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Are Non-Profits Doomed to Fail in Haiti?

With the 3rd anniversary of Haiti's Earthquake upon us, I asked Kona Shen, Founder and Director of GOALS Haiti, for her perspective.  Kona has a long-standing passion for Haiti and has lived there for the past 3 years. She's seen what has and hasn't worked with the aid that has flowed into the country. This is Kona's second post here and third mention.  Her insights give us pause to think, especially about 'social' enterprises.

It’s hard to know anything in Haiti. Take the unemployment rate: it may be 52%, it may be 70%, or it may be higher. Like everything in this country, it depends whom you ask, and why.

This lesson is one of the first I learned in Haiti. I began volunteering in Haiti in 2007, and moved to Léogane in 2010 to begin my work with GOALS. The more time I spend here, the less I know. This is especially true following the January 12, 2010 earthquake that killed 230,000-300,000 people.

The earthquake was one the largest natural disasters in modern history. About half of American households donated, and aid poured into Haiti, determined to do good (New York Daily News). This year, the media marked the three-year anniversary with a review of aid efforts. The Independent published, “Haiti: the graveyard of hope,” while TIME published, “Haiti Three Years After the Quake: There’s Good News, Too.” Clearly, there is a wide range of opinion. And if there’s something Haiti has plenty of, it’s opinions.

Parts of Haiti have achieved remarkable progress in their recovery since 2010. In Léogane, where I live, streets are now paved, there are more public wells, and new businesses have opened their doors. The town is starting to look more and more like its pre-earthquake self: poor, but bustling with entrepreneurial activity.

Foreign aid is complicated everywhere, but perhaps especially so in Haiti. Historically, Haiti was fiercely independent. In 1804, a thirteen-year slave rebellion was won and Haiti became the world’s first black republic. In the following decades, Haitians successfully fended off foreign invasions while simultaneously succumbing to a long cycle of internal upheavals.

Today, Haiti is infamous for deep-seated aid dependency and its heavy reliance on remittances from abroad. Throughout Haiti’s history, people have survived slavery, dictators, and disasters. As with everything else, foreign aid has become another opportunity for families to strategize new ways to create better lives for themselves and their children.

Knowing all of this, what role do non-profits have in Haiti?

There are an estimated 3,000 non-governmental organizations (NGOs) working in Haiti. In 2005, only 343 were registered with the government (Schuller). Today, the number is still under 600. Granted, it’s not an easy process to register; GOALS has not yet completed it, and our application is currently being reviewed by the Haitian government. But there is a systematic reluctance for non-profits to recognize a need to play by the rules in Haiti. The wasted funds, the sloppy results, and the lost opportunity to “build back better” – if it ever existed – are closely tied to this disregard.

Compounding the problem is a poor allocation of the resources that do exist. A study published in the Fall 2010 edition of The Journal of Haitian Studies showed that “it is 125 times more likely for someone outside of metropolitan Port-au-Prince to be in need for water, food, medicine, clothing or tents,” but that only 4% of NGOs focused outside of the Port-au-Prince area. Too often, foreign aid becomes oriented around donor’s preferences and opinions, and not real needs on the ground.

A recent article in The Wall Street Journal (“Why Charity Hasn’t Done Much for Haiti”) argues that non-profits disrupt market economics because freely distributed resources reduce pressures on politicians to enact needed reforms. Foreign donors, of course, have their own agendas. Of every $100 of Haiti reconstruction contracts awarded by the American government, $98.40 went back to American companies (National Public Radio).

On the ground, the story is more nuanced. Non-profits that hire locally, buy locally, and build locally are injecting funds from foreign donors to boost local economies. It is a tertiary effect – beyond direct and indirect social impacts – but an important one. These programs not only provide services, but pay salaries and increase local business, too. Ultimately, non-profits can be stakeholders if they deliver results, partner with governments, and stay committed.

There are no easy answers to solve Haiti’s problems. Non-profits do have the information needed, though, to adopt recommended practices to better serve those in need. We must recognize the role of the Haitian government. We must create services based on real needs, not perceived ones, when such information is available. We must support local economies. We must be realistic. Real change is often slow, long-term, and riddled with failures along the way.

Most of all, we must keep an open mind. There is rarely one right answer, and solutions come in many guises. Haiti has taught me many lessons, but this tops the list: the less you’re sure you know, the better.

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