent of Port-au-Prince destroyed as a result of the earthquake, a fresh approach is needed—one that is not only concerned with outcomes, but also with processes.

Local ownership and participation should be the foundation of any new aid approach to Haiti. While there is broad agreement on the importance of local involvement, profound changes in donor attitudes and local partner capacities are needed to make it an achievable goal. A culture of assistentialism permeates most of Haiti’s development projects. This unhealthy pattern has meant that donors have tended to retard the capacity, motivation and potential of Haitian counterparts—and in many cases fragment the community. At the same time, because of donors’ low expectations of Haitian counterparts, local citizens have become accustomed to handouts, fostering a lack of engagement with the real, pressing problems of development in their country.

Over the past few years, the Haitian government has demanded greater participation in aid management, leading to increased international assistance through state institutions. Steps to strengthen government authority are a move in the right direction, but government and civil society are two sides of the same coin. Increasing government capacity without simultaneously strengthening the influence and ability of local civil society can lead to unchecked power.

A new aid approach should focus on strengthening the capacity of both government and civil society actors and ensuring their joint leadership and mutual collaboration in the rebuilding process. However imperfect and unpredictable, Haiti’s reconstruction needs to be planned, led and executed by Haitians. This is not to say that the international community should stand idle in the face of inaction, but it needs to provide the right mix of carrots and sticks and empower Haitians to demand more from their own leaders.

Building Real Haitian Civil Society

To play an effective role in the reconstruction process, Haitian civil society needs to be strengthened.  Creating an engaged, constructive, collaborative civil society, though, can only result from a combination of factors, including enhanced trust, coordination and cohesion among local groups, better understanding of the role and limitations of the international community, increased technical and administrative capacity, and systematic participation in policy discussions. Donors and international NGOs should support civil society strengthening, but local groups need to learn, adapt and develop roots in their communities.

One of the first steps is for Haitians to overcome a history of mutual distrust and start working together. Civil society has been traditionally divided along class and political lines, with few organizations rising above economic and partisan divisions to represent broader collective interests. To be effective, Haitian civil society needs to establish a sense of collective action and power that transcends individual or parochial concerns.

There is reason for optimism. For the first time, the earthquake has provided a common experience for Haitians of all walks of life, from the slums of Port-au-Prince to Pétion-Ville. Their collective survival and recovery have created a new sense of unity and solidarity. Bill Clinton coined the phrased “build back better” but forgot an essential ingredient. Haitians need to build back better together.

Local civil society organizations also need to increase their technical and administrative capacities to be effective interlocutors with the government and the international community. Many local groups are more interested in securing a source of income than participating in reconstruction. Donors often face recurrent themes: bogus proposals; the challenges of identifying legitimate organizations; fraud, both because of poverty and poor financial practices; and, most frequently, inexperience in grant management, program planning and evaluation. Though the challenges are real, they are not insurmountable. International NGOs with extensive operations in-country can play an important role in building the capacity of nascent civil society groups, progressively transferring increased ownership and funding of development projects. To be empowered and independent, ultimately, Haitian groups need to be funded directly.

Additionally, local groups need to understand the challenges and limitations of the international community. Because Haiti has depended heavily on international assistance, many local groups and leaders have unrealistic expectations of what the international community can do.  In fact, Haitians often have more expectations of international donors than of their elected officials. Civil society organizations need to educate citizens on the role and responsibilities of government authorities and engage them proactively in policy dialogues about the future of the country.

Finally, there are many local organizations that have demonstrated capacity and leadership but are unable to meet their full potential because donors prefer to channel their assistance through international NGOs instead. This is one of the greatest paradoxes in Haiti today. With billions of dollars going into the country, local actors—both in government and civil society—still struggle to realize their reconstruction plans and projects. If local ownership is to be the cornerstone of a new aid paradigm, Haitians need the resources and tools to play a leading role in building their country back—together.

Donor Perspectives

The international community has traditionally played a central role in Haiti, though their efforts have too often distorted local politics, sown division and displaced local actors. Over the past years, many have advocated for a different kind of international engagement in Haiti—one that not only strengthens local institutions but also promotes change from within. But Haitians themselves must envision and demand the structural, political and economic changes that will bring prosperity to their country. To do this, donors need to provide the right combination of incentives and disincentives.

Financial resources are the international community’s most powerful incentive, but how funds are disbursed is equally important. To the extent possible, aid should go directly to Haitian institutions, both in government and civil society. Donors face several challenges that make working with local groups particularly difficult. First are the internal and external pressures to show the quick results that donor countries often demand. Working with local actors takes time: the right groups need to be identified and sometimes need additional support to begin their work. A second problem is the sheer volume of assistance. The extent of the work demands a massive assistance effort, addressing a range of issues—from immediate humanitarian assistance to longer-term development and infrastructure projects.  This means large amounts of money.  From a donor perspective it’s much easier to manage that amount of aid in large grants to well-positioned, well-known international groups instead of individual small grants to local organizations.  Haiti’s earthquake and the emergency and extensive rebuilding efforts that followed have exacerbated the problem.

But channeling aid through international NGOs not only reduces local ownership, it also provides a disincentive for creativity, innovation and ultimately for assuming responsibility for change. How can Haitians demand more and better services from their government if most services are provided by international NGOs? Shifting resources from international to local actors and empowering them to make real decisions can provide a strong incentive for change.

A well-planned transfer of responsibility from international to local management can help make this an achievable goal. The international NGO community in Haiti must acknowledge that seeing Haitians run their own programs must be the ultimate goal—even if that eventually puts their programs “out of business.” International NGOs need to engage Haitian institutions from planning to evaluation, building their technical and administrative capacity along the way. Haitian civil society organizations can make important contributions by monitoring the transparency, effectiveness and success of government-led development and voicing citizen demands through democratic avenues. But they need the tools and resources to play this role.

It is unrealistic to think current funding levels will be maintained long-term. A portion of the $5.3 billion already pledged will never materialize. New crises will divert donor and public attention. But as donor support eventually diminishes, local actors should replace international organizations, taking the lead in most projects at a fraction of the cost. Change and progress will only take hold in Haiti if it is a truly Haitian effort that challenges the traditional aid approach and empowers local actors from government to civil society to take charge of their own development.

Tags: 2010 Haiti earthquake, Civil society, Foreign Aid, Haiti
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