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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.

By Andress Appolon / November 17, 2010



New York

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 When I returned to Place Boyer several months ago, the crowds of cyclists had been replaced by mounds of tents.

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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.

News update: Haiti protests escalate over source of cholera

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.

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