By Ida Di Stasio
Haiti is the poorest country of the Western Hemisphere, and seems to be plagued by natural, economic, and political disasters. Deadly earthquakes, epidemic outbreaks, corruption, short-lived governments, and ultimately gang violence have entered the routine of this Caribbean country. But what lies at the roots of this catastrophe? How did the Pearl of Antilles become an “NGO republic”?
First, we mustn’t forget the colonial past of Haiti. The island was part of the French Empire, which came with slavery, violence, and exploitation. The ties with France didn’t end with the Revolution that made Haiti the first “black republic”, and the second oldest republic of the world in 1804. Indeed, the French asked for exorbitant reparations, as losing that colony represented an immense economic loss for the Empire, and Haiti had to accept the deal if it wanted to be recognized as an independent State. Freedom and self-determination did not come for free, and instead led the country to take huge loans from European banks, French ones above all, ending up allocating huge shares of the budget to debt repayment. The consequences of this debt spiral were, of course, political, and economic instability.
Once Haiti’s economy was improving again, and some stability was restored, another imperialistic superpower started claiming influence on the island State: the United States.
Ever since their invasion of Haiti in 1915, the US has played a crucial, and not so positive, role in the country’s political and economic life. To cite the American diplomat Foote, “From the time the US Marines landed in 1915 until today — with a couple of exceptions — the US has chosen every leader, in different ways. And each time we do that, Haiti gets marginally worse because [the leaders] come in and turn into corrupt, if they weren’t already, knuckleheads, and then they start running a kleptocracy. This is generational, this has been pent up for decades.”. Imposed changes in Haiti’s domestic law contributed to the impoverishment of the country’s resources and exacerbation of inequalities and social unrest. Indeed, many sugar companies were bought by American entrepreneurs, who expropriated the indigenous people’s land and incentivized deforestation to expand the cultivable land. This, together with a soaring rise in the island’s population that created a need for new land to live on and live by, constituted a lethal mix for aggressive deforestation. Haiti is now 98% deforested, and this greatly impacts its fragility and sensitivity to natural catastrophes, especially floodings. To understand how deforestation awfully impacts the country, we can just take a look at the Dominican Republic, that borders Haiti. The difference in forestation is stark, and so is the difference in destruction after natural disasters.
The US imperialistic presence on the island didn’t help supporting local capacity building and economic growth but fostered corruption and kleptocracy instead. What the Haitians are left with are instability and vulnerability, which has naturally led to further dependence on foreign powers. Indeed, foreign aid usually accounts for 30 to 40% of Haiti’s government budget, and the US government has promised to channel 13 billion dollars of aid in the decade following the 2011 earthquake. Yet, the country’s path to reconstruction and development seems long and greatly troubled.
As a matter of fact, the World Bank estimates that, after the Covid-19 pandemic, the extreme poverty rate has risen to 30.32%, that is the share of people living with less than 2.15$ a day. It comes with little surprise that, in such an economic crackdown, many of the few sources of income comprise illegal activities, such as gang membership. Moreover, according to the Human Capital Index, one-fifth of children are at risk of cognitive and physical limitations, and only 78% of 15-year-old have a life expectancy that exceeds 60 years.
There is clearly something that is not working in all this humanitarian and cooperation effort, and the problem can be detected by looking at how the aid funding is channeled. Little to no aid is given to and administered by Haitian’s organizations or government: it is almost all in the hands of foreign NGOs. The island country is mockingly called a republic of NGOs for a reason: more than 3000 organizations operate there, making Haiti the country with the highest number of NGOs per capita.
Non-Haitian organizations often need to respond and adapt to other government’s demands and goals, and often lack transparency and accountability. This makes the humanitarian intervention ineffective, not responding to the people’s real needs, and creates mistrust among the population.
This was confirmed by a survey taking place in Les Cayes, a small town in the South of Haiti, which was affected by a violent earthquake in 2021. In this survey, respondents expressed their concerns regarding aid. 98% of interviewed people expected to know how the aid money would have been spent, but the great majority of them didn’t know how it actually happens. The transparency gap has created huge mistrust in humanitarian agencies and operators, even because, as many respondents noted, aid’s targeting is poor, and many people in need don’t get any help. What is more, only 36% of respondents believe that aid may help their community to live without aid in the future.
Haiti’s people should be empowered to provide for themselves, and build their own future, and this cannot be achieved by the current aid strategy. A good first step forward would be to channel funding directly to the government- in this case, to the few still functioning parts. This is proven to improve transparency, and to provide services more efficiently. Moreover, people should be listened to, they surely know better what the real needs and priorities of their own communities are.