Opinion

Permanent tent city: Why giving aid to Haiti fuels a cycle of dependency

Amid cholera outbreaks, the aftermath of Hurricane Tomas, and ongoing earthquake relief, Haiti has been flooded with aid, distributed by foreign and domestic NGOs. But as most of this aid bypasses the local government, it isn't held accountable for improving the Haitians' lot.

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I learned to ride my bike in the endless loop of tricycles, bicycles, and motorcycles that used to surround Place Boyer – a popular square in Petion Ville, Haiti. Nearly every Sunday during those long, hot summers, my cousin Sebastien and I would eat a quick breakfast of cassava and peanut butter and race down his long driveway to join the crowds of Haitians – young and old – in the square. When I returned to Place Boyer several months ago, the crowds of cyclists had been replaced by mounds of tents.

Since a 7.0 magnitude earthquake devastated Haiti on Jan. 12, 2010, foreign aid has flooded in and disaster agencies of all kinds – a parade of acronyms – have provided Haitians with what should have been temporary supplies, including tents. Mimicking the anarchic design of the hillside slums that have since collapsed, Haitians have arranged these tents into the seemingly impenetrable and ironically permanent tent cities that have now consumed landmarks like Place Boyer.

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Foreign aid reinforces low expectations

You might think that a daughter of Haiti and the United States (I spent school years in New York and summers Haiti) would be thrilled that her left hand is feeding her right, so to speak; but in fact, I’m horrified.

Foreign aid is reinforcing a tyranny of low expectations in the Haitian people. There is a fine line, it turns out, between resiliency and complacency. Foreign aid is engendering the latter in simultaneously proud yet perpetually disappointed Haitians.

The latest reports of a cholera outbreak spreading from the city of Saint-Marc into the overpopulated capital of Port-au-Prince only reinforce my fears. Over the past 10 months of trauma, mourning, injury and torrential rains, Haitians – many of whom lost their homes made of tin or cement – have once again come to call ad hoc structures “home.”

Tent city: As good as it gets?

In essence, tent cities like those in Place Boyer, and the vast aid they represent (nearly $5.3 billion pledged over the next two years), are providing Haitians with just enough that they don’t demand more. After two centuries of poverty, corruption, and instability, Haitians assume that the silver lining of a natural disaster – temporary tents, medical care, and food – is a gift they should take full advantage of.

That’s why it came as no surprise when I met enterprising women who are renting out their intact homes in other parts of the city to live in a tent themselves. Or why the tent city in Place Boyer now includes a barbershop, a cinema, and even an Internet café. People simply don’t plan on leaving any time soon. And why would they? In a country that hasn’t had a stable government in over 25 years, it would be naïve to think that a sustainable infrastructure would suddenly spring up from under the rubble that still consumes them.

Haitians are eating the free fish and renting out the fishing poles to their neighbors. This is not an entirely new phenomenon. Zambian economist Dambisa Moya in her book, “Dead Aid,” criticizes what she calls the “fundamental (yet erroneous) mindset that pervades the West – that aid, whatever its form, is a good thing.” Instead, she argues, aid is the root of the problem, redirecting assistance away from the under-developed economies and polities that should sit at the helm of progress.

How aid affects local development

Of course, it was our moral obligation to come to Haiti’s rescue in the immediate aftermath of the earthquake. However, as the months wear on, we have to think more critically about how our aid money affects local development.

By most estimates, Haiti has the most development NGOs of any country per capita; as a result, the management of the country’s vital social services has been ceded to domestic or foreign NGOs. So, although after the earthquake, Haiti should have been able to leverage our dollars to establish more sustainable post-disaster assistance programs, our dollars largely bypassed Haitian institutions – governmental and otherwise. Instead, without any local accountability, development NGOs used relief dollars to continue to pop up just as anarchically as the latest tent city in Place Boyer.

So how can we break this cycle of dependency?

Well, just as American voters sent a clear message on Nov. 2, we can only hope that Haitian voters will make their voices heard during their national elections slated for November 28. And hopefully, this time, we will listen too and finally begin directing our aid money towards reinforcing local – and not imported – capacity. Otherwise, as long as we continue to bypass Haitian institutions, we are not unlike children riding in eternal circles around Place Boyer. It might make us feel good, but it’s not leading anywhere.

Andress Appolon, a former officer with the US Agency for International Development in Haiti, is a vice president in public finance at Siebert Brandford Shank & Co., L.L.C., a municipal securities firm on Wall Street. She blogs at homeoftheurbanchameleon.blogspot.com.

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