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Are aid donors now running Haiti?

This post is written by Daniel Altman

Who will determine Haiti’s future?  Probably not the Haitians.  With aid groups enlarging their presence on the ground and foreign governments exercising control through their wallets, Haiti’s future may be out of the hands of the Haitians for years to come.

Nowhere is this clearer than in the recently convened Interim Committee for the Reconstruction of Haiti (CIRH), which will set the nation’s priorities during an 18-month state of emergency.  The committee has more seats for foreigners than for Haitians, and voting power is determined in part by amounts of aid money committed.  Donors offering more than $100 million have their own votes; those offering less must share one vote.  Non-governmental organizations operating in Haiti share one seat on the committee but don’t have any voting power.

The World Bank will dole out the donors’ money at the instruction of the CIRH, but it is not alone in holding the purse strings.  Haiti has also accepted a loan of over $100 million from the International Monetary Fund, which includes lengthy conditions and benchmarks for Haiti’s economic policy.  Meanwhile, the United Nations Development Program is poised to become the country’s biggest employer through its Cash-for-Work project, and UNICEF is moving forward with a long-term plan to build a national education system.

How did this happen?  After the earthquake, with its people in desperate need, Haiti’s government was ripe for coercion.  Donors could set their own terms, and the government was not in a position to negotiate, even if it wanted to.  Three months later, this continues to be true.  Haiti’s president, René Preval, can in theory veto the CIRH’s decisions, but doing so might mean the freezing or loss of hundreds of millions of dollars.  And now his backers in the Haitian senate want to extend the 18-month state of emergency – and thus the CIRH’s mandate – to solidify their own grip on what’s left of political power.

“I believe everybody agrees this conference is a unique occasion to try to rebuild the Haitian economy,” said Dominique Strauss-Kahn, managing director of the International Monetary Fund, at the international donors conference for Haiti last month.  You could be forgiven for thinking that Strauss-Kahn considered the earthquake a blessing.  Yet he may have been echoing the views of many people in the aid community; finally, he seemed to say, we can go into this country with a free hand and do the things that we’ve wanted to do for a long, long time.

Daniel Altman is president of North Yard Economics, a not-for-profit consulting firm serving developing countries.  He is the author of three books, most recently Power in Numbers: UNITAID, Innovative Financing, and the Quest for Massive Good (with Philippe Douste-Blazy), and teaches as an adjunct at the Stern School of Business.

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  1. Leila Jerusalem wrote:

    This article is disturbing and reveals so much of what is wrong with a centralized approach to “helping others.” I wonder, is the primary motivation of outsiders power?

    Posted April 28, 2010 at 2:08 am | Permalink
  2. Cynic wrote:

    So what if the donors are running Haiti? Based on the past 20, 30 ,50 100 (pick a number) years of previous governance it can hardly be worse than Haitians running the country and if they break it they bought it. Besides it will be an interesting experiment letting the donors not merely influence decisions but actually manage a country. It will be interesting to watch well intentioned “experts” deal with real domestic issues and balance the competing demands from the influential and disenfranchised communities. Even more interesting to watch will be how the donors deal with security issues.
    Be careful what you wish for Mr Strauss-Kahn, you just might get it.

    Posted April 28, 2010 at 8:34 am | Permalink
  3. NoMNoM wrote:

    That is very unsettling indeed. And we should also consider that there are other motivations at play here – oil, for one. According to industry news source, World Oil: “Haiti could have larger oil reserves than Venezuela” – an obvious temptation for some countries. Is this being tied to the conditions of the loans Haiti is receiving? This is a story that hasn’t really been picked up by the mainstream media. Here is a link to the full World Oil article:

    Posted April 28, 2010 at 9:11 am | Permalink
  4. Daniel Altman wrote:

    @Cynic: It’s true that Haiti has had a difficult past, but its future was looking rather more promising at the time of the earthquake. I visited Port-au-Prince and Jacmel in August. The security situation was reasonably under control, and the democratically elected government was trying hard to enhance its functional capacity. Foreign investment was finally starting to trickle into the country. We shouldn’t discount the possibility that things might have been heading in the right direction with Haitians in charge. (I might add, though it hardly seems necessary, that some of Haiti’s past difficulties were caused by the intervention of foreign powers such as France and the US.) I agree that this will be an “interesting experiment” for the donors, but the Haitian people will by and large be involuntary guinea pigs.

    Posted April 28, 2010 at 9:25 am | Permalink
  5. Sam Gardner wrote:

    It is disconcerting, but what is, in the current situation the alternative?

    In some way, bilateralism, with a respectful partner might be better for building an Haiti that can govern itself than ” management by donor committee”.

    Instead of just noting the unsettling reality, perhpas we should brainstorm on alternatives? and what if there are no other options?

    Posted April 28, 2010 at 1:01 pm | Permalink
  6. Rebecca Ladd wrote:

    Unreal! See my blog for what one woman has been doing.

    Posted April 28, 2010 at 3:13 pm | Permalink
  7. Mill wrote:

    I can understand bi-lateral and multi-lateral aid. In part I can respect it and in part I am disappointed that agencies and governments are using this disaster to push their political agendas.

    Which is what I don’t understand. Haven’t we learned and understood that democratic processes and civil societies need to come from within? Democratic governments and liberal economic policies can’t be forced on to a nation from the outside, however desperately they may need it. No, these things must come from within. Without the domestic demand for civic organizations, liberal economic policies and free rights, there is no point in trying to force the issue. You can only encourage the society to structure a framework for these rights and ideals.

    Instead, when these organizations remove themselves from Haiti years down the road, they will create in a power vacuum. Who will fill this vacuum? Baby Doc Duvalier, perhaps?

    Posted April 28, 2010 at 3:45 pm | Permalink
  8. edawg wrote:

    Can we please make Jeffrey Sachs the President for Life of CIRH?

    Posted April 28, 2010 at 5:27 pm | Permalink
  9. Ray wrote:

    Yes nothing bad has ever come of well intentioned wealthy interests injecting their own views of how a country should be run on others. How many of these people speak French or even understand Haitian Creole?

    Next they’ll want to set up a logging campaign as a way to boost Haitian exports. The lack of Haitian influence on the decisions is going to lead to negative consequences.

    Posted April 28, 2010 at 5:29 pm | Permalink

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    The Aid Watch blog is a project of New York University's Development Research Institute (DRI). This blog is principally written by William Easterly, author of "The Elusive Quest for Growth: Economists' Adventures and Misadventures in the Tropics" and "The White Man's Burden: Why the West's Efforts to Aid the Rest Have Done So Much Ill and So Little Good," and Professor of Economics at NYU. It is co-written by Laura Freschi and by occasional guest bloggers. Our work is based on the idea that more aid will reach the poor the more people are watching aid.

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