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Est. April 5, 2002
October 01, 2015 - Issue 623

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Too Many Helpers In Haiti?

"Throughout its history, Haiti has suffered
from help from the outside, but the beneficiaries
often have been those who offered the help:
They got natural resources and low-wage labor,
and the most pliant workers, grateful for
a chance to get a paycheck."

Within the past few years, observers of the condition of Haiti have declared that there are so many non-governmental organizations (NGOs) in the island nation that it is difficult, if not impossible for there to be a home grown movement to recover and develop.

Just to recap, the earthquake of five years ago leveled much of the region around the capital, Port-au-Prince, and killed between 230,000 and 300,000 Haitians and caused somewhere around 1.5 million to be without shelter for months and the estimate in 2014 was that more than 85,000 were living without proper shelter a year ago, according to CNN. Living conditions were so bad for years after the quake that there were many reports that many parents were feeding their children dirt.

Conditions may have improved somewhat, but a national plan for recovery and development has not been forthcoming and there has been such political turmoil in recent years it has nearly extinguished the little hope that their action will result in the move toward sovereignty. Rebuilding of a nation that has had a very sad and violent history of intervention of foreign powers will take a monumental effort to achieve

It was not only the savage dictatorship of Francois Duvalier (from 1957-71, when he died) and, after him, his son, Jean-Claude Duvalier (dictator from 1971 until he was deposed in 1986) that crippled political, social, economic, and environmental protection development, it was, to an extent, the use of Haiti as a low-wage country to which many transnational corporations fled to find labor at the world’s lowest level.

Even the first democratically elected president of Haiti, Jean-Bertrand Aristide, only maintained his office for a short time, before a coup in 1991. He served a few subsequent short terms as president, and was finally removed by another coup in 2004, returning to Haiti in 2011, after 11 years in exile in the Central African Republic and South Africa. The political history of Haiti is not one of a calm continuum by any means and, to a considerable extent, it depends on who is interfering from the outside.

Throughout its history, Haiti has suffered from help from the outside, but the beneficiaries often have been those who offered the help: They got natural resources and low-wage labor, and the most pliant workers, grateful for a chance to get a paycheck.

There is another element present in Haiti that has been overlooked. NGOs. When a country is making an attempt to develop its economy for the benefit of its entire people, it cannot have enough help? Right? Especially, if the help is offered at no charge. There are those who disagree with that concept, claiming that there are too many NGOs, most of them operating on their own, where they see the need, not where the nation’s leaders say the needs lie.

Estimates of the numbers of NGOs vary, from 3,000 to 10,000 and therein lies one the problems. The United States Institute of Peace (USIP) in 2009 asked, “Haiti: A Republic of NGOs?” The organization described the Haitian government as “unable to coordinate or capitalize on” the presence of so many NGOs. Before that, in a study published in 1997 by the World Bank, the estimate was that there were 10,000 NGOs in Haiti, which made it the nation with the second highest rate of NGOs. Recall that both of these numbers were released before the disaster of 2010, so it is unlikely that there are fewer NGOs in Haiti in 2015.

About six years ago, the USIP noted, “Haitian officials and international donors touted a new paradigm of economic development in Haiti: rather than funding aid through foreign NGOs, donors looked to the Haitian government to determine priorities and plans and pledged to channel more aid through the public sector…” USIP was at the time sponsoring a discussion of the problem. Apparently, the situation is still being studied.

Much more research and study needs to be done to determine just how effective NGOs and related philanthropic enterprises are in helping (or impeding) the progress of so-called developing nations. One such effort is the ongoing work of Mikkel Thorup, a Danish historian, who declares in his book, “Pro Bono?” that philanthropy promotes continuing and growing inequality by, in the words of Eleanor J. Bader of, “by deflecting efforts to distribute wealth and power.” In her review of the book, Bader notes that one of the fallacies Thorup debunks is that “government efforts to ameliorate poverty are bureaucratic, inefficient and ineffective. The flip side of this is that business, with its unwavering fixation on the bottom line, is the opposite, and that by applying market principles to social ills, society can be cured of what ails it. Indeed, this idea is repeated with such regularity that it is almost universally accepted throughout the United States and Europe.”

Thorup, in writing on the subject of his book, uses the term “philanthrocapitalism,” in which he discusses philanthropy “not as a social or humanitarian practice but as an integrated part of present day creative capitalism, having a direct relation to the growing inequality associated with it.”

He discusses philanthropy as ideology: Consumer philanthropy, in which we are asked to consume with good conscience; corporate philanthropy, in which businesses engage in social work and philanthropic associations re-engineer themselves to mimic corporations; billionaire philanthropy, in which conspicuous consumption is now being supplemented with conspicuous philanthropy; and celebrity philanthropy, in which one of the hallmarks of being a celebrity today consists in the commitment to turn that fame towards a good purpose.

The thrust of his research is that philanthropy can, and does, create conditions in which peoples cannot achieve their potential while there is a myth of equality of opportunity, bolstered by philanthropies of the 1 percent. When this can happen in “developed” nations or “first world” nations, what of the inequality that is produced in nations that have little control of their lives, when those lives are confronted by the help that comes from thousands of NGOs, all of which are doing the work that they have decided are necessary, not what the government may be trying to coordinate. As usual, the people and what they really need and want are left out of the discussion and decision-making.

It’s not that NGOs are not doing good work, for who could fault those who are directly providing food and medical care? It’s that they are not helping the Haitian people get the government they need and deserve. At the very least, the work of the NGOs should be coordinated through a democratically elected government. Leaders of the NGOs need to keep this in mind as they do whatever work they are doing. It’s not enough that they and their contributors and supporters feel good about the work that is being done. The question to them is: What are you doing to ensure that NGOs are not getting in the way of self-determination for the Haitian people?

There was a t-shirt spotted recently that bore the warning: “If things get any worse, I’m afraid I’m going to have to ask you to stop helping.” Maybe, things are approaching that time in Haiti. Columnist, John Funiciello, is a long-time former newspaper reporter and labor organizer, who lives in the Mohawk Valley of New York State. In addition to labor work, he is organizing family farmers as they struggle to stay on the land under enormous pressure from factory food producers and land developers. Contact Mr. Funiciello and BC.

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