One week after the devastating quake that struck Haiti in January 2010, journalist Mark Danner wrote a New York Times op-ed that warned the outpouring of international sympathy and support, although remarkable, would buoy unrealistic expectations about the prospects for rebuilding "a new Haiti."
Danner had covered the country's tumultuous transition to democracy in the 1980s and 1990s. He knew that foreign interventions have a long history of mixed results and consequences that outsiders often overlook.
"Like the ruined bridges strewn across the countryside – one of the few traces of the [US] Marines and their occupation nearly a century ago – these attentions tend to begin in evangelical zeal and to leave little lasting behind," he wrote.
How little? Until now, it has been hard to quantify. But a study of development programs in fragile countries – conducted by Peace Dividend Trust (PDT) – found that, on average, international agencies spend less than 5 percent of the money donated for post-disaster and post-conflict rebuilding programs in country, preferring instead to buy supplies from foreign companies.
And that cuts out a lot of opportunity for growth within the country; growth that could build an economic infrastructure that lasts after the aid organizations go home.
One of Danner's suggestions for promoting lasting change in Haiti would be for "the United States and other donors [to] make a formal undertaking to ensure that the vast amounts that will soon pour into the country go not to foreigners but to Haitians...."
That's the end goal of Haiti First, PDT's "buy local" program that aims to identify Haitian entrepreneurs and link them up to the major international agencies overseeing projects.
"A lot of the international organizations that have a mandate to operate in places like Haiti often don't know what the local small business landscape is," said PDT spokesperson Elmira Bayrasli. The organization is working with representatives from organizations like the Red Cross, the US Agency for International Development, and Sean Penn's nonprofit, the J/P Haitian Relief Organization.
While relief operations demand quick decisionmaking, and relief agencies often try to avoid getting involved in long-term development work, there's a new awareness that expanding economic opportunity should be part of the equation in such countries.
"I think they're all starting to see that you can't view economic development in isolation," Ms. Bayrasli says. "They are starting to look at this very holistically in terms of how that fits in with US national security policy.... There are a lot of young men between the ages of 17 and 25 who don't have employment and that is a problem in places like Afghanistan or Haiti."
Here's how it works: The organization identifies local business suppliers and gives them a crash course in the process of how international agencies do business. Then when one of those agencies makes a tender to buy supplies, they disseminate them and try to find a match. So far, she says, they have facilitated more than $13 million in deals – a tiny sliver of the reconstruction dollars flowing through the country, but a start.
"In the age of the Internet and of Twitter, when everybody's a journalist and an observer, even people within these organizations [have] an awareness that everyone needs to be better," she says. It's also, Bayrasli says, an impact of the competitive pressures from social entrepreneurs.
"One thing social entrepreneurs are a big advocate of is impact measurement. It's actually forcing organizations like the UN and World Bank to say, well, what is your impact? Don't tell me how many pencils you delivered. Show me what you've done. What are the outputs?"