Earlier this year, Haitian filmmaker Raoul Peck released Fatal Assistance, a documentary that eviscerated the international response to the January, 2010, earthquake that struck his home country. The gist of Mr. Peck´s argument is that most of the $11-billion in pledged aid went to foreign contractors who, along with international diplomats and celebrities, tripped over themselves to undermine local authority and capacity.
The scene sums up a dilemma about foreign aid just as the Canadian
government considers significant cuts in funding to Haiti. Countries
deliver aid to meet pressing needs today, but they might be undercutting
chances for a recipient to stand on its own two feet tomorrow. In one scene,
Haitian officials complain to then-president René Préval about bottled
water donations that had come into the country and undercut local water
producers. Mr. Préval says that while he´d love to stand up to the
unenlightened foreigners who had descended upon the country, Haiti is a
weak state. Sometimes it has to sit by and let outsiders call the shots, he
says, or else it might scare them – and their funding – off for good.
Haitian officials have bemoaned its “Republic of NGOs” label for years, and
since his inauguration speech in May, 2011, President Michel Martelly has
preached “trade, not aid.” His administration´s mantra: “Haiti is open for
But the “open for business” cliché is openly mocked in a country with
exorbitant energy costs, a regulatory environment and judicial system
perceived as inefficient and corrupt, and one of the worst reputations for
ease of doing business in the world. And while the administration shouts
about its preference for trade, it hasn´t turned down the billions in
offered aid. As long as the aid flow remains on full blast, there´s little
incentive for the Haitian state to effect fundamental change required for
Foreign aid helps thousands of Haitians – especially funding that provides
access to health care – and cutting it would hurt in the short term. In
recent years, aid from Canada has focused on providing health care for
women and children, feeding schoolchildren and increasing economic
opportunities for Haitians through financial services such as microcredit.
But whether it´s from Canada or any other donor, aid hasn´t led to the kind
of economic development that would allow multitudes of poor Haitians to
help themselves. As economist Michael Clemens of the Center for Global
Development has noted, 82 per cent of Haitians who have escaped poverty
have done so not by receiving direct aid but by migrating to the United
States. And it´s conceivable that donors can curtail aid gradually and
prioritize cuts in ways that avoid disastrous shocks for the Haitian
families who, for better or worse, rely on aid for subsistence.
Because external funding remains more important than internal revenues –
foreign aid has accounted for more than half of the country´s budget in
recent years – Haitian officials continue to be more concerned with wining
and dining the likes of Bill Clinton than providing the institutions that
will help Haiti´s people flourish. One manifestation of the misguided
priorities is the manner in which the government raises the small amount of
revenue it does collect itself: Tax revenues come mainly from consumption,
not income, a regressive system that punishes low-income Haitians, who wind
up handing over much larger portions of their earnings than the well-off.
Haitian officials say that by 2030, they want the country to be known as an
emerging market, rather than as the hemisphere´s top aid recipient. If
Haiti truly wants to transform from the weak state Mr. Préval described
into one that has a strong and productive economy in 20 years, someone has
to take the first step in turning down the pressure from the aid hose.