Commentary: Haiti's ingrained suspicion of international 'help'

The Kansas City StarJanuary 21, 2012 

Two years after the earthquake that shattered its buildings and soul, Haiti has grown sick of compassion.

Citizens, nations and charities responded quickly after the Jan. 12, 2010, quake that claimed 250,000 lives and left more than a million persons homeless. Non-governmental aid organizations rushed in with medical supplies, food and water, and tents. Their trucks and tents still crowd the landscape. And that’s become a problem.

“The humanitarian response was so appreciated that few could have predicted two years later the long and deep thread of anger toward NGOs that now runs through Haitian society,” wrote Marjorie Valbrun, a Haitian-American journalist, who published an extensive report for the Center for Public Integrity’s iWatch News (www.iwatchnews.org).

Valbrun’s report and others offer a lesson in the complexities of providing disaster aid.

Haiti’s plight prompted about $3 billion in donations to charities. Nations pledged $4.6 billion in international aid. But today more than half a million persons still live in emergency tents. Only half of the money promised by the international community has materialized.

There are many reasons for the slow progress, including Haiti’s crippling bureaucracy and a scarcity of homegrown institutions capable of helping citizens. But foreign aid workers are easy targets for resentment.

As Valbrun points out, aid workers live in nice houses, ride in air-conditioned SUVs and frequent trendy nightclubs while Haitians live in tents or shacks and get around by foot or overcrowded open-air trucks.

Haitians perceive that aid money is making others rich while they suffer. Their suspicion has some merit. The Center for Economic Policy Research has reported that U.S. for-profit companies with Washington connections received more than 80 percent of the Haiti contracts awarded by the U.S. Agency for International Development. Less than 3 percent of the funds went to Haitian companies.

Even before the quake, Haitians had a healthy suspicion of foreigners coming in “to help” or to “keep the peace,” which usually meant imposing military rule.

This is especially true of the United States, whose troubling history in Haiti includes a humiliating 19-year Marine occupation in the early 1900s and, more recently, support for the murderous father-and-son Duvalier regime.

In her book “The Rainy Season,” journalist Amy Wilentz writes of her stay in Haiti after the fall of the Duvalier regime and the conviction among Haitian citizens that an amorphous “American plan” was responsible for troubles ranging from a ruinous economy to polluted offshore waters.

Now it appears the United Nations and other major aid groups have taken over at least part of that role.

The iWatch News report details hostility toward aid groups evidenced in conversations, in the media and in angry graffiti painted on walls around Port-au-Prince, the capital.

I visited Haiti with a church group last summer and witnessed some of that — big X’s painted over the names of aid organizations, for instance. It’s obvious from the downcast eyes and unsmiling stares of Haitians on the street that citizens are not embracing the many foreigners still flocking to their nation.

That’s not to say that aid organizations and volunteers aren’t there with good intentions and doing good work. The country desperately needs expertise in health care, education and infrastructure. But no one wants to be a ward of compassion, especially if outsiders are making all the decisions, as Haitians complain.

My group’s project in Haiti involved helping to replace a church in a rural area that was destroyed by the quake.

Our monetary contributions paid a team of Haitian carpenters decent wages to work on the construction.

They were highly capable and needed little help. I spent most of the work time playing with the children who flocked to the site each day.

I’d like to think those children will grow up thinking better of Americans, but I have my doubts.

Their needs are great, and they won’t be quickly met either by well-meaning intervention or by the world’s avoidance.

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