When the other ceased to matter

Lessons learned from the actions of international cooperation after the Haiti earthquake.

On April 25, 2015, the world turned its focus to Nepal. A strong shake and this Asian country became the new emergency and therefore the target of international cooperation agencies and NGOs. But before acting, we should always stop to recapitulate and learn from past experiences…

Although the intention of many (if not all) may be to help, cooperation can easily be distorted and can actually harm a nation rather than help. This was precisely what happened in Haiti after the January 2010 earthquake.

Thousands of NGOs shipped off to the Caribbean with hundreds of millions of dollars in tow. Build emergency homes, provide water and food, reconstruct schools, attend to the thousands of injured … there were many causes, and also many mistakes. As soon as you step outside Port-au-Prince, this is clear. This is the case of the little colored houses built in Onaville.
The purpose of the housing project was to provide homes to a group of victims, but in the end it became a ghost town after construction crews realized that they were in a remote area, with no transportation, power or drinking water. This realization only became apparent after the houses had been built and the money had been spent.

Why didn’t it work? The project did not consider the different variables in the area that would affect inhabitability, let alone integration. There was no consideration of the basic needs or interests of the affected people who were the supposed end beneficiaries. The project was dreamed up from the outside and for the outside. And this dynamic repeats over and over again in numerous cases, where external interests do not align with local ones.

At the end of the day, this is what happened. Many aid agencies put their interests ahead of those of the local population and prioritized short-term “band-aid” solutions over deeper, more meaningful change. Examples like these explain what we see today as thousands of people in Canaan, where most victims took shelter, still live in tents and tin cans provided by NGOs, or how as the country was lost in crisis and no effort was made to reactivate the local economy, US rice ruthlessly entered Haiti, pushing aside Haitian-grown rice, which could well have been purchased to reactivate the Haitian market.

This work pattern was poorly thought through from its outset. In his book,“The truck that went by: How the World Came to Save Haiti and Left Behind a Disaster”, journalist Jonathan Katz, who was living in Haiti and working for the news agency, AP, when the earthquake struck, sums this up: “Most of the money promised by foreign governmentswas never intended to reach Haiti. […] In the end, at least 93% [of the US$ 2.43 billion] went directly to the UN or NGOs to pay for supplies or staff. […] Only one percent – a little over US$ 24 million – went to the Haitian government.”

Countless millions and projects were lost to poor management. Katz puts it in numbers: “The Interim Haiti Recovery Commission finished its term having approved US$3.2 billion in projects – of which, a third ran out of funding. No Haitian commission or any other replaced these.”

In this context, the parties involved, coming from such different cultures and realities, never could coincide. There were not enough opportunities for dialog, participation or inclusion of those who were the primary protagonists. In these parallel realities, the discussion on what was best for the victims and the Haitian government was lost, as was the determination of the best way to help or the most needy area. If these discussions had existed, perhaps the outcome would have been different and the parties involved could have ensured a sustainability that currently eludes the island, slipping away like the foreign aid that has begun its journey back home. To a critical eye, the commitment went only so far as to implement methodologies never before tested on location, using foreign resources and foreign people who in many cases had no prior knowledge of Haiti.

Now, as international organisms, we have a new opportunity to lend a helping hand to a country that really needs it. We just need to stop and think about the best way to do things in Nepal, to learn, to install local capacities, and therefore, make development projects more sustainable and not simply a process with an expiration date whose fate will always be in the hands of foreigners.

Source: El Diario.es