Haiti Should Beware the Well-Intentioned

One lesson from Katrina is to make sure that those who want to help Haiti have the right motives.

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While comparisons of the devastation in Haiti to New Orleans may seem obvious at this point, serious reflection is still needed. As the world mobilizes to help reconstruct Haiti, we must analyze carefully how today’s actions will impact the long-term survival of Haitian institutions, its future growth and its ultimate positioning on the world stage.

With world attention focused on them now, Haitians may have only one chance to rebuild sensibly. This country, already on the brink of disaster even before the quake, is vulnerable to more earthquakes and potential disasters.

From MIT’s New Orleans experience, where students and faculty worked with community groups, the city and labor unions in a myriad of projects, we learned a few lessons that should apply to Haiti:

  • Well-meaning outsiders cannot be allowed to strip the country of its local capacity or ignore local knowledge.
  • Local assets must be preserved, and
  • Paternalistic foreign donor attitudes are best left at home.

Many responding to the Katrina crisis were determined to work “on” New Orleans rather than to work “for” New Orleans. To avoid this in Haiti, we must look closely at the motivation of aid efforts and those who fund them.

Let’s start with attitudes. Following Katrina, some public commentary suggested that poor neighborhoods in New Orleans were not worth restoring, and that poor blacks in the city were culturally dysfunctional and better off dispersed elsewhere. There is a close parallel to Haiti. New York Times columnist David Brooks wrote last Friday that, “Haiti, like most of the world’s poorest nations, suffers from a complex web of progress-resistant cultural influences.” Brooks does not mention the role of U.S. trade policy in decimating Haiti’s once prosperous agricultural economy. He does not mention that foreign aid from rich countries to poorer countries goes largely to foreign-based NGO intermediaries rather than to strengthening domestic institutions. Nor does he examine Haiti’s complex relationship to its neighbors, or consider the stark racial discrimination Haitians face in business, employment and education. Haitians don’t lack drive, ideas or high expectations of progress. They lack partners willing and capable of investing in their country’s considerable indigenous capacity.

So what is a program for success, given that outside aid is essential to Haiti’s recovery?

Strengthen the Capacity of Government: The government of New Orleans was in worse shape than the levees before the Katrina disaster. City government was simply unable to lead the recovery effort. To avoid this problem, the Haitian government has requested an immediate investment in its basic infrastructure. This may be an unpopular move given the immediate needs in the streets, but quickly building this capacity, and making outside support accountable to a national authority, is key to long-term success.

Build Civic Capacity from the Neighborhoods Up: The most successful rebuilding in New Orleans occurred almost entirely at neighborhood levels. This will likely be true in Haiti, too. It takes a great deal of face-to-face coordination and staging to distribute aid effectively and to rebuild communities. Helping residents organize and plan at neighborhood levels is as important as helping government coordinate at the national level. Existing community leaders—who know their neighbors and understand their concerns—will be essential partners with outside funders.

Prohibit Elite Land Grabs: Immediately following Katrina, a group of developers proposed turning the Lower Ninth Ward into a golf course. Another proposal was to tear down public housing projects to make room for “high-end” residences or businesses. Following the tsunami in Asia, there were similar proposals to confiscate land from fishing communities to build luxury hotels. Such hasty attempts at land-grabbing, promoted in the name of recovery, must be resisted.