Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Rural Haiti robbed of opportunity to direct its future

High in the mountains above Saint Marc, in a small Haitian community, I sat listening to a budding ecologist solicit socio-economic information from a Haitian farmer who slumped with his wife and five or six kids against the wall of a tilting mud hut. “Kombien bet u genyen?” asked the researcher. (Kreyol for, “how many animals do you own?”) “Pa gen bet – tut bet te morie”, he responded, indicating that all of his animals died shortly after purchase. The young affluent scientist hailing from the Haitian capital of Port au Prince repressed a snigger. Looking around I noted two scrawny chickens scratching in the earth next to the house. On the way up the goat path to the respondents dwelling, I recollected seeing a grown bull tied just to the side of what could only be the family’s maize plot. Hmmm…

Most respondents indicated that their animals died recently. The frustrated surveyors explained that people assumed the questionnaires assessed need for aid programs and the mountain farmers wanted to appear as needy as possible. Looking around, I couldn’t blame them. Each child’s hair grew red at the tips indicating a prolonged period of malnutrition. The parent’s skin sagged around their cheek bones making them appear in their 60s though probably not much over 45. Though admittedly, these people suffered extreme poverty, the mass deception seemed to respond deeper to the character of service in the mountains – service provided without reliable systems or adequate direction from the recipients. In this context, the small lies promulgated by respondents amounted to the only way farmers could direct to outside resources.

As Robert Maguire of USIP explains, Rural Haiti receives none of the regular government services we take for granted. Rural residents have few government roads, water systems, and schools; no electricity, functioning courts, or police. In the government's place, a plethora of international non-governmental organizations (NGOs) provide a hodge-podge of services - a smattering of schools, roads, wells and other infrastructure each built to different standards with different materials. This reality has two effects: first, because there is no functioning representational government, Haitians don’t choose the direction of the majority of resources funneled through NGOs; second, because NGO’s often loose funding due to short and insecure funding cycles, project dry up leaving no maintenance system and in many cases infrastructure that requires prohibitively expensive parts from oversees.

Given this reality, it is easy to imagine how little faith rural Haitians place in service provision and outsiders. People live and die on the fruits of their own labor with aid providing intermittent favors to be taken advantage of when possible. In fact, many Haitians have developed a visible sense of apathy toward to government, intervening NGOs and anyone associated with either.

International aid groups and NGOS, large foreign donor government agencies like USAID, and the central government of Haiti (GOH) acknowledge problems of sustainability and lack of adequate local representation. In the Paris Declaration on Aid Effectiveness (2005) and Accra Agenda for Action (2008) several donor governments agreed to ensure that “official development aid” (ODA) contribute to development with local "ownership." Large NGOs, the GOH, and donor governments all promised to focus on development of sustainable systems and services with a participational approach” during the March 2010 Haiti donors’ conference. At that time, donors pledged billions to rebuild Haiti after the devastating January 2010 earthquake. Despite these promises, Haitian realized little progress in ability to direct their own lives. Instead, donors, the GOH and NGOs alike seem to be repeating past mistakes, delivering short term assistance without respect for farmers ability to define their own futures.

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