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Room for Debate: The Help that Haiti Needs

Brian Concannon, New York Times
January 14, 2010

Haiti’s lack of infrastructure and history of corruption should be considered in shaping the international response to Tuesday’s earthquake. But these factors should be a reason for investing in infrastructure and good governance, not for bypassing Haiti’s government.

Help the government provide basic honest services to its citizens both in the short term and the long term.

Excluding the government now might expedite aid and relief in the short run, but it will also expedite the return of the disaster relief set when Haiti is unable to handle the next environmental stress.

Haiti’s devastation exposed the disadvantages of an extremely limited government. The earthquake itself was a natural phenomenon, but its horrible toll was largely the product of manmade factors like the failure to prevent shoddy construction on precarious slopes (or provide safer housing) and a health care system already stretched to the breaking point. Sixteen months ago, and five years ago, similar factors produced high death tolls from tropical storms that hit neighboring countries harder but less lethally.

The international community should also be modest about our own aid and disaster response capability. We do not always execute relief well as seen in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. And there are inefficiencies: a joke in Haiti says a minister skimming 10 percent from a foreign aid project is corruption, a Washington consulting firm skimming 40 percent is overhead.

Aid often conforms to needs of U.S. campaign donors over the needs of Haitian victims. Food aid, for example, reduces stockpiles of excess, subsidized U.S. corn better than it fights hunger. It sometimes even increases hunger in Haiti by undermining otherwise sustainable local farmers. When farmers cannot sell their grain because Uncle Sam is giving it away, they close down their farms and move — to a shoddy house on a precarious slope in the city.

An effective international response to the earthquake will minimize the damage of the next stress in Haiti, by including both short- and long-term measures to develop the government’s capacity to provide basic, honest services to its citizens.

Brian Concannon Jr., a human rights lawyer, is director of the Institute for Justice & Democracy in Haiti.

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