Institute for Justice and Democracy in Haiti

A Plea for Partnership with Haiti,

By Te-Ping Chen

From Congo to Sweden, governments around the world are flooding Haiti with a $1 billion outpouring in aid. But while such funds are key, deploying them well requires something that’s seldom happened — partnership with the Haitian government.

That’s the argument of the Institute for Justice & Democracy in Haiti’s Brian Concannon, a human rights lawyer who’s worked on issues in Haiti for over a decade. As Concannon puts it in an interview with, for too long, global actors have “worked to avoid the Haitian government in almost every aspect, especially relief,” for reasons both practical and political.

Between 2000 and 2004, he notes, after populist firebrand Aristide was re-elected (under a cloud of controversy), the U.S. government actually led a campaign to stop giving development aid to Haiti altogether. It wasn’t just that the U.S. stopped providing its own aid to Haiti, either — the U.S. pressured other institutions to forgo giving as well. In those years, following the U.S. lead, the Inter-American Development Bank — an ostensibly non-political organization — also withdrew $140 million in funds that had been intended to assist the impoverished country with education, drinking water and road improvement.

Those years may have been more extreme, says Concannon, but still reflect a global attitude toward Haiti’s government in need of change.

Critiques of corruption in the Haitian government and its limited capacity are well-grounded, Concannon says. He understood those concerns a decade ago, and still does. But ignoring or bypassing the government, he says, can only do so much.

“The reality is that there’s an elected government in Haiti,” he says, “and they’re the ones that have the ones that have the mandate and legitimacy to deliver social services.”

“If someone’s digging a well, or distributing food or building a library, that’s a good thing,” says Concannon. “But you need someone who has the ability to make priorities, and to say and know, ‘This town doesn’t have a well, and this area doesn’t need that much stuff, it’s wealthy….’”

More importantly, Concannon says, the need for government collaboration in reconstruction comes down to accountability: “The voters can’t vote out an NGO. If an NGO’s not doing a good job, and is not acting in a way that advances a common interest, well, there’s nothing that resembles a democratic process. It’s not work people can evaluate, like they can the government.”

Partners in Health, for example, has stood out as one of the most successful operations in the post-relief disaster zone, and Concannon says their willingness to respond to feedback is the reason why. Over its 20 years in Haiti, he says, “PiH had goals, but they didn’t have a rigid plan.” (Paul Farmer, PiH’s founder, is a co-founder of IJDH.) “Their plan was, ‘We’re going to make this work, and we’ll reframe and work with who we need to and go in different directions until it works.’”

Particularly after last week’s devastating quake, he says, “that’s the attitude Haiti needs.”

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