Haiti Case Study – The NGO Republic


Haiti is a small country only 10,714 sq. miles in size and 10 million in population (BBC, 2012). It neighbours the Dominican Republic on the island of Hispaniola and sits geographically between the Caribbean Sea and the North Atlantic Ocean (Britannica, n.d.). Haiti currently ranks 11th on the Failed State Index (FSI) and finds itself in a situation crippled by ‘extreme poverty, a weak government, high natural disaster risk, and severe environmental degradation’ (Fischer & Levy, 2011; FFP, 2015). Haiti is the ‘poorest country in the Western Hemisphere with eighty percent of the population living under the poverty line’ with employment being split largely between agriculture and the textile industry in urbanized areas (Williams, 2011). While Haiti has experienced an exceptionally adverse history, this state provides a rather unique case study of the impact of NGO’s and aid on a country ravaged by natural disaster. In 2010 it fell victim to the ‘deadliest natural disaster ever recorded in the Western Hemisphere’, despite the earthquake only registering 7.0 on the Richter Scale (Katz, 2013). This case study will assess the history of this state and the reasons for its failure before providing an examination of the possibilities for its future. In a state so tarnished by outside influence and western imperialism, could the way forward be an anarchist-style system of mutual aid? Will the ground beneath their feet even last long enough for them to find out?

Part One – Haiti’s Slow Demise

State failure in Haiti was by no means a fast process, although the 2010 earthquake may make it seem this way. The argument that has gained much popularity post-2010 is the fact that events leading up to the earthquake stemming from the Haitian Revolution in 1804 have actually caused state failure. Indeed, the scene of the ‘first and only successful slave revolution in human history’ had incredibly difficult beginnings (Smith, n.d.; Britannica, n.d.). This is supported by Mark Danner, writing that ‘from independence and before, Haiti’s harms have been caused by men, not demons’, with Haiti embodying a state ‘built for predation and plunder’ (Danner, 2010). The modern populous, descended almost entirely from African slaves captured by the original Spanish settlers to work also reflects this and is in many ways the true embodiment of the horrors of colonialism. Historian Alex Von Tunzelmann perhaps encapsulates the Haitian problem best by arguing that for 200 years ‘rich countries and their banks have been sucking the wealth out of the country, and its own despotic and corrupt leaders have been doing their best to facilitate the process’ (Henley, 2010). What this ultimately creates is a country with such a lack of infrastructure that a usually non-catastrophic magnitude 7.0 earthquake is enough to almost completely destroy the entire country.

The two major contributors to state failure in Haiti’s history are imperialism and serious environmental degradation. The former richest colony in the world not only suffered the destruction of their plantations as a result of the Haitian revolution, the country’s main source of income, but also incurred a trade embargo from the United States and a king’s ransom of 150 million gold francs from France that would be used to compensate slave owners (Henley, 2010; Tharoor, 2015). Haiti was seen by the USA and Europe as an ‘intolerable exception’ and a threat to the western way of life as it provided a clear challenge to the monopoly the imperialist west held over their colonies in the developing world (Katz, 2013). Ever since this a ‘succession of American presidents and Congresses have systematically undermined the independence and integrity of the Haitian Republic’, starting largely with the founding father Thomas Jefferson who famously refused to recognise Haiti as a state (Gates, 2010). What has followed in Haiti is a number of interventions and coups in 1915, 1991, 2004 and most recently in 2010 in what John Pilger described as a ‘kidnapping’ that had no Haitian approval or ‘basis in law’ (Pilger, 2010). This intervention strategy epitomises the ‘responsibility to protect’ attitude of the USA and its allies that Anthony Fenton believes simply shrouds ulterior motives. Fenton believes the coup staged on democratically elected president Jean Bertrand Aristide in 1991 and again in 2004 is a clear example of ‘legalized imperialism’ that looks to protect the ‘neo-liberal vision’ of developing countries (Fenton, 2005). This decidedly selfish attitude can also be arguably seen in 2010 after the earthquake as both the IMF and French president Francois Hollande reversed their pledge to delete ‘one of the best examples of odious debt in the world’ altogether in favour of a three year ‘Marshall Plan’. This decision has since been criticised for favouring the ‘French-speaking Francophone and Francophile Haitian élites’ while undermining the poorer creole speaking Haitian majority, thereby creating a further rift in the country (IMF, 2010; Degraff, 2015; Klein, 2010). It is evident in Haiti that the true interests of the majority are very rarely, if ever, fulfilled while the needs of the countries elite, the government and outside interests take precedent. Marry this with the rather overwhelming environmental degradation of the country and it appears as though Haiti is not only failing to effectively govern and build but also very literally crumbling away.

The environment in Haiti is quite evidently a primary contributor to state failure. With sixty-six percent of Haitians dependent on agriculture Vereda Williams believes the issue of desertification is particularly devastating as the land available for cultivation continues to fall. Not only this, but due to the fact that Haiti’s forest cover has fallen from sixty percent to under one percent the effects of hurricanes are significantly more devastating than they would otherwise be (Williams, 2011). As Fischer and Levy note, ‘natural disasters prevent sustained economic growth, limit execution of strategic planning, and undermine poverty reduction programs’ making Haiti a state arguably at odds with the elements as much as with people (Fischer & Levy, 2011). In a country relying on agriculture for eighty percent of its GDP, desertification is arguably the primary enemy. However, quality of land does not matter if leadership is poor. Interestingly, since the end of the Duvalier regime in 1986 Fischer and Levy found that ‘government and public institutions have been severely weakened’, supporting the argument that ‘most sadistic leaders in the history of the hemisphere’ actually brought relative stability to Haiti (Fischer & Levy, 2011; Gates, 2010). The removal of the Duvaliers from power left a power gap arguably only maintained by the 1991 coup of Aristide and subsequent interventions. This is not to suggest that the Duvalier regime was acceptable, but the fear invoked by the infamous Tonton Macoutes along with the controlling of key agriculture such as coffee at least created slight economic strength (Fischer & Levy, 2011) This being said, the amount of money found to have been taken from Haiti by the Duvaliers does undermine this stability and supports Von Tunzelmann’s argument that the corrupt leaders of Haiti do not act in the interests of the state. This is only supported by the fact that during the Duvalier reign ‘ninety percent of the population subsisted on less than $150 annually’ while much of the aid money was simply ‘pocketed’ by the leader (Schubert, 2009). Not only is Haiti ‘straddling the major fault line between the North American and Caribbean tectonic plates’ but it arguably also operates in a catch-22 situation in which neither domestic leadership or intervention are effective (Henley, 2010). The effect of this is a 2010 post-earthquake scenario whereby arguably neither the people themselves or the aid workers are improving the situation in the country, leading to evermore state failure.

Part Two – The NGO Issue

The world response to the 2010 earthquake in Haiti was enormous, with donations amounting to $9bn (Ramachandran & Walz, 2013). The vast majority of this money was filtered through Non-Governmental Organisations (NGO’s) such as Oxfam and the Red Cross that are traditionally seen as ‘more democratic and deserving than governments and closer to the people’ (Schuller, 2007). With this in mind, the fact that even before the 2010 earthquake Haiti had the most NGO’s per capita of anywhere in the world would appear to be a positive thing. However, NGO’s have come under much criticism, including the argument that the imperialism so engrained in the history of Haiti has simply manifested itself in the current NGO culture of the state. This creates an issue in which NGO’s simply perpetuate the very issues that the country has faced dating back as far as the Haitian Revolution. As the ‘thin layer of state administrative structures that were in place in the country’ fell apart after the earthquake, outside actors were left in charge of Haiti once again, and again to very little success (Zanotti, 2010).

A primary issue with NGO’s is the fact that they are not elected and are therefore not accountable to anyone. Diana Arroyo saw that this created a ‘disconnection between the agencies’ priorities and the population’s needs and concerns’ that then led to mass frustration amongst the people. Security regularly took precedence over the giving of aid, making the process slow and resulting in a situation in which ‘of the initial $5.4 billion pledged by multilateral or bilateral agencies in 2010 to be disbursed over two years, only 56% had been disbursed by December 2012’ (Arroyo, 2014; Pilger, 2010). The bureaucratic nature of the NGO’s appears not to have allowed efficient aid, meaning the state stagnated when it needed to rebuild. Perhaps the best example of this is Elliott and Sullivan’s findings that the Red Cross only actually built six homes where they claimed 130,000 were provided. This was ultimately found to be because the projects were ‘micromanaged from DC’, creating a distinct ‘lack of progress’ in neighbourhoods in need while ‘healthy salaries’ are ‘paid to expatriate aid workers’ who had little to no expertise (Elliott & Sullivan, 2015). The fact that NGO’s are not checked according to any standards creates a problem such as this where nearly half a billion dollars are given and entrusted to an organisation that consists of people with great intentions but a distinct lack of ability. Arroyo also found that only 1% of the post-earthquake funding was given to the Haitian government with ‘the rest being allocated to the Red Cross movement and international non-state service providers, including INGOs and private contractors’, creating a reliance on these unaccountable and unskilled bodies as opposed to possibly more experienced officials (Arroyo, 2014).

As a result of this blatant lack of effectiveness, Naomi Klein among others asks whether development and true disaster relief are even at the top of the NGO agenda. George Eaton suggests NGO’s see the disaster in Haiti as a ‘chance to push through free-market policies unachievable in times of stability’ (Eaton, 2010). Fenton would argue that this has been the goal of outside actors throughout Haiti’s history with NGO’s simply being the most recent manifestation of this (Fenton, 2005). Matt Kennard believes this culture of ‘disaster capitalism’ that preys upon the literal gaps created by natural disaster has caused ‘mass privatisation of state-run assets’, turning Haiti into a ‘Caribbean sweatshop’ (Kennard, 2012). This has been identified by Fenton as a trend in Haiti as state failure was ‘directly precipitated by Haiti’s elite and the international powers that would later step in as “protectors”’ (Fenton, 2005). Zanotti believes the ‘years of international peacekeeping and intense multilateral and bilateral aid, as well as an intensive presence of foreign non-governmental organisations (NGOs)’ are the true reason for failure in Haiti, with the 2010 earthquake simply presenting the perfect opportunity to completely take over almost indefinitely (Zanotti, 2010). Theoretically, if the people of Haiti can be convinced that protection is still needed years into the future this small state could truly be the first completely NGO run republic operating not with the goal of improvement but instead, profit.

Part Three – The Future

Naomi Klein is one of a cacophony of voices since the 2010 earthquake that has exposed the wrong doings of the west in Haiti. Her argument that the state should be seen as a ‘creditor’ instead of a ‘debtor’ as it has arguably since its birth in 1804 holds much weight in this argument (Klein, 2010). There is no doubt that the earthquake provided a perfect opportunity to change the way in which Haiti was treated and run. Unfortunately, it appears that currently the NGO-based response to the 2010 earthquake has only helped further the prior aims predominantly of capitalist America. With ‘existing debts of $891m, the people of Haiti cannot afford for economic dogma to trump human need’ but this will arguably only carry on while the countries inhabitants struggle to find their feet in a system that they did not vote for and that does not represent them (Eaton, 2010).

The only alternative in Haiti is one built, managed and carried out by the people of Haiti themselves. In a state dominated by agriculture the logical option would be to pursue this, ensuring first and foremost the sustainable development of food for the population. Constant outside occupation has created the perception that the people of Haiti are incapable of helping themselves and therefore need outside help to survive. Arroyo rightly highlights that ‘although affected populations may claim the right to hold agencies accountable, agencies do not always recognize a corresponding obligation’ (Arroyo, 2014). This case study suggests that in order for the state to improve this must change and a system of common objectives must be put in place. Kropotkin’s theory of mutual aid based on the collective struggle of people for a common goal provides an interesting idea for Haiti. In a country so overwhelmed by overseas aid and donations, this theory suggests that populations can evolve and prosper through sociability and mutual protection along with collective endeavour to produce and trade (Kropotkin, 2012). With an accountable and stable Haitian government in the ‘driving-seat of reconstruction’ instead of NGO’s the needs of the people can be put first and for the first time outside actors can be truly accountable (Faret & Aguirre, 2010).

While this may seem relatively attainable, it must be said that this is a rather long-term goal. One of the most damning aspects of Haiti is its sheer unpredictability namely through natural disaster, arguably making the creation of a long term plan almost impossible. Continued issues such as desertification along with almost complete deforestation are making Haiti ever more arid and lifeless, with every hurricane and earthquake only worsening the situation. In a state consisting of such despair Mikaela Rabb writes that ‘maybe Haiti needs a miracle. Or a miracle worker, at least’ to improve its situation (Rabb, 2014). This should however not deter the people of Haiti from fighting just as their ancestors did over 200 years prior in a situation arguably even more desperate than now. For all of the adversity that the Haitian people have experienced, their triumph in 1804 should at least demonstrate that it is possible to overcome anything. Haiti is not alone in its fight as it is joined by many other states failing due to the effects of foreign intervention and modern imperialism, however Haiti stands alone in its history of victory. With the correct leadership and support it may be possible once again for Haiti to create a change that alters the entire course of history, but only if the country unites again in a collective fight for freedom.


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