Institute for Justice and Democracy in Haiti

Haiti’s Non-Governmental Organizations Fill in for Shattered Government

PBS NewsHour


JEFFREY BROWN: Next: the aftermath of the earthquake in Haiti, where the government still struggles to operate, and private international aid groups work to fill the gap. Here’s the first of two reports from correspondent Dave Iverson of public station KQED San Francisco.

DAVID IVERSON: In post-earthquake Haiti, the U.N. and international relief agencies are everywhere, clearing rubble, providing emergency supplies, even guarding the ruined presidential palace.

They’re prominent in part because of what isn’t here: Haiti’s government. All that’s left of the government health ministry, for example, are these skeletal remains.

Four months after the quake, and Haitians like Daniel Tillias know they still can’t count on much government help.

DANIEL TILLIAS, translator, Community Organizer: People are in need for jobs. They are in need for food. They’re in need for the very basic needs. So, they don’t see this coming from the government, because, for them, they don’t have a government.

DAVID IVERSON: But Haiti’s governmental shortcomings are also nothing new. The most recent collapse is part of a long saga of coups, corruption, and violence.

Indeed, long before the earthquake, the U.N. and the so-called non-government organizations, the NGOs, were already providing what government normally provides, which is precisely the problem.

There are more NGOs per capita in Haiti than in any other nation on Earth, so many that, sometimes, this nation is called the republic of NGOs.

BILL HOLBROOK, director, Mercy Corps, Haiti: In the last 50 years, NGOs have very often stood in place of government institutions that were not functioning.

DAVID IVERSON: Bill Holbrook directs the efforts of Mercy Corps in Haiti.

BILL HOLBROOK: The failure to invest in government capacity resulted in a country in which there was literally no government capability to respond to the kind of devastation that this earthquake caused.

DAVID IVERSON: And, so, the task for government is not only to rebuild; it’s to restore its authority.

DR. ALEX LARSEN, Haitian minister of health (through translator): You have to good and the bad.

DAVID IVERSON: Dr. Alex Larsen is the minister of health. He believes that, for all their good work, NGOs have undermined Haiti, fostering a dependence on aid, and operating as a kind of unaccountable shadow government.

Sometimes, Haiti is called the republic of NGOs. What do you think of that phrase?

DR. ALEX LARSEN (through translator): We do have many NGOs, national and international. And many operate outside of government control. Their programs do not correspond to the needs of the people.

DAVID IVERSON: And many Haitians say that big NGOs tend to act first, and listen later.

JOSETTE PERARD, Lambi Fund of Haiti: You know, some people don’t listen at all, because they have their agenda, you know? Before they come to Haiti, they know what they are going to do.

DAVID IVERSON: Josette Perard runs an organization called the Lambi Fund of Haiti. Like every Haitian we talk to, she’s grateful for the overwhelming response to the quake, but she says, even that outpouring illustrates part of the problem.

JOSETTE PERARD; I saw the way they are giving some food relief to the people. They make the people stay online in the sun, when you can work with the community in the camp and distribute it to the people. I think this is a lack of respect.

DAVID IVERSON: Here’s another example of the kind of thing that can drive Haitians crazy. While we were filming, translator Daniel Tillias noticed that people were being moved from one camp to another using buses acquired from the Dominican Republic, instead of local buses, called tap-taps.

DANIEL TILLIAS: When I saw the buses, I had in mind that it would be so much nicer to see beautiful tap-taps taking those people, to make, like, a little money. And it doesn’t make sense, because we’re talking about Haiti that has, like, all these people with no more jobs. We’re talking about Haiti that needs to survive from this.

Too often, you feel that, for the NGOs, it’s about them; it’s not about Haiti.

NIGEL FISHER, deputy special representative, U.N. Stabilization Mission in Haiti: It’s absolutely correct. It applies — it applies to all of us.

DAVID IVERSON: Nigel Fisher is the deputy special representative of the United Nations Stabilization Mission in Haiti.

NIGEL FISHER: We had several consultations with Haitian civil society members, women’s group, human rights group, grassroot organizations. And the phrase I heard most commonly was, we have a governance system with two sides of the brain. One side is a government, our own, which doesn’t work. The other side is largely international NGO community, which is not accountable to anybody. And it’s time to change.

DAVID IVERSON: It’s a message that echoed across the recent international donors conference in New York, where countries pledged not only $10 billion in aid, but promised to deliver it in a new way.

HILLARY RODHAM CLINTON, U.S. secretary of state: This is not only a conference about what, financially, we pledge to Haiti. We also have to pledge our best efforts to do better ourselves, to offer our support in a smarter way, a more effective way that produces real results for the people of Haiti.

DAVID IVERSON: And that’s the primary concern, improving upon the tangled record of the past. Since 2000, the United States alone has spent over a billion dollars on aid to Haiti. Yet, Haiti remains the poorest nation in the Western Hemisphere.

The U.N.’s Nigel Fisher:

NIGEL FISHER: This is going to be a long-term challenge, one to clear out the mess of the past, and, second, to build a new Haiti.

DAVID IVERSON: And building a new Haiti starts not so much with the buildings you see, but with the life you hear, listening to people doing whatever they can to make a living on the buckled streets of Port-au-Prince.

DANIEL TILLIAS: It’s the way to see Haiti, what I call, like, a little bit of more Haitianity. We need to start changing the way they see themselves, the way they see the future, and the way they see Haiti that can tell the world something different.

DAVID IVERSON: Telling the world something different and having the world listen in return may be the framework upon which a new Haiti can be built.

JEFFREY BROWN: Dave Iverson’s next story will look more closely at the problem of getting food to the Haitian people.

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