Disaster Aid or Aid Disaster? Haitians' Thoughts on Foreign Assistance

Developed countries have donated billions in aid to Haiti. But where is all the money actually going?

The international community (here referring to nations and international organizations) has pledged or given $9.9 billion in relief and reconstruction aid to Haiti, since the earthquake on January 12, 2010. Citizens and non-profit agencies of foreign countries have provided billions more. The aid is many times the size of Haiti's annual budget, which was $1.97 billion for the 2009-10 fiscal year.

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If one looks close to the ground, in certain refugee camps and community organizations, one can see the donations of citizens and non-profits at work, supplying tents, food and medical aid. A handful of progressive foundations are funding community, peasant and advocacy organizations as they work for an alternative rebuilding process, based on economic justice and the fulfillment of social needs. Social assistance and rebuilding projects are working best when communities are engaged in the planning and implementation.

Yet, for the most part, the impact of the dollars is imperceptible. Where is it going?

Much of the aid pledged has not yet arrived, and may never. A lot of it has gone straight back to donor nations, as with the $.40 on every US government aid dollar that paid for the US military presence in Haiti for, at least, the first two months after the quake. [2] Untold dollars more go to US firms, like the agribusiness corporations whose surplus rice is being purchased by USAID to deliver as aid. Then there are fees and expenses paid to a small army of consultants working for foreign governments and international agencies. Many UN consultants, for example, slept until mid-March in a luxury cruise ship (the Love Boat), which the UN rented. Then, there is graft, corruption and poor planning, all of which further redirects aid dollars away from desperate earthquake survivors, up to 1.9 million of whom are left homeless, hungry and wet in tents during the rainy season.

What would Haitians like to see happen with the aid? We asked for opinions; here are a few.

Christine Miradieu is an unemployed mother of nine who lost her husband, one of her children, and her home in the earthquake. She now lives with six of her children in two tents in a field outside of the town of Gressier.

They tell me the international community gave $2 million dollars in aid. Where is it? [We suggest the figure is actually $9.9 billion.]

What? [Turns to her family behind her.] You hear? Nine point nine billion in aid. Now, who's getting that? We haven't seen any of it.

Lucien St. Louis is an agronomist by training who worked for many years with farmers through the Ministry of Agriculture. Now, he is employed by a European NGO, helping to direct disaster responses in several earthquake-impacted towns to those who most need them.

First, we want to say how much we appreciate all the citizens of the world who have paid attention to Haiti after January 12 and who have given whatever they could, whether money or solidarity. They make us know we're not alone in this fight to reclaim our lives and rebuild our country.

This aid could be a marvelous thing, giving us the assistance we need to get back on our feet. It could help us build a different country, a country where everyone is recognized as a human being, a country where all children go to school, and no one dies for lack of decent medical care. It could help strengthen peasant agriculture, so farmers could stay in the countryside, where they could have work and feed the nation, instead of having to migrate to Port-au-Prince. It could help women do marketing and form cooperatives, so they could have an income for their family. It could provide decent housing for all, especially those who lost their homes in the earthquake, in communities that are close to all the services people need to live. It could strengthen the people's institutions that are trying to build a new society and economy.

We haven't seen any of this yet. But, we're going to keep on fighting for it.

Ghislene Deloné (a pseudonym used at her request) is a health promoter at the clinic of the Center for the Promotion of Women Workers (CPFO). Prior to this job, she worked for eleven years as a seamstress in a multinational textile factory.

Now, we have the international community which came to Haiti, which is helping workers and CPFO get medicines. They're distributing medicines; they're doing free exams for the women at CPFO. Workers can now come and get the medical care they need, without having to pay anything. We are satisfied.

Marlène Jean-Pierre lives in Cité Soleil. She is a student in civil engineering and an organizer with women's and youth grassroots groups in Cité Soleil.

We don't need more than social support. We need collaboration with all the foreign citizens who want to come help us Haitians, who want to give their support. We don't need money coming into the country to create huge projects to bring about change, no. When that money comes, the population itself doesn't receive it. It doesn't ever get to the community.

They should find people within the community and divide it among them. But, the foreigners who came after the earthquake, they don't know a single person. They come to this country and want to take action. They say, "I've brought you water! I've brought you food! Look at all I've brought for you!" But, they don't know who to contact. So, they work through the government, or else, they choose someone to work with them, and that person gets to direct the aid whatever way they want. But, with someone who knows the country well, that work would be better supervised, they'd be able to see that the population is really receiving the aid directly.

We know there are billions of dollars coming to the NGOs now. It's from that money the NGOs are paying their employees, that they're buying gas for their cars; it's with that money that they're paying for their own security. The only thing we ask is that, whatever is left for us, that the work they do with it is done well. That's all we ask for.

Carolle Pierre-Paul Jacob is a coordinator of Solidarity Among Haitian Women (SOFA). Among other things, SOFA provides health care and anti-violence support to women now living in refugee camps.

This is an international parade. The aid has been given in total chaos. The way it's been run represents economic and political domination. It's being done in a context where the symbols of state power are gone, and the government is basically nonexistent.

There are lots of ways we could have taken advantage of this moment, to create a minimum of social, economic, and political transformation. But, we haven't had that chance, because of the domination of the foreigners.

Josette Pérard is the director of Fon Lambi, the Haitian-run branch of the Lambi Fund of Haiti. Josette has a long history of providing funding and technical support to women and peasant groups in Haiti and, prior to that, in the Congo.

The people want another system, so they can be treated as citizens in a country that belongs to them. They want their rights as human beings to be respected. But, with all the aid and programs, they're treating people like children. It's not possible. Who knows better than the people? They want to make decisions with themselves; they don't want anyone to make those decisions for them.

What plan does the country have five months after the earthquake? People can't sit in the mud in the camps all day; they can't live like that. Now, they're kicking people out of the tents to send them to other tents, without water or shade. There are no changes. The government is totally irresponsible.

We're very happy that people are coming to help us, but there is no one to sit down with them to coordinate. This is because the state is inexistent. It doesn't take its responsibility. People are saying, "Here's what we need in the way of aid; here's what we want to happen so we can have results." But, each group comes up with its own program for reconstruction. If no one sits down together and comes up with one coordinated program, will there be one?

What makes me most angry is to see people sitting under the hot sun to get a half-sack of rice and a bottle of oil. Where are they going to cook food? They don't have a stove to cook food with, and they can't eat rice and oil only. They're saying that aid recipients are selling the food, in order to buy a piece of bread with peanut butter, because they don't have any way to cook the rice.

People are very dissatisfied. For weeks, there have been demonstrations in the streets against Préval.

Presto Deroncil has lived in Cité Soleil since 1977, where he is an informal (unelected) community leader.

Cité Soleil is a place where lots of money is spent, but nothing ever happens. It's the place where everyone comes to make money, to get rich. After January 12, it got even worse. After January 12, everyone mobilized, the international community mobilized. Me, I thought that things were finally going to change. No way! I see things getting more difficult. I see there's a lot of food distribution happening. At the beginning, it went well, but after a while things started getting looser, people started making money off it.

What hurts the most is that people from Cité Soleil have been working to have political representation, to have people who will represent them in the government. But, now, it's those same people who are making a business [out of aid]. Imagine, really imagine - when a person is the leader in a community, there are a lot of things that person shouldn't do. But, there are people who take those cards [aid vouchers] and make a fortune with them. They buy cars with them; they buy motorcycles. Something that was meant to help the people, and now they're selling them. I think this has to change.

People are sleeping in the mud; they're sleeping in garbage. When it rains, they don't have anywhere to sleep. I think that the most important thing now is a public housing project within Cité Soleil.

I think that everyone, the international community that wants to help Cité Soleil, they must sit with the community leaders, with the population of this community. First off, they should listen to people, so that they know what they should work on. We know what we need.

Jacqueline Cherilus is a fourth-year medical student at Université Lumière in Port-au-Prince. On January 12, her school collapsed, killing many of her professors and classmates. Her home was damaged, and now she and her family sleep under a tarp, because they are afraid to be inside.

Americans and everyone who've sent tents, we're tired of that stuff, those same tents and tarps. We need construction. You see how strong the rains are becoming? Tents can't resist that rain. How long can we live in tents and tarps? You can't live for two or three years under a tarp. We need houses. We're going to have hurricanes soon and flooding.

The aid is poorly organized and poorly divided. There are lots of people who don't receive anything. To have real aid, we need social change. Right now, they're just giving us tarps, tents, and food.

We need health care. You see, in Briztou [a tent community in Pétion-ville] they only have one doctor for 25,000 people? And, there's no educational reform. Children are still paying to go to school. Like my little brother, who still has to pay. How can other children, the ones who lost their parents in the earthquake, pay for school?

Beverly Bell has worked with Haitian social movements for over 30 years. She is also author of the book Walking on Fire: Haitian Women's Stories of Survival and Resistance. She coordinates Other Worlds, which promotes social and economic alternatives. She is also associate fellow of the Institute for Policy Studies.