Parrish or Perish · I weep for Haiti
Longtime readers of this collection of randomness know I have a special place in my heart for the people of Haiti. For over a decade, I have spent at least two weeks a year there providing dental care. I’ve gotten to know the country and its people and have observed change over those years. Many ask, “How is Haiti doing after the earthquake”? My response, “Better, but still a mess.”
The world focused on Haiti after the earthquake five years ago, but they had lots of issues well before then, which continue today. Folks were refocused on Haiti with the cholera outbreak 10 months later. Cholera had previously been eradicated in Haiti; it was brought in by Nepalese UN [mercenary] troops who infected the Artibonite River with poor sanitary practices, notwithstanding UN denials of blame. Boatloads of money were raised to “fix” Haiti following these two disasters. How’s that going so far in what I observe?
The major highway between Port au Prince, the capital, and Gonaives is much improved, but I am pretty sure that project began before the earthquake. Folks have moved closer to the road so it looks more prosperous along that major thoroughfare. But back off the road seems pretty usual: poor. The earthquake rubble has been cleared from the areas we inhabit in Port au Prince, but Port has a lot of “normal” rubble so, while improved, you might think you’re still seeing earthquake damage. The weekly “farmer’s market” up north is considerably bigger, so folks must be buying more stuff. Lots of people have cell phones, and more of them actually work as opposed to being a “status symbol” for show, so telecommunications have improved remarkably over the past 10 years. But compared to the overall effort and money, I’m not so sure.
Governments and large organizations pledged around $13 billion (of which $6 billion had been spent by the end of 2012), and private donations amounted to $3 billion. So if roughly $10 billion has been spent to date, that’s $1,000 for each Haitian — more than a year’s average income. But further investigation by many different media outlets indicates that only a small portion of that $10 billion has ever “reached the ground” and actually done anything for the people. And lots of folks have done OK for themselves in the process.
Now don’t get me wrong. Big non-government organizations (NGOs) and governmental agencies are like any other enterprise: They are too big to be run on nothing and need money to survive — their “administrative fee.” That money usually comes “off the top.” The Guardian and NPR recently did exposés on how a large agency (like the American Red Cross, which claims to have spent a half billion dollars in Haiti, much of which is unaccounted for) or a government gave money to this NGO which, in turn, gave it to that NGO, and everyone took their administrative costs off the top, and not much was left at the end. When one travels in the areas where money was supposedly spent, the local Haitians will tell you not much, if anything, has been done.
These large organizations are usually designed to do one thing: relief, rehabilitation, or development. They are completely different challenges to meet effectively. Certainly much money appropriately went to relief in the aftermath of the earthquake and in response to the cholera epidemic, but promises of rehabilitation and development, both of which are much harder to accomplish, have been made without much result. Large entities have a notable lack of transparency and accountability and the skill to work effectively “on the ground.” They have a tendency to do “showcase” projects for their brochures. I’ve personally seen large latrine projects abandoned after a very few years, but they sure were great money raisers from the folks back home. Who can argue with latrines?
Where I really get upset is when individuals personally profit from these adventures. My faithful readers know my penchant for the free market, but charity should not be the “free market.” Charity is what the free market should do with some of its profits.
Recently The Wall Street Journal and The Washington Post reported on the connections among the Clinton Foundation, Digicell (Haiti’s major cell phone carrier), a corrupt Brazilian construction firm, the InterAmerican Development bank, the U.S. State Department, and Hillary Clinton’s brother and his direct role in a lease for a Haitian gold mine. Suffice to say the story is much too complicated to recount here, but I fear, in the name of charity and good works, lots of people (including the Clinton Foundation) made lots of money proposing to help my brothers and sisters in Haiti. Certainly former President Clinton and his foundation have helped, but those Haitians who were forcibly removed from their land near Cap-Haitien for an industrial park funded by outsiders that has barely materialized don’t think so. Again, there were lots of photo ops and web page pictures, but the reality is something completely different. It happens with “do-good groups,” large and small. Interestingly, however, this time it seems most of the corruption within the Haitian “government” has been bypassed; others are getting the money.
So what is my message today? Don’t believe the pitches for latrines and claims of $500 million spent on development in Haiti unless it can be verified in some other way. Give me $400 for a treadle sewing machine for a Haitian woman, and we will change her world. I promise not to take any administrative fee off the top! Haitians know what will make change in their lives; we don’t. Until such time as they understand and embrace better sanitation practices, a latrine may be well down on their list. Sure they want jobs and income, but if there is no market for their goods because of embargos we impose because we don’t like how they go about their political business, then jobs will remain scarce. And don’t give money to the UN, Red Cross, or any other huge agency except for relief that only a large entity can perform.
Haiti has been sick for a long, long time. It is only going to get well from the bottom up, but it will take a long time. And the bottom means working with individuals and small groups, not cities or the national government. Until the people of Haiti want change and know they can make change within their own circumstances, Haiti will continue to suffer. The same can be said for the “sick” segments of the United States. Change cannot be imposed by outsiders.