by Charlie Estes
Published June 9, 2022
A recent New York Times article dove into France’s shameful exploitation of Haiti in its post-colonial years, how a demand for reparations and a loan from Parisian banks kept Haiti impoverished and doubly indebted to their former colonial masters for decades. Another story, one about the aid sector’s role in Haiti’s underdevelopment, needs to be told as well.
The earthquake that hit Haiti in 2010 killed more than 200,000 people and left more than 1.5 million without homes. A disaster of that magnitude almost always causes aid dollars to flood into the affected country, but donors and taxpayers rarely know where, exactly, their money goes and what it accomplishes.
Foreign aid failures in Haiti are exemplified by three parallel and failing efforts to aid Haiti in the aftermath of the 2010 earthquake: one by the Red Cross, one by the United Nations, and one by the United States Government.
The Red Cross, one of the largest and most well-known disaster relief organizations, launched a massive campaign to raise money to build new, permanent homes for those stranded by the earthquake. Though they received nearly half a billion dollars following the 2010 quake, as of 2015, the Red Cross had built exactly six homes.
Where did the money go? It’s hard to say.
The Red Cross is primarily a disaster relief organization; it is good at handing out blankets and tents following a disaster, but rebuilding and developing are not its specialty. It kept fundraising off the crisis well after it had met the financial resources required for an immediate response to the quake, raising more than other relief organizations, including Doctors Without Borders.
Much of the funds were given to other groups—with a healthy chunk taken off the top for the Red Cross’s own overhead expenses. For one project to improve temporary shelters, it is estimated only 60% of the funds actually went to the project, while the other 40% went to the Red Cross and other groups’ overheads.
The projects that the Red Cross managed themselves, including the housing project, went nowhere. As one official who worked on the project said, “Everything takes four times as long because it would be micromanaged from DC, and they had no development experience.”
The Red Cross attributed many of its problems to Haiti’s land title system, but other groups managed to build 9,000 homes for Haitians following the quake. At times, the Red Cross tried easier, less demanding projects, including one to encourage handwashing; one evaluation noted the hand-washing project was “not effective when people had no access to water and no soap.”
At some points, the Red Cross’s internal memos show, they simply couldn’t find ways to spend the vast amounts of money they had raised.
One of the Red Cross’s biggest errors in Haiti was its reliance on non-Haitians. “Going to meetings with the community when you don’t speak the language is not productive,” one Haitian who worked on the project said. Knowing this, the expats would skip the meetings entirely. The Haitians who were hired were paid at a much lower rate than their expat counterparts, though the expats were much less effective than the Haitians.
The Red Cross has still not fully explained where all the money went, offering only broad classifications of their spending.
A Cholera Outbreak
The 2010 earthquake also led the United Nations to focus their efforts on Haiti. A peacekeeping force, in large part financed by the United States, was sent to supplement the already-stationed units in Haiti and assist with relief work. Instead, they brought disaster with them.
Faulty sanitation practices by the UN at a base of 454 Nepalese peacekeepers, whose contingent contained Cholera-infected individuals, led sewage to leak into the water supply.
For the first time in a century, there was a cholera outbreak on the island. Cholera, a deadly infection that causes severe dehydration and spreads rapidly through infected water supplies, killed at least 10,000 and sickened another 800,000.
The UN, though not claiming responsibility for the outbreak, rushed to eradicate cholera on the island once again—and failed. Clinics and treatment centers either did not get the tools they needed to fight the epidemic or shut down altogether when aid groups moved on to other issues. The UN struggled to raise the money it needed to address the crisis, and no water or sanitation projects were completed to address the infrastructure problem.
For three years, Haiti had the most cholera cases in the world, and the disease spread to the Dominican Republic, Cuba, and Mexico.
A 2014 report by UN auditors showed that a quarter of the peacekeeping sites in Haiti were still putting their waste into public water supplies.
Though they helped in trying to mitigate the effects of the outbreak, the UN did not take responsibility until 2016, a full six years later.
The outbreak is now, over ten years later, under control, but that does not alleviate the loss of 10,000 lives to an easily preventable and treatable disease.
A Port to Nowhere
The United States, following the earthquake, also dedicated dollars toward helping Haiti rebuild.
Former President Bill Clinton, who, during his tenure, intervened in the country militarily and whose policies toward Haiti made it dependent on imported US food, was appointed co-chair of the committee in charge of the US’s relief spending in Haiti. His wife, Hillary Clinton, was then Secretary of State, and oversaw the $4.4 billion allocated to the US Agency for International Development (USAID) for recovery efforts.
The US’s largest post-earthquake project was a $300 million industrial park called Caracol, for which it would finance a power plant and a shipping port for industrial goods. They hoped that this would attract private investment and create jobs, helping to bolster an industrial economy for the island. The site for the park and the port was chosen on the northern coast, the closest point to Miami.
The commission that President Clinton cochaired was supposed to be Haitian led, but the 12 Haitian committee members described their role as “to endorse the decisions made by the director and executive committee.”
A 2013 audit of the project described it as lacking “staff with technical expertise in planning, construction, and oversight of a port,” and notes that USAID had “not constructed a port anywhere in the world since the 70s.”
The timeline for port completion kept changing—from two and a half years to ten years, then again to the bureaucratic equivalent of a shrug.
A 2015 feasibility study pronounced the port project completely inviable. Worse, USAID simply didn’t have enough money to do it, and private investors had no interest in investing in it.
$10 million was poured into the port, and in 2018, the US abandoned it, citing financial feasibility. It is unclear where the rest of the money allocated to the project went.
What’s Next for Haiti?
It’s clear that France is not the only entity at fault for the problems in Haiti. Whether these failures can be attributed to a series of non-comical blunders, prevailing personal interest, or simple apathy toward Haiti’s progress, the international community has certainly not lived up to its commitments.
It is tragically ironic that the first and only country to free itself from slavery should end up paying reparations to its oppressors. It is even more tragic that in Haiti today, aid organizations who purport to “help” are keeping the country from developing through misguided practices, even actively harming Haitians along the way.
Development work can and should make amends for the vast injustices perpetrated under slavery and colonialism, as well as those wrongs committed in the first decades of development work itself.
As the Times piece points out, Haiti, too, is responsible for its future. Its history is peppered with military juntas and corrupt authoritarian regimes, which robbed what remained of Haiti’s opportunities to develop.
Our renewed understanding of Haiti’s history should serve as a wakeup call. Disaster relief, multilateral, and development organizations alike must center Haitian voices in their efforts. Project ideas must come from real needs identified by real Haitians, and Haitians themselves should enact them using local resources. It is time to focus on building Haiti’s ability to develop themselves instead of compounding the mistakes of the past.
Roots of Development supports and advocates for community-led development in Haiti and around the world. Learn more at rootsofdevelopment.org