Rebecca Blackwell/AP
A UN peacekeeper runs after throwing a tear gas grenade as security forces clash with rock-throwing neighborhood residents outside a UN base in Les Cayes, Haiti, Saturday, Oct. 15, 2016. Residents complain about a slow response of aid, especially in isolated villages.

After hurricane Matthew, Haitians worry aid groups will overstay welcome

Public and private aid groups are meeting key temporary needs like food and clean water. But once the emergency is over, Haitians are wary that aid groups will make things worse by lingering, as some did six years ago.

When UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon touched down in Haiti Saturday for a one-day visit, he faced two immediate challenges and one longer-term dilemma.

First, he had to raise the profile of the destruction from hurricane Matthew on Oct. 4 in order to generate more international aid.

Second, he had to find a way to allay the frustrations of local Haitians, who complain of a slow emergency response. “Today I personally witnessed a WFP [World Food Program] truck being attacked," said Mr. Ban, who condemned attempts to loot the trucks.

His long-term challenge, however, may be his toughest – and one he shares with other public and private aid groups: How to help Haiti rebuild while avoiding the pitfalls that have dogged the international development push in the wake of a devastating 2010 earthquake. Billions of dollars were spent and yet, six years later, many Haitians were still living in tents.

To a growing chorus of critics of traditional aid, Haiti has become a poster child for how not to help the impoverished. Decades of aid have not pulled the Western Hemisphere’s poorest country out of poverty.

“The intentions are good. [But] if it’s not done well, it can be harmful,” says Michael Matheson Miller, research fellow at the Acton Institution and director of the 2014 documentary film "Poverty Inc.," which examines how foreign aid has become big business. “We treat people like objects of our compassion. We create reliance upon aid. We crowd out local businesses. We politicize economic development.”

Situation still dire

For the moment, the focus is still on emergency aid for Haiti, whose southern peninsula is still reeling 12 days after hurricane Matthew roared through. The Category 4 storm, blamed for somewhere between 500 and 1,000 fatalities, leveled housing, leaving more than 175,000 Haitians homeless, and destroyed crop and animals, leaving an estimated 1.4 million Haitians in need of aid, especially food and clean water.

One reason Ban came to Haiti was to call the world’s attention to the devastation. Of the $120 million that the United Nations is looking to raise for Haiti, it had only received $6.1 million as of last week.

Private aid groups, by contrast, have seen a surge of giving. Oxfam has raised around $300,000 since the hurricane. Catholic Relief Services has already raised $1.5 million online and is on track to reach its $5 million goal to help Haiti’s hurricane victims, a spokeswoman says.

“There's been an outpouring of love and support from our constituent support,” says a spokeswoman for Haitian Health Foundation, a Connecticut-based nonprofit that has been working for 30 years in Jérémie, one of the communities hardest hit by hurricane Matthew. “People are offering help in a number of ways: money, volunteers, goods.”

Such groups are widely viewed as key pieces of the emergency response to disasters. Among the most important immediate needs: “Food. Clean drinking water,” says Robyn Fieser, a spokeswoman for Catholic Relief Services, based in the neighboring Dominican Republic. “Overwhelmingly, [Haitians] are saying: ‘We need materials to repair our houses, then seeds and other supplies for farmers.’ ”

One of the biggest problems is that rural villages, linked by roads that are iffy in the best of times, have been cut off from emergency aid because the roads are still impassable. Aid groups say they are slowly making progress to reach those isolated communities. But a week and a half after the Category 4 hurricane struck, local patience is wearing thin.

Food ... and tear gas?

An hour before Ban visited the hard-hit southern city of Les Cayes, residents reportedly threw rocks at UN trucks and had to be dispersed with tear gas. In the past week, residents have looted trucks and had to be dispersed by UN peacekeepers firing nonlethal ammunition. On Thursday in Saint-Jean-Du-Sud, less than 10 miles away, some 100 Haitians protested the death of a motorcyclist they said was hit by a UN convoy.

The UN’s reputation has been tarnished in Haiti because, among other things, UN peacekeepers inadequately treated sewage back in 2010, which researchers say introduced cholera into the country. The aftermath of this month’s hurricane has spread the disease. Relief groups are now distributing disinfectant kits as well as food and clean water in their bid to battle the disease.

The problem with foreign aid groups, critics say, is when their mission shifts from temporary emergency aid to long-term development.

Last year, ProPublica and National Public Radio published a report criticizing the American Red Cross for taking in $488 million in donations after the Haitian earthquake but building only six permanent homes. The report also blasted the group for canceling a joint program to build roads and spending far more on overhead than what it said it would. (The Red Cross disputes the charges, saying that while it didn’t build the houses it originally expected to, it moved more than 100,000 Haitians from makeshift tents to improved housing and provided clean water and sanitation.)

The Clinton Foundation, which has raised more than $30 million for Haiti since 2010, has also become a recent target for criticism. GOP presidential candidate Donald Trump has accused the Clintons of personally profiting from the aid effort. There’s no evidence of that, but critics do say the foundation, as well as many other foreign aid groups, has shaped rebuilding efforts around its traditional development blueprint of exports rather than giving Haitians what they really need.

“They're reproducing this old model of the banana republics,” says Mark Schuller, author of “Humanitarian Aftershocks in Haiti” and long-term affiliate with the State University of Haiti. “If you are exploiting a cheap labor force, it’s going to be nothing but a cheap labor force…. In the long term, it does nothing to reinforce their capacity or provide for their own needs.”

What’s needed, these critics say, is economic development that builds up Haitian businesses serving Haitian consumers. Foreign aid, however well-intentioned, can sometimes undermine the local economy. Mr. Miller’s “Poverty, Inc.,” documentary includes the example of a Haitian solar streetlight company that was selling five streetlights a month before the 2010 earthquake, but only five streetlights in six months after the quake. The reason: NGOs were giving away solar panels away for free.

“NGOs can be helpful and we need to avoid a blanket criticism of them,” Miller says. “But at the same time, if they're actually going to help, we need to examine the social impact and the economic impact” of their actions.

There are some signs that the international response to this year’s hurricane will be better than it was to the 2010 earthquake.

“We hope to be able to say ‘better’ than 2010, because the Haitian government has asked foreign governments and NGOs to administer their aid through [Haitian] government agencies responsible for distributing foreign aid,” Josette Perard, Haiti Director of the Lambi Fund of Haiti, writes in an email. “Despite this request, some NGOs are going directly to disaster areas to distribute food, clean water for the population. But … it’s premature to say” how the situation will shake out.

“We have to not only learn from the lessons of the earthquake but practice them,” says Mr. Schuller.

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