Which NGOs are doing a good job in Haiti?

Last week journalist, Michele Mitchell Tweeted me to ask who or which aid organizations are doing a good job in Haiti.  I didn’t want to Tweet back, “I dunno,” without explaining so here goes.

As vital as international NGOs can be, they’re not first on my mind when thinking of what works in Haiti. In truth I’d rather brainstorm, innovate and build long-term programs that strengthen the country, i.e. job creation, investing in entrepreneurs, strategic economic development, public-private partnerships, bolstering public sector capacity. But INGOs operating on a charity or short-term aid model dominate Haiti’s landscape so (shrug) unfortunately they dominate The Haiti Conversation, too.

I can’t really answer Michele’s question though because, well, how would I gauge who’s doing a good job? Short of personally tracking an aid group in the field over the last year, the only evidence I have is INGO and UN aid agency press releases.  And as a recent industry article felt the need to point out to my peers, taking the word of the organization you’re covering isn’t journalism:

Western journalists, for their part, tend to be far too trusting of aid officials, according to veteran Dutch correspondent Linda Polman. In her book The Crisis Caravan, she cites as one example the willingness of journalists to be guided around NGO-run refugee camps without asking tough questions about possible corruption or the need for such facilities. She writes, “Aid organizations are businesses dressed up like Mother Teresa, but that’s not how reporters see them.” …

For a start, [journalists] can stop depending so heavily, and uncritically, on aid organizations for statistics, subjects, stories, and sources. They can also educate themselves on how to find and interpret data available from independent sources.

Another thing I don’t know: what a ‘good job’ looks like, now, for INGOs. Disaster response is easy to measure; Haitians owe their lives to the World Visions and Do-It-Yourselfers who deployed in the weeks and months following the earthquake. But a year on, and after donations have dried up, a “good job” for an INGO is probably the lowest standard of cross-border assistance of all: do what you can. And because of that my biggest dilemma in recommending INGOs has always been a moral one.

I’ve criticized INGOs for operating under the ‘do what you can, it’s better than the nothing Haitians usually get,’ standard before. Here I’ll focus on hypocrisy, an unintended but defining quality of foreign volunteering.

I’m not elected by nor accountable to any Haitian.  But whenever I recommend help for one Haitian community, a choice that INGOs make all the time, I’m also choosing who goes without. That’s quite a responsibility but in the US we often skip that step.

(designed by Grant, Flickr)

Our local fundraisers and headlines understandably announce, Help Haiti, when they really mean help Specific Group X in Community Y located in Department Z. But choosing who gets your aid assumes the pleasures of governing but none of the responsibility for the excluded. It’s a charge that foreigners and some diaspora Haitians enjoy levying at the Haitian state without giving much thought to how they, too, may be replicating some of the state’s actions.

Last summer I watched a small group of Americans fix up a house for a widow living in Carrefour Feuilles (basically, P-au-P’s equivalent of what the South Bronx was to New York City in the 1980s). While they hammered, poured concrete and painted I watched the widow’s neighbors crowding the street in a semi-circle, also watching.  Why does she get a house? Why did they choose her? What about me? Why does she deserve a house and not my mother, my aunt, my sister, my grandmother? Even though they felt the tension, the mission group probably rested easy in knowing they didn’t have long to suffer. They’d soon be on a plane to Tennessee.

So how did the Americans select this widow to get her fundamental human right?  She knew a Haitian who happened to know them.  Lucky her. Unlucky neighbors. The bigger problem: that’s how Haiti (doesn’t) work.  You have to know someone to get basic needs like safety, housing, food, water. What does it say then when Americans enter this system–of which they are sometimes gleefully critical–and do the same thing?  Perhaps a reader can explain in comments why my countrymen, when abroad, don’t feel obligated to operate under the rules of our own welfare system.

Income, not connections, determines whether needy American families receive food assistance, housing, or medical care.  Haitians would probably benefit from a similarly impersonal system not least because it communicates fairness. And fairness in Haiti is like water in a desert. Foreigners should always bring water, not more sand.

Besides Partners in Health I’m drawing a blank on INGOs to recommend to Michele. Please suggest others in comments.  Let’s compile a list of INGOs that operate as though they’re trying to work themselves out of a job.


20 Comments to “Which NGOs are doing a good job in Haiti?”

  1. Hi Carla, Thank you for your work in Port-Au-prince Haiti. But would you like to help Children in North? You’ll be surprise to see how many children need help there in Cape-Haitian poorest areas.
    Here is some of them that I’m helping to help. http://www.atcac.net

  2. Haiti endowment Fund has been in Hinch for more than 25 years. They have deeply impacted this community in a positive way. They provide churches, schools, agriculture training, feeding program and excellent medical care. Not a single American takes a salary.

  3. My daughter Rachel is currently in Haiti in Marmelade and would like to go to Port Au Prince this week. I am assisting her to find an apartment close to Petionville. Any suggestions or contacts would be much appreciated.

    Toronto Canada

  4. Look at the work of Father Rick and Nos Petit Freres et Sours.

    • Hullo, thanks for the recommendation–but is there a way for blog readers to independently verify it?

      Or anecdotally, how is Father Rick building sustainability into his work?


  5. look what i found!

    wow… look at the United States… my heart swells with gratitude… i’ve gotta admit when i look at the list of nations helping in Haiti… my hope, with all fear & cynicism aside, is that good, lasting outcomes result from all their efforts.

    this one creeps me out a bit for some reason…:


    I’m going to Haiti. There is work to be done!

  6. My question is why is there a free-for-all type of environment with the INGO’s in Haiti? How does the Haitian government decide who to say yes to? Or do they? Are INGO’s just showing up?? 10,000 NGOs is A LOT of ‘help’ in a country with that size population. At some point, one has to reasonably think that

    1. some are not really there to help the nation rebuild, but are there for financial gain/opportunity or for some other malevolence.
    2. some must be in conflict with each other or are undermining the work or each other; b/c how could that many INGO’s still be there; i.e., no clear diminishing of their presence with an increase in Haitian stability/independence??
    3. and for those INGO’s that are leaving or have left b/c there’s no longer any media attention; what where they doing there in the first place? and what infrastructure needs to be put in place so that these absconders & their ilk don’t return/or are never allowed in from the start?

    I definitely feel that all the INGO’s aren’t there for altruistic reasons and being one of the Haitians of the Diaspora wanting to go to Haiti to help, I find it difficult to know who to work with/for or trust.

    As for the group of Haitians who stood around and watched a woman’s home get built: my question is, why didn’t the group help? why not help each other rebuild instead of standing around feeling upset that yours isn;’t getting rebuilt for you? Why hot negotiate/propose/initiate a solution that puts you at the center of being your own help? Haitians have a strong legacy of innovation and strength in the face of soul-killing brutality; I know what we are capable of achieving.

    ONE group from Tennessee can’t do it all, nor should they feel guilty for doing WHAT they were able to do. Now, a better thing would be to provide materials and teach Haitians how to rebuild their own houses so that they now have the skills- in fact, the dependence on outside help is crippling Haitians in some of the most astonishing ways. There is a definite relationship between ‘helping’ a nation and the debt that nation has to pay off. Additionally, there is a definite relationship between Haiti’s 50% reliance on imported food to their deforested land and their dependence on external agencies.

    Who, both within and outside of Haiti, benefits from keeping Haiti dependent? Who are those that are participating in the oppression of others (and themselves/their people)?

    The corruption & greed & class divisions in Haiti repulses me. The child slavery (restavek) “system’ is a disgrace to all that is sacred. Any abuse of a child in any part of this planet is an abomination against Life & Love. Harming others, period (to bottom line this point) is a maddening lowering of our human potential.

    Anyway, the reason I bring the class, greed, child slavery up is this: what truly strong foundation can really be built in this nation if this sort of behavior is condoned and promoted on ANY level of society? If enslaving children isn’t at the forefront of one’s mind when thinking of rebuilding Haiti, that’s totally naive – no it’s willfully negligent. Who is the nation being rebuilt for if not for its children? What sort of leaders will be entrusted with power to speak for those that elected them? What are the values that are learned and what are the values that knit the fabric of a society?

    Thank you for your post, your website and for all the contributing posts. I appreciate the level of honesty and compassion in all the posts.

    • c’est moi, thank you for commenting, i really appreciate it. as far as the group of Haitians who watched the woman’s home being fixed up, should they work for free? why should they work for free? besides their duty to exchange labor for pay, what shall they tell their parents, wives, children when they return home after a day’s work with no money for food, medicine, clothes or school fees?

      I try not to jump on the ‘what Haitians need’ bandwagon as it’s already crowded but Haitians need jobs. Period. Until the ‘let’s save Haiti’ machine–this includes too many diaspora Haitians–reorients itself away from volunteering to that basic development fact (that and free education for school-age children as well as a working justice system), change will move slower than molasses.

  7. There are plenty of good organisations doing good work out here, whoever was involved in keeping the cholera outbreak under control would be one (MSF? Red Cross?) and there are thousands of shelters being built to get people out of camps by agencies (Red Cross, UNOPS, Habitat for Humanity, Haven(who i work for). These INGOs are not perfect but they do have a lot of talented people, including many haitians, who do a lot of good work.

    On the longer term development side, many of these organisations have been here for 25+ years, but what I would consider as the ‘need’ is so huge that it simply hasn’t been solved yet. Its pretty obvious that this is at least in part due to lack of investment in Haitian organisations, but there are some great ones out there. FIDA-pcH have a good track record of helping Haitian people to plan and implement their own development projects (they focus on agricultural co-operatives) and with the organisation I work for, I’ve been helping an incredibly motivated group of about 200 families who have started relocating out of Port au Prince develop a housing programme, led by an organisation called CADIGE, Also, there is a capacity building of local government going on, such as that between UNOPS and the ministry for public works, and between the UN and the police forces.

    • Hi Gareth, I’m conflicted about your reply. Great: name good organizations and especially the *type* of help they offer. It’s nuance we often don’t see in a conversation where the starting point is that, NGOs = good. What makes me wary however is a reflex I’ve noticed among many, to apologize for NGOs, i.e. “there are plenty of good organisations doing good work,” and “These INGOs are not perfect but…”. I don’t doubt any of that but let’s keep our eyes on the prize, which is fostering/catalyzing *lasting* change in Haiti. Apologist statements, even if true, don’t do that. They plateau conversation, they protect and defend what already exists. And while I understand that the urge to self-protect and defend, it does little to open discussion and move our aid/NGO conversation towards the prize.

      • I guess to start with, it seems that I’m on the more optimistic side when it comes to looking at what has been done in Haiti., but think maybe one way to open the discussion further is to considering something you said there. “What sort of lasting change do you want to foster/catalyze?”

        For me one thing that I would like to see changed is a greater focus on having Haitians lead their own development, leading to more effective long-term development programmes. Thats because I think that they would be focused on the actual, rather than the perceived, needs of people, and also would be led by people with a good understanding of the context in which the programme is operating. My personal idea of a good organisation would be one who I thought were doing this well. Actually, I think the whole business support thing that Evert Bopps mentions in her comment on this page is one part of what I’m talking about.)

        What lasting change do you want to see, and do you think anyone is making progress towards it?

      • Hi Gareth, (First, Evert’s a dude. 🙂 Second, to answer your question re: who’s making progress, I don’t have the answer. As I say above, who does? Who tracks this stuff? Who reports on it independently outside of NGOs–who have a vested interest in showing their work as necessary? That’s not a diss, just a recognition of how any organization–nonprofit or for–survives. So one of the huge problems re: Haiti is lack of consistent and quality information that helps the public to know, who’s making progress on catalyzing lasting, sustainable change?

        Re: your goal of Haitian-led development, what does that look like practically? For example, do foreigners want to fund Haitian-run orgs? Do INGO employees want to share equal decision-making with their in-country counterparts? Will foreigners support Haitian-led development with a state whose reputation for corruption speaks louder than any effort it might undertake?

      • Gareth, this looks like a promising initiative (which is also IOM supported, I believe). http://citizenhaiti.com/lettersfromhaiti/

        What’s needed in addition to the information above, now, is analysis. Do Haitian journos, for example, have access to these citizen complaints?

  8. I can’t even begin to think of a solution for this conundrum. I think all charity organizations – even those in the US – run into the problem of being more accountable to their funders than the people they serve. Each organization is going to have different measurement metrics based on each foundation that supports them financially. Even if the Haitian government were to get a hold on all the NGO’s operating in Haiti in terms of what they do and who pays for it, deciding which is “doing a good job” would be a long way off. But, we should definitely keep this thought in the forefront of our minds going forward. Great post!

    • Hey, thanks, Deborah. I agree, at this point, just the GOH simply knowing who’s in the country and what they’re doing would be a great leap ahead. It can happen though. (erm. cue the, Yes we can, music).

  9. Great post, Carla. Unfortunately, I can’t think of that many INGO’s trying to “work themselves out of a job” as you put it. But it would be handy to have such a list. I think, really, what it comes down to, is that those on the outside who want to contribute are going to have to be willing to put a little more work into it. Identify what “cause” is most important to them: education? health? culture? sanitation? housing? Identify which Haitian groups, companies, individuals are doing good work in that sector. Perhaps maybe a particular region or neighborhood they’d like to help. Identification can happen via websites or news coverage or word of mouth. Then, contact those on the ground and ask how they can contribute. What do you need? Money? Know-how? Partnerships? And go from there. I fully admit that this process is time-consuming, but in the end, it has the potential to have a much bigger impact than just throwing money at the INGO with the brightest logo.

    • “Identify which Haitian groups, companies, individuals are doing good work in that sector.” — this just gave me an idea for another post but, what system exists in Haiti for foreigners to gauge which groups are to be trusted? Ideally the state should assume this function, i.e. the equivalent of 501c3 and the federal oversight that entails. In its absence however, what can foreigners use?

  10. As I said earlier in our chat on Twitter I fully agree with what you point out in the article. I too rushed to Haiti last year with the mind-set that “any help is better than none” which is really in hindsight the last thing Haiti needs. However I have learned. I have spoken to lots of people in Haiti (or Haitians living abroad) but most of all I have learned to look & listen.
    And without going into a big long monologue I have learned that what Haiti really need is for the Haitians to help themselves. That does not mean that they should be left to their fate but it means that any improvement & development should be first & foremost Haitian driven. Off course we need new houses, hospitals, schools, roads, utility services and lots lots more but in addition to that the people of Haiti need to be given the tools and the knowledge to improve and determine their own future. Now I have no long historical ties with Haiti, my political & historical knowledge of the country is scant but the above is my impression and what have learned from my 12 months of involvement.

    On that note I would appreciate feedback on a project that I am currently working on. It’s something that will hopefully teach (Haitian) participants the spirit & skills of entrepreneurship. It is something that can run alongside the many vocational training programmes currently taking place. It will basically teach “The business of doing business”. Click on the following link, have a look and please give me some feedback: http://haiti-connect.org/2011/03/i-have-a-dream/

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