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.
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.