Has the international community failed Haiti?

Owen Bennett-Jones. BBC

Since its shattering earthquake five years ago Haiti has received billions of dollars of foreign aid. But for all the international largesse the country remains impoverished and ill-governed and many believe this weekend’s delayed elections – like so many other election days in Haiti – will be marred by politically-motivated violence.

When the January 2010 magnitude 7.0 earthquake killed more than 200,000 Haitians, aid flowed in. Shocked by the dreadful TV images of the disaster, nearly half of American households contributed money to relief work in the country. And around the world many others joined them.

The United Nations estimates that since the earthquake international donors have pledged more than $10bn (£6.5bn) of aid to Haiti. Over half of that money has already been spent.

The US Congress has calculated that if one includes commitments running through to 2020, the pledges amount to $13.4bn. That includes a US government allocation of $4bn, of which $3bn has already been spent. The money helps keep thousands of foreign NGOs active in Haiti.

Culture of dependency?

Despite all this activity, some Haitians have never left the displacement camps that were set up immediately after the earthquake. Others live in slums that have no running water, electricity or sewage facilities.

Even if some families have never recovered from the earthquake, the aid agencies’ emphasis has shifted from emergency relief to long-term reconstruction projects.

UN Special Envoy to Haiti former US President Bill Clinton speaks to a doctor at the General Hospital in Port-au-Prince on 18 January 2010

The Clinton Foundation, one of the leading foreign agencies in the country, has been an active donor ever since the earthquake. While Bill Clinton served as the UN Special Envoy to Haiti, Hillary Clinton, both as US Secretary of State and subsequently through the Clinton Foundation, has tried to keep international attention focused on helping the country.

Critics of the aid programmes – including those run by the Clintons – argue that a culture of aid dependency has developed in Haiti and that government systems in the country are weak in part because international aid staff are performing functions that should be carried out by local officials.

A report by the US Institute of Peace once suggested that Haiti was a “Republic of NGOs” which were able to cream off local talent by offering higher salaries than the government could afford.

Other complaints include claims that most of the American aid money has been spent on contracts with American companies and that many aid agency employees cannot speak French or Creole.

There have also been cases of aid donations having been subjected to an agency’s administration charges before the envisaged aid project is handed on to another NGO that in turn imposes its overhead costs.

Earlier this year a joint report by ProPublica/NPR claimed that the half a billion dollars that had been raised by the American Red Cross for Haiti relief had led to a string of poorly-managed projects and dubious claims of success.

Haiti earthquake

  • On 12 January 2010, Haiti was struck by a magnitude 7.0 earthquake
  • More than 250,000 people are estimated to have been killed, 300,000 injured and more than 1.5 million displaced
  • Five years on, thousands of Haitians still live in displaced people’s camps
  • The people in these camps have limited or no access to everyday basic services such as water, sanitation, healthcare and schools

In pictures: Haiti five years after the earthquake

Bright spots

Even though Haiti remains the poorest country in the Americas with a GDP per capita of just $846 (£545), the record of the last five years is not universally bleak.

According to the World Bank, the school participation rate of children since the earthquake has risen from 78% to 90%. Between 1980 and 2013 life expectancy at birth increased by 12.3 years. And some projects have clearly transformed the lives of beneficiaries.

But Haiti is a long way from breaking out of its chronic poverty.

It lags far behind the Dominican Republic with which it shares the Caribbean island of Hispaniola.

Fifty years ago both countries had similar GDP per capita rates. Today there is a huge gap between them. Despite both having similar sized populations, the Dominican Republic has more than half a million government employees, while Haiti has fewer than 60,000.

Poor infrastructure, a history of foreign interference, chronic political repression and instability and extreme inequality are all cited as some of the long-term causes of Haiti’s failure to flourish.

And despite the best efforts of the international community, many of those underlying problems are likely to hold the country back for years to come.

For more on this story, listen to Newshour Extra on the BBC iPlayer or download the podcast.


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