Haiti, a small Caribbean nation of nearly 10 million inhabitants, was struck by a devastating earthquake on 12 January 2010. This natural disaster left behind 300,000 casualties, several hundred thousand people injured, and over one million homeless or displaced.1 According to Fatton, Haiti’s long and difficult path towards recovery, even prior to the earthquake, should be understood through the lens of its colonial past.2 He writes that the “material and historical inheritance of the colonial period and the slaves struggle for emancipation weigh heavily on the present”, and indicates that the country has long embraced a legacy of authoritarian politics, which have unquestionably resulted in poor governance and a corrosion of democratic values and norms.3
Despite the earthquake happening a decade ago, and billions of dollars being spent in the country, Haiti still has not recovered from the catastrophe. Two main factors may help explain the reason for this unfortunate outcome, namely the weakness of the Haitian public institutions and the disorganization of international aid, particularly from international non-governmental organizations (INGOs). The island state is no stranger to the latter. Dubbed the “Republic of NGOs”, Haiti has had a staggering presence of 3,000 to 10,000 agencies on the ground for over 30 years and was the country with the most privatized social-service sector in the Americas, even prior to the earthquake.4 The country’s relationship with INGOs however, has been far from easy. Several months after the earthquake, members of the United Nations peacekeeping mission in Haiti were accused of triggering a cholera outbreak, which went on for seven years and killed nearly 10,000 inhabitants.5
NGOs have undoubtedly emerged in the country as prominent non-state actors. Most worryingly, however, the help provided by them seems to have backfired, thus transforming Haiti into an aid-dependent nation. According to a study conducted by Zanotti, even prior to the 2010 earthquake, they provided “70 percent of healthcare, and private schools (mostly NGO-managed) accounted for 85 percent of national education”.6 7
Moreover, “charities and NGOs have become the main thoroughfare for foreign assistance as a result of the immense volatility in Haitian politics and U.S. reluctance to give aid directly to the Haitian government”. Certainly, the role that these non-governmental agencies play in offering citizens basic services, such as access to education, healthcare and employment is fundamental. However, several studies carried out in recent years have shed light on the effectiveness (or lack thereof) of the presence of NGOs in sustained state and peace-building process in Haiti. In this regard, the following article seeks to explore how the dominance and unaccountability of INGOs has further undermined the state-building process of Haiti since the earthquake in 2010.
NGOs: Contested Roles, Ambivalent Intentions
According to some scholars, the first golden age of NGOs and non-state actors (henceforth NSAs) occurred between 1880 and 1914. During this time frame, their international presence grew significantly, as their numbers rose from approximately 5 in 1850 to approximately 330 at the start of the World War I.8 Furthermore, these NGOs and NSAs became further involved in the global scenario, moving towards Latin America, Africa and Asia in vast numbers and become powerful mechanisms behind government policies and public opinion. Observers even began to speak of what they dubbed a ‘world opinion’, suggesting the apparent ‘homogenizing’ influence of NGOs and NSAs on citizen perceptions across the world.
Defining NGOs has been a very complex task to fulfil throughout the decades. According to Abramson, the “ways in which people construct the meaning of NGOs – what they are supposed to accomplish, what actually constitutes a genuine nongovernmental organization, and how much definitions really matter- are highly contestable”.9 On one hand, the World Bank defines NGOs as “private organizations that pursue activities to relieve suffering, promote the interests of the poor, protect the environment, provide basic social services, or undertake community development”.10 On the other, the United Nations’ definition indicates that an NGO is “any non-profit, voluntary citizens’ group which is organized on a local, national or international level. Task-oriented and driven by people with a common interest, NGOs perform a variety of services and humanitarian functions, bring citizens’ concerns to Governments, monitor policies and encourage political participation at the community level”.11
This notion of NGOs being watchdogs resonates with what then-UN Secretary General Kofi Annan had expressed about their responsibility to “hold states’ feet to the fire”. Bearing this in mind, is it also no surprise that both NGOs and NSAs have become entities operating in parallel with national governments across the globe – some experts suggest that these may even ‘pursue high-minded idealistic goals and they can also advocate realist programs that serve the interests of their specific organizations (….) Most significantly, they can pursue peace and stability, or they can embrace goals that include violence and brutality”.12 Some of the first studies focusing on the relation between NGOs and state emerged in the 1990s, with John Clark being one of the first authors to frame this topic. He proposed that “there are basically three different ways in which NGOs can relate to the state: 1) complementing it, by filling gaps, providing services, 2) opposing it, either directly or by lobbying against it, together with local groups and in support of locals, and 3) reforming it, working with the grassroots, helping them raise concerns at state level and working with governments to improve policies”.13
Most experts and analysts propose that NGOs and NSAs share virtues ranging from the protection of human rights, fostering economic and social justice, advocating for environmental awareness, among others. Undoubtedly, their participation and subsequent influence as transnational actors in domestic and global affairs cannon be denied. While this article will not delve into this broad topic in particular, the author wishes to explore the negative impact that NGOs have brought upon Haiti, a country already plagued by a legacy of corruption, weak institutionalism, authoritarianism, poverty, and others. Hence, the assumptions that NGOs are necessarily better or more efficient than the state at fostering development can prove to be very flawed. The next chapter will explore how INGOs have hindered the process of state-building, drawing particularly from the aftermath of the 2010 earthquake.
Commoditising Goodwill? INGO Unaccountability in Haiti
The international response to the quake in Haiti was swift and unprecedented. The country received $9 billion in public and private donations, with official bilateral and multilateral donors pledging $13 billion. According to the UN Office of the Special Envoy for Haiti, almost half of these had been distributed by 2013.14 Nonetheless, much of the reconstruction and development efforts once pledged to the country have proved to be inefficient or inexistent until today.
The limited capacity of the Haitian government and vulnerable national institutions, fueled in part by foreign interventions throughout numerous decades, has resulted in a proliferation of NGOs and private contractors in Haiti. As it was previously indicated, it is difficult to pinpoint the exact number of NGOs operating in the island – this inability from the own local government to register or count these greatly sheds light on the existing gaps between the public sector and the nonprofit realm. For instance, programs and activities run by NGOs are usually not considered in government planning and as such, there is no systematic means to measure accountability amongst the various NSAs which operate under parallel obligations or coordinate similar projects.15
A study carried out in 2015 found that there is not readily-available evidence relating to the performance of NGOs in Haiti. According to Ramachandran, “negative outcomes or failures are almost never documented, at least in publicly available papers. Reports in the media have described inadequate supplies, inaccurate representations of successes, and questionable financial tracking, but we have very little direct evidence from NGOs or private contractors to confirm or refute these allegations”.16
This same research found that NGOs and private contractors appear to be the “primary intermediate recipients of this assistance for relief and reconstruction, with very little money going directly to the government of Haiti”. Furthermore, the Nonprofit Disaster Accountability Project attempted to address transparency issues in 2010 and conducted a survey among 196 organizations – only 20% responded to the task and stated, among other things, that they had received over $1.4 billion in donations but only reported about $730 million (or half of that) on relief efforts.17
A 2013 Government Accountability Office (GAO) investigation discovered that USAID had “underestimated the cost of infrastructure and housing projects, forcing it to substantially reduce the number of homes it originally planned to help build”. The GAO additionally found that “most USAID contracts went to non-Haitian companies, leaving local businesses out of any reconstruction benefit”.18 Additionally, research by The Guardian concluded that 94% of humanitarian funding went to UN agencies, donors’ own civilian and military entities, INGOs, and private contractors.19 Likewise, in 2015, an NPR investigation shed light on how the American Red Cross, which cashed in $500 million dollars from U.S. donors had only constructed 6 permanent houses, instead of the 132,000 it had declared.20
To add to an already complex relationship between Haiti and INGOs, OXFAM was involved in a sexual exploitation case which came to light in 2018. The INGO was accused of covering up an investigation into the hiring of underage sex workers for orgies by staff working in Haiti after the 2010 earthquake. In June of the same year, Haiti announced it was removing OXFAM GB’s right to operate in the country due to “violation of Haitian law and serious violation of the principle of the dignity of the human beings”.21
Where Is Haiti Now?
Indisputably, the nearly-absolute power held by aid groups, particularly INGOs (which operate independently of the Haitian government) has undermined an already weak state. This naturally results in the delegitimization of the state in the eyes of its citizens, as it is foreign workers – and not the public Haitian administration – who are taking care of basic services such as healthcare, education, food, and energy supplies. Paradoxically, though, INGOs have also become increasingly tarnished due to their blatant disregard for human rights violations, national sovereignty, regulations, and others.
Where is Haiti now in the aftermath of catastrophe? According to Human Rights Watch, political instability in the country continues to impede the Haitian’s government ability to “meet the basic needs of its people, resolve long-standing human rights problems, and address humanitarian crises”.22 Furthermore, as of January 2019, nearly 35,000 people lived in displacement camps formed after the 2010 earthquake and local authorities have yet to provide them with assistance in the resettlement process or in their safe return to their places of origin. Furthermore, illiteracy still remains a major problem in Haiti, with nearly one-half of Haitians aged 15 and older not having access to proper education.23
The local government has also been undermined with the presence of INGOs throughout the years. While these agencies are meant to fill the gaps in the services which states cannot provide, INGOs have been furthering the socio-economic and political divide in society. For example, INGOs such as the American Red Cross have been known to hire expatriates – rather than locals – for jobs within their organizations. These over-reliance on non-Haitian employees can potentially result in a brain drain within a society that is already grappling with high unemployment rates. Moreover, after the earthquake, many aid organizations outsourced the rebuilding of homes (which could have granted low-income Haitians with good work prospects) to international firms.24 In addition to this, considering that INGOs are behind the provision of 80% of basic services, there is little to no incentive for the government to do better.
Is Haiti doomed to forever be the “Republic of NGOs”? There is an urgent need for strengthening the relationship between NGOs – particularly INGOs – and the government of Haiti, striving to effectively build and sustain public institutions and government capacity. There are several factors to be taken into account – public trust towards the regime, the country’s over-reliance on international aid, widespread and blatant corruption and human rights abuse from the government, poverty, and others. In order for state-building to work, however, the process must involve local actors, which entails that the role of international intermediaries should be limited (if not banned). In an already fragile context, as is the case with Haiti, (re) building trust between the government and its citizens is pivotal. Additionally, seeking to create legislation that tackles modern issues and to promote a strong taskforce to enforce it is fundamental as well as paving the way for dialogue, a free press, a sustained civil society, and others.
In this article, I wished to shed light on the negative impact that international non-governmental organizations have had – and continue to have – in Haiti. As has been previously discussed, these organizations, which have become prominent non-state actors in domestic and world politics, have gone largely unaccounted for their largely unethical and illegal behaviour. While NGO sex scandals, money mismanagement, institutional corruption and others may not be new topics, they are still very much salient in our contemporary world and these issues need and should be addressed urgently and seriously.
How can the international community demand transparency and accountability from the Haitian government when the former is also being a (major) part of the problem? How do you build bridges between a population that has had enough with the very own people who are there to help fix them? The legacy of NGOs across the globe has become blurred and urgent oversight mechanisms are needed to help foster legality, transparency, enforceability, and justice for the crimes which have been committed in the past and in current times.
While there is the existence of global accountability initiatives, mandates and legislation, there is a concerning disregard towards the obligations and responsibilities their missions are bound by. As we have seen above, Haiti is a fragile state with a deeply fragmented political and socio-economic society. Its weak institutionalism and the dominance of INGOs has resulted in significant power asymmetries between the public and the nonprofit sector. When it is the agencies and not the government who is defining the limits, there is a clear road towards disaster. While it is true that not all INGOs (or NGOs in general) operate within blurred lines, the case of Haiti is another example of the harsh consequences that foreign intervention and humanitarian assistance can bring. The humanitarian sector will always be necessary; nonetheless, it should never go unpunished or unaccounted for – this will only perpetuate the cycle of abuse and tarnish the effectiveness of humanitarian assistance across the globe.
Oversight mechanisms are needed to prevent future scenarios where non-state actors are taking advantage of a developing nation. As has been highlighted throughout, NGOs have been accused of profiting from poverty, going against their intrinsic moral and ethical goals. Moreover, it can be argued that INGO effectiveness has been very low in the island-state, considering that it still has a long path to recovery, after the 2010 earthquake. State-building looks challenging, yet it is not impossible – however, transparency, accountability, and justice will always be the first important steps in the journey towards democracy.
Daniela Ibañez holds a Bachelor of Arts in Political Science and International Relations from Universidad Casa Grande (Ecuador) and is currently completing her MA in International Relations with specialization in Diplomacy at Corvinus University of Budapest.
Picture by Fred W. Baker III., US Department of Defense. Accompanying caption: “A local woman, selected to choose who goes through the distribution line, pulls a baby from the crowd of thousands gathered in hopes of receiving food and water from a forward operating base run by the 82nd Airborne Division’s 1st Squadron, 73rd Cavalry Regiment in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, Jan. 18, 2010. Women and children are selected first. The local Haitians choose who goes through the line and manage the distribution, while the soldiers helps secure the line and maintain order.” Source. Public domain.
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Gayle, D. (2018, June 12). Timeline: Oxfam sexual exploitation scandal in Haiti. Retrieved from The Guardian: https://www.theguardian.com/world/2018/jun/15/timeline-oxfam-sexual-exploitation-scandal-in-haiti
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Zanutti, L. (2010). Cacophonies of Aid, Failed State Building and NGOs in Haiti: Setting the stage for disaster, envisioning the future. hird World Quarterly, 755-771.
- Fatton, R. (2011). Haiti in the Aftermath of the Earthquake: The Politics of Catastrophe. Journal of Black Studies, 158-175
- Fatton, R. (2011), p. 159
- Zanutti, L. (2010). Cacophonies of Aid, Failed State Building and NGOs in Haiti: Setting the stage for disaster, envisioning the future.
- Zanutti, L. (2010), par 2.
- Suri, J. (2005). Non-Governmental Organizations and Non-State Actors.
- Schuller, M., (2007). Invasion or Infusion? Understanding the Role of NGOs in Contemporary Haiti.
- Karim, L. (2001). Politics of the Poor: NGOs and Grass-Roots Political Mobilization in Bangladesh.
- Clark, J. (1996). Democratizing Development: The Role of Voluntary Organizations. Development in Practice.
- Ramachandran, V. (2015). Haiti: Where Has All the Money Gone?
- Ramachandran, V. (2016), pg. 41.
- Schuller, M. (2012). Tectonic Shifts: Haiti Since the Earthquake.