Monday, March 8, 2010

Will Aid be the Death of Haiti?

"We should be helping Haitian companies instead of companies in Florida"
-- Alex Zamor, owner of a drinking-water factory in Port-au-Prince, Haiti


Ilia Alsene is a Haitian merchant who supports herself by selling food, water and other tidbits on the side of the road near Champ des Mars Plaza in Port-au-Prince, Haiti. The life of a street merchant in Haiti is difficult by any measure.

Obtaining supplies can be a challenge, which is why the women's (and men's) rickety tables often will sport just a few items: a handful of bags of peanuts, three bottles of soda, some purified water encased in plastic bags. Getting pedestrians to stop and shop can be a challenge. The narrow streets of Port-au-Prince are packed with cars weaving around traffic and potholes and other obstructions, children walking to and from school, stray dogs, and the occasional chicken. Enticing a would-be shopper in the midst of all that frenetic energy is not easy. But the greatest challenge for a merchant by far is managing to come home with enough goud to feed the family and purchase the next day's supplies.

After the January 12 earthquake, Ilia and merchants just like her must face one additional challenge: How to compete with the food aid being distributed for free? No one denies the critical necessity of getting food, water and other basics to Haiti's devastated populace. But one of the foreseeable consequences of shipping in thousands of tons of foodstuffs purchased from abroad is that Haitian businesses are being squeezed out of their own market. "I have fewer customers now," says Ilia "because they are handing out free food down the street."

If this were the story of just one merchant or even a handful, the cost-benefit analysis would suggest we do nothing. But Ilia is a key player in the Haitian economy. Frederic Madsen, CEO of Haiti's largest beverage company, makes the case for helping women like Ilia: "When women like that don't make enough money, they stop buying my products," Madsen says. "They are the backbone of this economy." Alex Zamor, owner of a drinking-water factory, cannot afford to rehire 200 workers who were on his payroll before the quake because sales of his product are down ". . . nobody wants to buy water if there's free water on the streets," he says.
The challenge facing Ilia, Frederic Madsen and Alex Zamor is neither unforeseen nor maliciously created. The relief agencies that went into Haiti just days after the quake faced a difficult task; it would have been made insurmountable if the supplies they needed could only be sourced in Haiti. For one, Haiti did not have the capacity necessary even before the January 12th earthquake. Plus, Haitian businesses suffer from real or perceived problems of quality and ineptitude. In short, many are simply unwilling to deal with local suppliers.

Without a well-orchestrated campaign to place Haitian businesses at the center of the rebuilding effort, Haiti's post-quake revitalization will be an abject failure. No country can survive in the long term through the beneficence of others. Foreign aid, no matter how well intentioned, will not create a meaningful future for Haiti. Jobs are necessary; a robust middle class is necessary; a self-sufficient agricultural sector is necessary. None of that comes about through foreign aid. In her hard-hitting New York Times Bestseller Dead Aid, Zambian-born Dambisa Moyo makes the case that foreign aid creates learned dependency rather than prosperity. We have decades of empirical evidence suggesting she is right. Moreover, it separates a government from its constituency. What hope can Haitian voices have of influencing government policy when actors in Europe and America hold the purse strings?

So, what are we to do? Those in charge of the rebuilding effort make noises about understanding the problem, but the solutions are too complex and nuanced to rely on a handful of "experts". Organizations like Peace Dividend Trust, a Canadian NGO, is doing an invaluable job by making this issue more visible. PDT has started a "Haiti First" campaign urging aid agencies to buy goods and services from Haitian suppliers whenever possible. "A 'Haiti First' approach can help turn a tragedy into an opportunity by driving millions if not billions of new investment into the Haitian economy."

We too must do our part when we contribute to Haitian relief. Just last night, for example, I was invited to keynote at a benefit concert for Haiti. It was an inspiring event that moved me beyond description at the capacity of humans to join with each other in moments of crisis. But at the end of the concert, our host mentioned he had enlisted the help of a friend who owned an auto dealership to send trucks to Haiti.

But Haiti has auto dealerships. How much more effective would that money be if it were spent on Haitian soil? The Haitian auto dealer could pay her employees, and those employees in turn could feed their children with the food Ilia sells from her street corner in Port-au-Prince. That would have a real impact on the Haitian economy.

5 comments:

Marjorie Florestal said...

Haitian subsistence farmers are making the point raised in my blog post: "We are telling everyone, if they want to help Haiti with food, they should help us with peasant production."
http://towardfreedom.com/home/content/view/1885/1

Hope Lewis said...

Well said! And it is tremendously important to get the information out to well-intentioned international communities, policymakers, and individuals about how to support locally-owned and sustainable efforts. This is true throughout the Global South, but will be especially important in Haiti's recovery.

Marjorie Florestal said...

Thanks Hope. I'm really struck by how difficult it seems to be for us to implement ideas that have long been in circulation. Anyone who has spent more than 2 minutes in development circles recognizes this dilemma. So how do we change it? I read a phenomenal op-ed the other day written by two Haitian women, which gives us some concrete ideas for moving forward. Give Haiti control over its own recovery http://twurl.nl/utbsb6

Jaya Ramji-Nogales said...

Great post, Marjorie. Your suggestions should be used as guiding principles for Haiti's reconstruction -- but as you note in your comment above, that's easier said than done. Thanks in any case for bringing these crucially important ideas to the fore and hopefully central to the debate.

Marjorie Florestal said...

Thanks Jaya, Everyone from US aid circles to Haitian farmers themselves are saying self-sustaining agriculture should be the starting point, and food aid is not the answer. Trade issues have suddenly come to the forefront of discussions on Haiti's revitalization. I'm really hopeful there seems to be some movement in the right direction. I guess I wouldn't be in this field if I wasn't an optimist . . .