This month marks the fourth anniversary of the earthquake in Haiti and the one-year anniversary of the most important written work to emerge from the rubble thus far — Jonathan Katz’s The Big Truck That Went By.
Katz, a veteran journalist who lived in Haiti before, during and after the temblor, dispelled with his book the myth that Haitians misappropriated or profited from billions of dollars in post-quake foreign aid. While it is true that billions were pledged for Haiti at the International Donors’ Conference held on March 31, 2010, the majority of the funding that actually materialized has supported a vast infrastructure of international relief organizations.
According to Katz, “most of the money pledged by foreign governments had never been meant for Haitian consumption . . . If anything, much of the money was a stimulus program for the donor countries themselves.”
As the “big truck” of foreign aid continues going by in Haiti, foreign organizations are becoming more deeply embedded in Haitian society, a complex and dysfunctional dynamic that feels nearly inescapable at times. The solution for this predicament is for the international community to immediately begin increasing its level of direct budget support to the Haitian government, an approach that will empower local leadership and strengthen the nation’s economy, while reducing the country’s dependence on NGO services.
As a pro bono advisor to Gerald Oriol, Jr., Haiti’s secretary of State for the Integration of Persons with Disabilities, I experienced events of the last two years from the perspective of the Haitian government. I witnessed firsthand NGO representatives pitching yet another awareness campaign because they had funding to use up before the end of their fiscal year, and I waited helplessly as larger projects contingent on foreign aid and oversight stalled within the political bureaucracies of other countries.
Such projects often appear like the proverbial carrot, dangling just beyond the reach of Haitian officials, who must decide how much of their valuable time to devote to working with international organizations. To add insult to injury, if these initiatives fail to produce the desired results, there is often the implication that the Haitians fumbled the ball, even though their government is rarely allowed to design the projects or manage the budgets.
President Michel Martelly and Prime Minister Laurent Lamothe spent considerable time over the last two years traveling throughout the Caribbean, South America and Africa in search of partner states willing to offer direct support of the government’s operating budget.
Critics of this approach argue the Haitian government is too corrupt and inept to manage these funds. It’s a convenient excuse for those supporting the status quo.
When I asked Secretary Oriol what steps he would be willing to take in order to receive direct budget support from foreign donors, he offered a list of pragmatic and achievable examples, such as posting his agency’s budget and expenditures on the web, having staff participate in financial training sessions, submitting to an annual outside audit and receiving incremental direct budget support as his agency demonstrates proficiency in managing increasingly larger sums of money.
Imagine what Haiti’s secretary with the disability portfolio (who incidentally has a master’s degree from Harvard) could do with $10 million of direct budget support. Instead, when $10 million is awarded to NGOs working in the field of disability, a substantial portion of the funding goes toward the NGOs’ operating costs, while the balance trickles down to Haiti’s estimated 1 million citizens with disabilities.
There is no doubt the international community saved lives in Haiti following the earthquake. While some of these organizations like Partners In Health and the OAS are now working to strengthen the Haitian government, the international community continues to spend millions of dollars on airline tickets, hotel rooms, SUVs and salaries to put people on the ground in Port-au-Prince.
If a significant portion of this funding were instead channeled directly and responsibly into the Haitian economy via the Haitian government, the results could be profound.
James English works at Texas Christian University and serves as an adviser to Gerald Oriol, Jr., Haiti’s Secretary of State for the Integration of Persons with Disabilities.