The American Interest
Policy, Politics & Culture
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Rebuilding Haiti
Published on May 10, 2012

“The glass is 10 percent full,” says Nigel Fisher, the U.N.’s humanitarian coordinator for reconstruction efforts in Haiti. “It’s now time to tackle the remaining 90 percent.”

Yet more than two years after the January 2010 earthquake in Haiti, and after billions of recovery dollars pledged by the United Nations, foreign governments, and private aid organizations, 10 percent full sounds appalling. An estimated 420,000 Haitians still live in tent camps. The cholera outbreak that began in October 2010 has killed more than 7,000 and infected more than 500,000. (In March, U.N. special envoy to Haiti Bill Clinton acknowledged that the disease was brought to the island by U.N. peacekeepers from South Asia.) Billions of dollars in promised aid money has yet to be doled out, let alone spent; for instance, only 54.5 percent of the $4.5 billion pledged for 2010/2011 reconstruction at a New York City donor conference in March 2010 has been disbursed.

“Can any good news come out of Haiti?” Fisher asks in the introduction of the U.N. 2011 report on Haiti. “Not if one listens to the eminent person who travels from the airport to the hotel and promptly pronounces that no progress has been achieved, or if you believe the TV correspondent who stands in front of a collapsed house and states that almost no rubble has been removed since the earthquake.” As Fisher goes on to point out, more than half of the estimated twenty million cubic yards of rubble that once littered Port-au-Prince has been cleared—enough to fill five Louisiana Superdomes. And while nearly half a million people are still living in tents, that figure is about a million fewer than in the months following the quake.

But beyond the overwhelming scale of the task, there are other reasons that reconstruction will continue for years, even decades, to come. Those reasons, which derive from the nature of aid work itself, help explain why the glass remains 90 percent empty despite the unprecedented international attention directed to Haiti after the disaster, the good intentions of foreign organizations working toward reconstruction, and the billions of dollars of aid inflows.

Many international organizations working in Haiti are disconnected from the people they’re here to help, which directly affects their ability to aid those people. Additionally, compared to locals and Haitian institutions, foreign organizations usually work on much shorter timelines. Both factors hamstring their ability to effect progress in recovery and reconstruction.

Sasha Kramer, an ecologist trained at Stanford, works out of a two-story concrete house in the working class Delmas 33 neighborhood. Kramer started coming to Haiti in 2004 and, after finishing her doctorate in 2006, co-founded Sustainable Organic Integrated Livelihoods (SOIL), an NGO that works with communities on sanitation, composting and gardening projects. When I arrive at the office, she and a Haitian SOIL staffer are in the kitchen talking in Creole and laughing. SOIL normally employs three to five expats and about 45 Haitians. She speaks to me with the unhurried cadence of someone who’s been living on island time for the past six years.

“When international staff come into Haiti and are working for a large NGO, they’ve probably already been fairly indoctrinated . . . that they’re coming to this very dangerous place,” she says. “Then they get here and that only gets reinforced by their security regulations. If they do go into a neighborhood, go outside of Pétion-Ville even, they carry that fear with them. People sense that.”

Many foreign organizations prohibit staff from traveling through certain areas of Port-au-Prince, or they’re forbidden to visit without an SUV with locked doors and windows, a local driver, and a security detail. Private security companies and insurance policies often dictate such travel guidelines. Offices and housing for foreign NGOs and aid agencies working in Haiti are concentrated in Pétion-Ville, an affluent section of the capital home to classy hotels and vibrant restaurants. But the concentration of expats also presents a cluster of targets for crime; the relatively upscale area can be just as dangerous as many other parts of the city. In March 2010, for example, two Swiss employees of the NGO Doctors Without Borders were kidnapped in Pétion-Ville after a night on the town and held for one week. The organization would not disclose whether it paid a ransom for their release.

Kramer says many of the security measures that foreign organizations take actually increase risks for aid workers, because the restrictions hinder international staff’s ability to forge relationships with locals and build community ties—further hampering their ability to work effectively and efficiently.

She describes it from locals’ point of view: “You come into my neighborhood and you’re already afraid of me? Well, that’s offensive. So I think it engenders a feeling immediately of sort of defensiveness in communities, understandably.” And aid projects suffer as well. She says that she’s sensed tremendous frustration among international employees working with large NGOs who feel disconnected from the people they’re here trying to help.

“I also think it results in huge staff turnover,” she says, “because people are really unhappy here. They feel like they’re being treated like children. They never have a chance to develop an appreciation and a love for the country in which they’re working, and so it leads to shoddy work and very high turnover.”

Most large NGOs don’t emphasize the need for staff to learn Haitian Creole; proficiency in spoken and written French is a more likely job skill requirement. Some organizations don’t bother with training staff in the local language at all. An estimated 10-20 percent of Haitians speak French. It is not the language of the people. In months following the earthquake, various media outlets reported that Haitians working for aid organizations were seldom granted access to the U.N. base where meetings about relief strategies were held. Even when Haitians were granted access, the meetings were held in only English and French.

“You find people who’ve been here a year and can’t say a single word of Creole,” says Kramer. “That, I think, is shocking, and a real shame.”

Rebuilding a bridge may not require a working knowledge of a local language. But aid programs that ostensibly put Haitians at the center of their own development are bound to be hamstrung if foreign staff cannot relate to or communicate well with locals.

Haitian businessman Jean-Maurice Buteau has a language problem of his own. “I want to start the dialogue with the NGOs,” he says, “but right now we speak two different language [sic].” I meet Buteau on the street and hop into his 1996 Mercedes G-Wagen, a tough, boxy four-by-four that even the gnarled streets of Port-au-Prince are no match for. Buteau’s skin is no darker than that of a tanned South Florida retiree; his ancestry is European, but his family has been in Haiti for generations. He went to high school and college in the United States and speaks English with a Caribbean accent that only sometimes bothers to include the “s” at the end of a plural.

In 2010, National Public Radio and This American Life featured Buteau’s business, JMB S.A., which exports mangoes to the United States. Buteau had been working with USAID on the Market Chain Enhancement Project, known as MarChE. A large U.S.-based NGO, CHF International, was another partner in the project.

Forty to 50 percent of the mangoes grown by farmers Buteau works with spoils due to poor handling and quality control. The USAID project designed to remedy the crop losses had three parts: CHF would build a processing facility that would reduce damages and losses, MarChE would provide business training, and Buteau would be responsible for selling the produce and providing insights into local norms.

Buteau says that, while the project began well before the earthquake, he’d only worked with his partners for three or four months when the disaster struck. According to a USAID official interviewed by This American Life, the Agency decided to reassess all of its Haiti programs after the earthquake. Officials in Washington chose to let funding for the MarChE project expire. “The orientation or priorities of USAID was [sic] changing,” Buteau says, “but how are you ever going to find out the real story?”

The isolation of decision-makers in Washington D.C., short-term nature of aid programs and contracts, and short stints frequently served by individual aid workers and contractors are often antithetical to fostering long-term reconstruction or development.

Rory Stewart, a British MP who trekked across Afghanistan on foot for 32 days in 2002 and established an NGO in Kabul in six years ago, documents similar issues in Afghanistan in his essay, “Can Intervention Work?”

“The leading international institutions in Kabul employed far more short-term international consultants than core staff,” he writes. “Managers—who were equally non-specialists—often left the country long before their proposals could be tested, still less fail. A culture of country experts had been replaced by a culture of consultants.”

Stewart also notes that other foreigners serving in the intervention—embassy officials, U.N. staff, military officers serving at forward-operating bases—usually stayed in the country for only six months or a year, perhaps two years at most. “Such lack of continuity,” he writes, “was difficult for political work because it stopped the development of trusting relationships with Afghan leaders, and for development work because it meant that any long-term project stretched impossibly far beyond any individual’s tour.” The military-aid intervention in Afghanistan obviously contrasts with the reconstruction intervention in Haiti in many respects. But these issues, inherent to the way most governments and organizations conduct aid and development work, have affected both interventions.

Even when aid workers and foreign contractors do stick around for years, Buteau isn’t convinced their work yields many benefits. “Most of these so-called experts and short-term contractors, you meet them on one project and then it closes and you meet them on another one [with another organization]. Some of them have been in the business for 25 years, the ones who say they know mangoes, and I ask, ‘If you’ve been doing it for 25 years, what do you have to show for it?’”

It’s evident to Buteau that the private sector will have to lead the way for Haiti to develop. “In a country like Haiti,” says Buteau, “it is clear that the government has failed. NGOs have been in Haiti for the past fifty years, it is clear that they have failed.”

One of the most vivid symbols of recovery so far, the reconstruction of the Iron Market in downtown Port-au-Prince, was led by Haiti’s largest private company and employer, Irish telecom Digicel. CEO Denis O’Brien funded the rebuilding of the wrought iron structure, which features on Haiti’s 1,000 gourde bank note, with $16.5 million from his own pocket. The original incongruous building, complete with four minarets and a clock tower, left Paris in the late 19th century bound for Cairo; it was meant to serve as a train station. But when the Egypt deal fell through, Haitian President Florvil Hyppolite bought it and diverted to the island in 1891. Digicel has also put up street signs around many areas of the capital, each topped with a Digicel sphere colored in the company’s deep red hue.

One year after the earthquake, South Korean garment manufacturer Sae-A Trading Co. Ltd announced that it would invest $78 million in an industrial park near the northern city of Cap-Haïtien. The company estimates the park will bring 20,000 jobs to the area initially, with potential for future employment growth. The United States government pledged $124 million toward electricity generation and other infrastructure, and the Inter-American Development Bank is providing $55 million. While some critics of foreign investment have questioned whether jobs created by the project will provide workers with a path to prosperity, such employment is probably a better alternative for those Haitians whose only other option may be subsistence farming. The manufacturer’s first batch of T-shirts is scheduled for production in September.

Yet plenty of obstacles remain for foreign companies that wish to invest in Haiti, and inefficient institutions hinder Haitian businesses as well. The World Bank’s annual Doing Business report ranks Haiti 174th out of 183 countries. It takes 105 days to start a business in the country, nearly double the average for Latin America and the Caribbean. The report estimates that registering property in Haiti takes 301 days, about five times longer than the regional average. And Haiti’s record of political instability no doubt drives away some potential investors. The country’s most recent coup, in 2004, spurred the ongoing eight-year long U.N. peacekeeping mission.

Buteau and other Haitian business owners have to deal with an absurd amount of red tape. He has to renew his export license every three months—an improvement from the monthly renewal the government used to require. By contrast, most commercial exports from the United States don’t require a license, and when they do, the license is usually valid for 24 months.

Buteau isn’t giving up, however; he still hopes to collaborate with foreign aid groups and realizes he has to work within the realities of Haitian systems. He recently spoke about cooperation between American NGOs and the Haitian private sector at a large aid conference in Washington, D.C., and is currently working toward developing a partnership with the NGO Mercy Corps to provide business training for the farmer associations he works with.

One of Buteau’s suggestions for bolstering reconstruction efforts is to have Haitian firms and local organizations play a more prominent role—less than one percent of contracts awarded by USAID in fiscal years 2010 and 2011 went to Haitian firms. Outsiders and foreign media have sometimes focused on a handful of upper-crust families in Haiti who own big businesses, criticizing them for their highly visible affluence in a poor country, or for the way they came by their wealth. Last January, an article titled “Les nantis d’Haiti” (“The wealthy of Haiti”) appeared in the magazine version of French newspaper Le Monde. It described the lavish lifestyles of the rich and Haitian and featured a photo spread of the well-to-dos unwinding in their extravagant homes. Many of the images in the spread, which appeared in the U.S. outlet Foreign Policy under the headline “Haiti’s 1 Percent,” were set off by backgrounds in which house servants donned liveries.

Buteau, who is clearly a member of the Haitian gentry himself, wishes that internationals would instead focus on promoting what he says are the 200-300 Haitian families who own small and medium businesses that employ locals. He sees this as a worthwhile effort that could help power the sputtering local economy.

Building Markets, an NGO headquartered in New York City and Ottawa, encourages local procurement of goods and services in Haiti and helps train local businesses in bidding and contracting procedures. The group also maintains a database of 3,500 small and medium Haitian enterprises, and it facilitated $30 million in contracts for such businesses in 2011. By encouraging international groups to use locally available goods and services, it hopes to help create jobs and foster long-term economic growth and stability in the country.

For foreigners seeking to get to work in Haiti, Sasha Kramer has another suggestion, too. “Take Creole lessons. Learn a few words, learn a couple sentences. And roll down your windows and smile and wave at people sometimes.”

“People would be amazed at what a difference that would make.”

Tate Watkins is a freelance journalist in Port-au-Prince, Haiti.