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Haiti and the Aid Racket


It’s now more than a month since the earthquake that laid waste to Port-au-Prince, killing more than 200,000 people and thrusting millions of people into the most desperate conditions.

But according to the U.S. government, Haitians have a lot to be thankful for.

On February 12, the U.S. Ambassador to Haiti Ken Merten boasted, “In terms of humanitarian aid delivery…frankly, it’s working really well, and I believe that this will be something that people will be able to look back on in the future as a model for how we’ve been able to sort ourselves out as donors on the ground and responding to an earthquake.”

Bill Quigley, the legal director for the Center for Constitutional Rights, had a simple response to Merten’s claim: “What? Haiti is a model of how the international government and donor community should respond to an earthquake? The ambassador must be overworked and need some R&R. Look at the facts.”

What are the facts? The UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) reports that “more than 3 million people–one in every three Haitians–were severely affected by the earthquake, of whom 2 million need regular food aid. Over 1.1 million people are homeless, many of them still living under sheets and cardboard in makeshift camps. The government of Haiti estimates that at least 300,000 people were injured during the quake.”

So far, the relief effort has only managed to provide 270,000 people with basic shelters like tents. More than 1 million people still have little access to food and water and have to scrape by to find sustenance. Even worse, because the relief operation is so inefficient, Haitians report that some of the food spends so long at the airport that it is rotten by the time it gets to the hungry.

On February 7, thousands of Haitians marched in the Petionville suburb of Port-au-Prince to protest their desperate circumstances and the failure of aid delivery.

Those conditions will only worsen as rainy season approaches. Médicins sans Frontières (MSF) summed up the grave situation:

It’s hard to believe that four weeks after the quakes, so many people still live under bedsheets in camps and on the street…One can only wonder how there could be such a huge gap between the promise of a massive financial influx into the country and the slow pace of distribution. MSF is concerned that with the onset of the rainy season, we’ll be facing new medical emergencies, when people who are living without shelter come to us with diarrhea or respiratory infections.

* * *

THE U.S. ambassador couldn’t be more wrong about the relief operation in Haiti.

While some NGOs like Partners in Health have done and are doing amazing work to provide services for quake victims, overall, the catastrophe in Haiti revealed the worst aspects of the U.S. government and the NGO aid industry.

As many analysts have noted, the U.S. in fact used its “relief” operation to disguise a military occupation of Haiti, intended to prevent a flood of refugees reaching the U.S., impose even greater sweatshop development on Haiti, and signal to the rest of Latin America, the Caribbean and the world’s most powerful governments that U.S. aims to reassert its power in the region.

As a result, relief aid from the U.S. has played second fiddle to its imperial ambitions–and the NGO-centered aspect of its response is an important part of its strategy.

Instead of aiding the Haitian state and building up its capacity to handle the crisis, the U.S. is funneling $379 million in aid through its own agencies and then through NGOs. According to the Associated Press:

Each American dollar roughly breaks down like this: 42 cents for disaster assistance, 33 cents for U.S. military aid, nine cents for food, nine cents to transport the food, five cents for paying Haitian survivors for recovery efforts, just less than one cent to the Haitian government, and about half a cent to the Dominican Republic.

Most of the privately raised funds have been funneled to NGOs that have a checkered history in Haiti, not ones with a real commitment to invigorating Haitian self-organization. As Bill Quigley writes:

Donations for Haiti to private organizations have exceeded $644 million. Over $200 million has gone to the Red Cross, which had 15 people working on health projects in Haiti before the earthquake. About $40 million has gone to Partners in Health, which had 5,000 people working on health in Haiti before the quake.

The big NGOs, which are getting the bulk of the money, see the crisis as an enormous opportunity to raise funds and their profile. Thus, instead of a centralized and logical relief effort, something only a sovereign state could provide, the NGOs are competing with one another, literally branding areas they serve with their logos. As a result of this competition, they provide spotty and chaotic relief provision. According to the British medical journal The Lancet, the NGOs are:

jostling for position, each claiming that they are doing the most for earthquake survivors. Some agencies even claim that they are “spearheading” the relief effort. In fact, as we only too clearly see, the situation in Haiti is chaotic, devastating and anything but coordinated.

Polluted by the internal power politics and the unsavory characteristics seen in many big corporations, large aid agencies can be obsessed with raising money through their own appeal efforts. Media coverage as an end in itself is too often an aim of their activities. Marketing and branding have too high a profile. Perhaps worst of all, relief efforts in the field are sometimes competitive, with little collaboration between agencies, including smaller, grassroots charities that may have better networks in affected counties, and so are well placed to immediately implement emergency relief.

Even worse, the NGOs, because of their close collaboration with the U.S. military, have adopted a paranoid obsession with security to the detriment of providing actual help. According to Sasha Kramer, a co-founder of the non-profit Sustainable Organic Integrated Livelihoods who was in Haiti at the time of the earthquake and remains there today:

One friend showed me the map used by all of the larger NGOs, where Port-au-Prince is divided into security zones: yellow, orange, red. Red zones are restricted; in the orange zones, all of the car windows must be rolled up, and they cannot be visited past certain times of the day; even in the yellow zone, aid workers are often not permitted to walk through the streets, and spend much of their time riding through the city from one office to another in organizational vehicles.

The creation of these security zones has been like the building of a wall, a wall reinforced by language barriers and fear, rather than iron rods–a wall that, unlike many of the buildings in Port-au-Prince, did not crumble during the earthquake.

Fear, much like violence, is self-perpetuating. When aid workers enter communities radiating fear, it is offensive, the perceived disinterest in communicating with the poor majority is offensive, driving through impoverished communities with windows rolled up and armed security guards is offensive…

Despite the good intentions of the many aid workers swarming around the UN base, much of the aid coming through the larger organizations is still blocked in storage, waiting for the required UN and U.S. military escorts that are seen as essential for distribution. Meanwhile, people in the camps are suffering, and their tolerance is waning.

* * *

THE U.S. policy of bypassing the Haitian state to fund NGOs is nothing new–this has been U.S. practice in the Third World since the turn to neoliberalism in the 1970s.

The U.S. has used IMF and World Bank structural adjustment programs to force Third World governments to privatize government industry, cut wages and government programs, lower trade barriers, and open economies to U.S. trade and investment. At the same time, the U.S. and corporate donors started funding NGOs to address the social crisis created by neoliberal policies.

As David Harvey argues in his book A Short History of Neoliberalism:

The rise of advocacy groups and NGOs has…accompanied the neoliberal turn and increased spectacularly since 1980 or so. The NGOs have in many instances stepped into the vacuum in social provision left by the withdrawal of the state from such activities. This amounts to privatization by NGO. In some instances, this has helped accelerate further state withdrawal from social provision. NGOs thereby function as “Trojan horses for neoliberal globalization.”

The NGOs are, in fact, businesses in their own right. They sport well-paid bureaucrats that raise money off of the disastrous impact of neoliberalism around the world. They are not accountable to the local populations they supposedly serve, but instead to the international donors that fund them–most often, corporate-backed formations like George Soros’s Open Society Institute and capitalist governments.

Moreover, given that NGOs can pay local leaders more than either the government or social movements, they often recruit people who would traditionally lead leftist movements. As Mike Davis in The Planet of Slums:

Third World NGOs have proven brilliant at co-opting local leadership as well as hegemonizing the social space traditionally occupied by the Left. Even if there are some celebrated exceptions–such as the militant NGOs so instrumental in creating the World Social Forums–the broad impact of the NGO/”civil society revolution”…has been to bureaucratize and deradicalize urban social movements.

Davis argues that NGOs are, in fact, a form of “soft imperialism.” They play a role very similar to the one that missionary religious institutions played in the earlier history of empire. They provide moral cover–a civilizing mission of helping the hapless heathens–for the powers that are plundering the society. And just as religious institutions justified imperial war, many NGOs, abandoning their traditional standpoint of neutrality in conflicts, have become advocates of military intervention.

Nowhere is this pattern more clear than in Haiti. The U.S. convinced the dictator Baby Doc Duvalier in the 1980s to implement a neoliberal development plan which Haitians call “the plan of death,” which dropped tariffs on American agriculture, encouraged sweatshop development in Port-au-Prince and opened tourist resorts for the international elite.

Predictably, the plan produced a social catastrophe; it increased absolute poverty by 60 percent. But the Haitian poor, workers and peasants rose up to build a mass movement, Lavalas, that eventually elected Jean-Bertrand Aristide president in 1990 on a platform of anti-neoliberal reform.

The U.S. saw Aristide’s mild reformism as a threat, backed a coup in 1991 and used the coup regime’s reign of terror to crush the Lavalas social movement. It also convinced Aristide to implement the “plan of death” as the condition of his restoration in 1994. Under threat from the U.S., Aristide and his successor, René Préval implemented much of the plan.

The U.S. used yet another coup against Aristide in 2004 and another coup regime to force through the rest of the plan. Now, Haiti has the most neoliberal economy in Latin American and the Caribbean.

Thus, as noted Haitian academic Robert Fatton argues, “The emasculation of the state is no accident…It is partly the consequence of the neoliberal regime implanted in the country by the major international financial institutions. By advocating the withdrawal of the state from its social and regulating obligations, and by promoting the supremacy of the market, this regime has contributed to an economic, political and social disaster.”

At the very same time, the U.S., other powers and the international donors started funding the NGOs. Soon, the World Bank reported that there were 10,000 NGOs in the country, doing everything from trash collection to health care and food provision in a chaotic patchwork of services that have replaced the incapacitated state.

These NGOs are non-governmental only in name. Peter Hallward documents inDamming the Flood that the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) and other similar government bureaucracies from other countries provide 70 percent of the funding for NGOs. The other 30 percent comes from corporate formations and individual contributors.

Unsurprisingly, as Hallward argues, “the bulk of USAID money that goes to Haiti and to other countries in the region is explicitly designed to pursue interests–the promotion of a secure investment climate, the nurturing of links with local business elites, the preservation of a docile and low-wage labor force, and so on.”

Haitians now commonly refer to their own country as the “Republic of NGOs.” But that is a misnomer, since Haitians have no democratic control over the NGOs. In reality, Haiti has been ruled by an American NGO Raj.

* * *

WHILE SOME NGOs like Partners in Health have been set up to develop Haitian grassroots self-organization and control, most major NGOs have been accomplices in the neoliberal catastrophe the U.S. wrought in Haiti.

First of all, the NGOs have reproduced and exacerbated class inequality in Haiti. Since the NGOs can pay much better than anyone else, including the Haitian state, they have swept up middle class professionals into their ranks. Haitian actually now call them the “NGO class.” As anthropologist Mark Schuller writes:

In addition to higher salaries, NGO employees have access to many privileges: clean drinking water, electricity to charge cell hones, e-mail and the ever-prized U.S. visa. These privileges in turn plug individuals into the global economy. People’s first visits to the U.S. solidified neoliberal ideologies. This artificial, dependent middle class–the “NGO class”–thus directly support a form of economic globalization, accomplishes ideological work and further stratifies the Haitian population, selecting a chosen few for privileges denied Haiti’s poor majority.

The NGOs themselves are in the business of poverty, not its eradication, and they have proliferated in lockstep with the collapse in the Haitian standard of living. This has led many Haitians to rightly see them as profiting off their crisis.

As Sove Lavi told Schuller, the NGOs “take the illness [of AIDS] and turn it into a business. They let people die…Thanks to this illness, many people have become gran neg [bigwigs], many people have become rich. Many people drive fancy cars, fancy motorcycles. Many people are achte [making a lot of] money on the backs of people who are living with the illness. Many people living with the illness, we continue to die.”

These NGOs have left in their wake a litany of projects that, far from improving the condition of impoverished Haitians, has in fact worsened it.

Anthropologist Timothy Schwartz documents the disastrous impact of the NGOs in his book Travesty in Haiti. In particular, he shows how CARE International–which claimed its mission in Haiti was to provide food aid to the “poorest of the poor”–not only failed in its mission, but also actually exacerbated the food crisis.

When the U.S. implemented its “plan of death” in Haiti, which undercut peasant agriculture and flooded the market with subsidized U.S. products, it caused a food crisis. Peasants were no longer able to find a market for their produce, and were therefore thrust into poverty, often unable to meet their own food needs because of their collapsed standard of living. They then became dependent on food aid.

USAID, in turn, funded CARE International to feed the impoverished peasants. The NGO began to distribute U.S. crops as food aid, during both bad and good harvests, further undermining Haitian peasants ability to compete for the market. Often, the food aid was taken by local elites and sold on the market, with the CARE brand still affixed to the packaging. CARE seemed to care so little that it never really followed up on the consequences of its food aid program.

Meanwhile, it put on conferences in fancy hotels inside and outside Haiti for its U.S. government and corporate backers. Schwartz writes that this amounted to “a perversion of American charitable ideals, with its false claims to be aiding ‘the poorest of the poor’ when what it was really doing was throwing exquisite banquets at plush hotels, while carrying out U.S. political policy in the interests of international venture capitalist and industrialists.”

In another example, Schwartz tells the story of NGO-sponsored orphanages that degenerated into a cover for trafficking in children.

NGOs like World Vision, Compassion International and Christian Aid Missions collectively sponsor tens of thousands of children in orphanages. On the surface, this sounds like a benevolent plan. But as Schwartz shows, the middle-class operators of the orphanages took the money from the NGOs and ran a scam.

In some cases, these operators housed not actual orphans, but children of the local elite. In other cases, they offered money to impoverished Haitians for their children, with the promise that they would be cared for, educated and given a chance at a better life. The bulk of actual orphans–impoverished street kids–didn’t get places. The orphanages were filled up with middle-class kids or children bought from their parents–that is, fake orphans.

Schwartz writes that he “had zero doubt that orphanages for Haitians and for many Americans who were helping them procure funds were businesses.” He calls it “false charity. I believe it is tantamount to robbing from impoverished children themselves. The money is theirs, and they are not, in the overwhelming majority of cases I encountered, getting it.”

Even worse, the most cynical of the people trading in children sell the poorest of the children into slavery or the sex trade. Often, these children are marketed abroad. UNICEF reports a conservative estimate that each year, 2,000 Haitian kids are sold into the Dominican Republic alone.

Schwartz also shows how the disastrous impact of both U.S. neoliberal economic policies and the failure or complicity of the NGOs has left people so desperate that they turned to narco-trafficking as a source of income. Of course, the U.S. then uses this as a further justification for its military occupation and imposition of yet another sweatshop development plan.

Schwartz conclusions are absolutely correct:

The world’s largest multinational charities–CARE, CRS, World Vision and ADRA–executed the political will of institutions, governments and lobbyists that had identified Haiti’s comparative advantage as low wages–i.e. poverty–and in doing so, these charitable organization dedicated to helping the poorest of the poor wound up working to make the people of Haiti even poorer.

* * *

WHILE THE U.S. used the NGOs to help impose neoliberalism in Haiti, they also manipulated them to build political opposition to any reform movement. The U.S. stepped up funding for the NGO racket in the run-up to its second coup against Jean-Bertrand Aristide in 2004. At the very same time that it enforced an embargo on Aristide’s government for alleged electoral manipulations, it escalated the funding of NGOs that were in opposition to Aristide.

As Hallward writes, they made “use of tried-and-tested tactics of democracy promotion. In Haiti as elsewhere, the main vehicles for delivering the policy were USAID, the International Foundation for Electoral Systems, and the International Republican Institute. Altogether, from 1994 to 2002, Washington would contribute some $70 million–a staggering sum by Haitian standards–to ‘train’ an appropriate political opposition to Aristide.”

Many, if not most, of the NGOs that ended up organized in the elite opposition’s political front, the Group of 184, and that supported the coup were on the U.S. payroll.

Such NGO collaboration with the coup completes a vicious circle–the NGOs aided and abetted the “plan of death”; exacerbated through failure, mismanagement and corruption the impact of neoliberalism on Haiti; and then supported the coup against the democratically elected government.

In so doing, they undercut the sovereignty of Haitian people, all under the gloss of helping people overcome their poverty–poverty that they, in fact, helped create.

The Marine Gen. Smedley Butler from the early decades of the 20th century said he served as a “racketeer for capitalism.” The same could just as easily be applied to the NGOs and humanitarian aid today–it is a racket for empire.

ASHLEY SMITH writes for the Socialist Worker, where this originally appeared. He can be reached at:

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