In the first post following Lavarice Gaudin’s visit to Minnesota, we argued that development is political. Any NGO that ignores the political factors perpetuating Haiti’s poverty can’t contribute to meaningful, structural changes.
This time, we outline the steps you can take to get involved in a better way. These steps apply whether you’re an NGO looking to do work in Haiti, or a donor looking to give money. The Haiti Justice Alliance was established with the belief that these steps are critical to successfully working for real change in Haiti:
- Research the history of the problem you want to work on as well as the method you want to use to get involved;
- Empower people in Haiti through partnership rather than unilateral action;
- Complement existing efforts rather than duplicating them.
Why Don’t More People Do This Already?
There are, of course, many who work in Haiti effectively, but several obstacles make this regrettably uncommon.
For starters, US government involvement reads like a laundry list of pitfalls to avoid in Haiti. People who take their cues from US aid programs are almost certain to get it wrong.
Unfortunately, the private sector also sets a bad example, because profits outweigh assessing the effectiveness or appropriateness of an intervention.
For instance, our last post explained why donating food aid to Haiti is destructive. Yet, the US Potato Board excitedly promotes shipping emergency food to Haiti – not because it’s effective, but because it contains US-grown dehydrated potatoes. Similarly, the Hilton Hotel chain promotes sending used hotel soap to countries like Haiti – not because it’s appropriate, but because it helps Hilton deal with its excess soap bars in a PR-friendly fashion.
In other words, there are examples of ineffective, inappropriate aid work everywhere you turn. Which is why it’s important to discuss an alternative approach.
Realizing Our Ideals for Engaging in Haiti
“US government actions in Haiti have been dominated by, what we call ‘interests.’ But without your support – the support of US citizens – it would’ve been much worse.” – Lavarice
At every speaking engagement, Lavarice gave some version of that collective compliment to those of us engaged in Haiti activism. But his words were not meant as blanket praise of every do-gooder’s efforts. Indeed, he consistently reinforced the notion that there are effective and ineffective/inappropriate ways to get involved. We’ve distilled his points down to three principles: research, empower and complement.
Research the history of the problem, as well as the approach you want to take to solve it. While many issues in Haiti are complex, getting started in the right direction doesn’t require dissertation-level study.
For instance, if you Google “why can’t Haiti produce enough food” and “causes of hunger in Haiti,” 10 out of the 20 first-page results discuss cheap food imports/food aid undermining Haiti’s agriculture. Even if you hadn’t heard it before, this would give you reason to suspect that importing food is part of the problem, not part of the solution. Thus alerted, you can easily seek out the expert practitioners and academics that have quantified the negative impact of food imports.
An equally important part of your research should be asking the people you seek to help what they need. To continue with the current theme: listening to Haitians or reading their writing clearly shows that people want to grow food rather than take food donations.
Outside help only spurs sustainable development when foreign groups cultivate equal partnerships with those they hope to assist. Longtime Haiti activist Paul Farmer emphasizes this by urging outside NGOs to “accompany” local efforts rather than dictating terms to them. The anonymous development blogger “J.” echoes this when he explains that aid has failed in Haiti because “outsiders have never once been up to the task of being part of the Haiti conversation without simultaneously imposing our will.”
The logic is straightforward: Haitian citizens and the Haitian government will be there long after aid workers leave. Therefore, if the systems you implement bypass Haitians, their impact inherently can’t be sustainable. And, as the next section discusses, bypassing Haitian groups may not just be unsustainable, but actively harmful.
If an NGO is already working in the sector you want to work in – particularly a Haitian-run NGO – it’s simply irresponsible to start a separate project. For donors, if you want to fund work in a sector, find an NGO with a history doing that type of work instead of backing the newest start-up.
Policymakers admit that aid is “fragmented,” and therefore less effective, because of the many NGOs doing redundant work. However, the phenomenon of ever more foreigners coming in with new projects is more than ineffective. It starves locally run efforts of the human and financial resources necessary to work do their own work.
How Does The Haiti Justice Alliance Fit In?
Our work is guided by the principles listed above. We produce and publicize research about Haiti’s problems and the right and wrong ways to address them. We also bring Haitian leaders to Minnesota, so folks here can hear directly about Haiti’s needs from people who know them best.
When it comes to action, we seek to empower Haitian grassroots efforts by connecting them with financial resources, as well as interns and professional expertise to assist them in their work. Our very organizational structure was established on the principle that it is better to strengthen existing efforts rather than duplicate them.
As goes without saying, these principles could be applied to work in other countries as well. The sad truth, however, is that the history of US work in Haiti is chock-full of historical ignorance, unilateral action, and disregard for Haitian initiatives.
Getting involved in one of HJA’s student chapters (at Carleton, St. Olaf, or the University of Minnesota), or becoming an HJA supporter, is a great way to support doing the right type of work in Haiti.