Why is Foreign Aid Failing Haiti?

Q&A with 2008 IRP Fellow Ruxandra Guidi

Fellows Fall 2008

By Ruxandra Guidi

June 11, 2009

Ruxandra Guidi is a freelance radio and print news correspondent. During her five-week IRP Fellowship Guidi traveled to Haiti to examine the effects of foreign aid on human rights, violence and poverty. On her return, she sat down with IRP Director John Schidlovsky to talk about Haiti.

Q: You went to Haiti to find out why so much development aid in years past has not left a mark on the country. Do you think, after your five weeks of reporting in Haiti, that development aid to that country has done some good or has it been a waste?

A: There is no serious policy or accountability on how projects on a national level are working out. Haiti’s in such a bad situation, especially after the hurricanes, and the state is seemingly unconcerned or not eager to address the problems. You have a lot of international agencies and donors carrying out projects, but there is no sense of what is happening to the money. You have a lot of projects that are creating jobs for short periods of time with no long term impact. One major player has been the United Nations Stabilization Mission in Haiti (MINUSTAH), which has had a great impact since Jean-Bertrand Aristide was removed from power. It has diminished the kidnapping rate and disbanded some of the gangs in Port-au-Prince. Beyond that a lot of people in Haiti are wondering what’s next for MINUSTAH? How much longer will they stay? Can Haiti function without this UN force of 8,000 people?

Q: Does MINUSTAH have an indefinite lifespan?

A: The UN Security Council just approved another year of MINUSTAH for Haiti. They were supposed to leave in September 2008. One of their main missions right now is to continue re-training the notoriously corrupt police force. What MINUSTAH has been doing with help from the U.S., Canada, and France, (the major donors to Haiti) is to get rid of a lot of the police officers implicated in corruption and human rights violations. The goal is to have 14,000 new police officers by 2011, in time for the next Haitian election.

Q: You arrived in Haiti shortly after it was hit hard by a series of hurricanes. How did this affect your story?

A: When I got there I realized the difference between emergency aid and development aid in Haiti. So much of the money coming into Haiti is slated for varying degrees of emergencies and issues that are affecting the country: food security, lack of water, or hurricane relief. Because Haiti is constantly going from one emergency to another a lot of money and resources get diverted from one region to the next. The hurricanes helped me get a better sense of how emergency aid works, but it really wasn’t the reason why I was there. I had to wait about a week for things to calm down a bit to look at some of the projects that will hopefully have some sort of long term effect on the country.

Q: Was there much variation around the country in different places? Did you find things different in the countryside than in the cities?

A: Definitely. The capital, Port-au-Prince, which is not even that big in comparison to other metropolises around the world, it’s only two million people, it's incredibly crowded and lacking in basic services. In the last 30 to 40 years the population has skyrocketed because there is a lot of rural migration to the capital. A lot of people move to Port-au-Prince with the hopes of getting to the Dominican Republic, the U.S. or Canada. The quality of life in the countryside seems to be much better, even though people have a hard time finding employment. They can grow their own food and have a sense of community. They can work outside of the development aid system. The old model of community aid and creating projects that address the community’s needs seem to still be alive in the countryside. A lot of the people that are struggling in the cities are reliant on international aid, whether it’s for their job or to get electricity into their homes.

Q: Did you get a feel for what role the Haitian exile community in the United States plays in the development of Haiti?

A: It’s a two-fold role. Now, under the law, Haitians who migrate to the U.S. and become American citizens cannot hold a dual citizenship. One of the main effects of this is that they can’t run for office and they can’t start businesses or projects that aid the communities back in Haiti the way they would like. The remittances to Haiti from the U.S. and Canada are incredibly high. I’ve been told that the development aid to Haiti is about 715 million dollars a year. Remittances to Haiti is double that every year.

Q: So what happens to the remittance money?

A: The cost of living in Haiti is very high. I’ve been told that money helps people move to the city, it helps family members leave Haiti for the U.S. and Canada, and it’s helping kids go to school. The state does not provide education beyond middle school. Kids have to pay to attend high school and the University, which is very expensive. As far as investment from that community into different sectors of the economy, that’s really not happening. I’ve been told that it’s because of Haiti’s political and economic instability. There is very little money coming from the Diaspora in the U.S. and Canada helping the Haitian economy. There are some programs through micro financing that are helping and some USAID projects that have just started encouraging the Haitian Diaspora to invest more into certain sectors of the Haitian economy.

Q: Did you get a sense of what Haiti’s political future holds?

A: The needs that Haiti has at this moment are bad and they are only going to get worse. The price of oil is very high and will increase. Haiti does not produce any oil or have any real agricultural production. It has no serious infrastructure so the roads are terrible. People are concerned about the connection of poverty, economic needs and political instability. There is a segment of the population that still wishes that Aristide would come back or be allowed to return. An increasing number of Haitians seem to feel that the longer MINUSTAH stays in the country and the longer the U.S., Canada, France, and United Nations play a role in Haiti’s political future the less the Haitian politicians will do to find solutions that address the countries needs. There’s a sense that the entire world community is running the country and not Haitians themselves. There’s this push for sovereignty. Another major issue affecting Haiti is a high out migration. Most young people I met are eager to leave. There is 75 to 80 percent unemployment, people are eager to go. You don’t really meet many people that want to stay unless they are working with an international non-governmental organization (NGO). I spoke with many people about the 2011 election and got the response that it will be another election and nothing much will change.

Q: You covered a lot of Latin America, but this was your first time in Haiti. Were you surprised by what you found?

A: I created all sorts of theories for why Haiti is the way it is based on what I have read or been told. What I found was a country that culturally doesn’t seem to belong in the Caribbean and Latin America. Haiti is very much alone in the region in terms of its traditions, its cultural beliefs, and its history. It has had such a conflicted history filled with coup d’états and violence really shaping the society. I used to think that Bolivia in some ways would train me for Haiti in the sense that I could better understand issues of social conflict in the region and poverty. In Haiti you have a country that was an example to the region and a gem for the Caribbean for numerous reasons. It’s the first black republic and had the first successful slave rebellion, it was a major cotton and sugar cane producer, it went through a period of very successful tourism and then all of that collapsed. You see remnants of that past wherever you go in Haiti. In other places, like Bolivia, there hasn’t been as much up and down, or as much bloody conflict. There hasn’t been as much outside influence as there has been in Haiti. What really surprised me the most was the degree of poverty and the age of the population. Haiti’s population is not that large, but it is incredibly young, more than half is under 25. People in the countryside have large numbers of children they can’t feed. I didn’t get a sense that there were any government programs attempting to curb this growth or encouraging people to stay in the country to develop the agricultural industry. At this rate you get a sense that the poverty is only going to get deeper.