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Haiti: The Aid Dilemma

Q & A With Adam Davidson

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Can you describe what the situation is like in Haiti right now? How much have Haitians been able to get back to at least some semblance of normal?

There are many improvements in the streets of Port-au-Prince. More of the rubble has been cleared. Many of those in tent cities get regular food and water and medical care. It’s certainly far from flawless, but it’s much better than it was a few months ago.

photo of adam davidsonAdam Davidson in Haiti

Many of the Haitians I speak with repeatedly point out that much of what we foreigners find most shocking about Haiti are things that existed before the earthquake. It’s stunning to realize that for some (though certainly not most) of the Haitians in tent cities, life has actually improved. They have better living conditions, more food, the first health care they’ve ever received, free school for their kids.

Many Haitians hope that all the attention and money that the earthquake brought will lead to investments that could improve life for many Haitians.

We see in the piece how international food aid has disrupted one small business in particular, but also the economy of Haiti in general. From your understanding, is this common in disaster relief situations, or does Haiti present a unique case?

On the contrary, I think Haiti counts as, largely, a success case. Many of the NGOs and UN agencies will admit that, until recently, they didn’t consider the impact of food aid on local economies. They frequently created massive distortions in markets that had long-term impacts. While there have clearly been disruptions in Haiti, they seem to be far milder than in past cases.

Is Haiti’s food supply chain typical of an impoverished nation, and does that specific food chain make it particularly vulnerable to disruption?

Haiti, like many of the least-developed nations in the world, is far less resilient than wealthier countries. Even in the best of times, some Haitians go hungry every day. The supply chain has minimal surplus, so any shock can have a devastating impact. It’s hard to imagine just how razor-thin the margin is that separates living from dying in a place like Haiti. Emerging and middle-income countries -- not to mention rich ones -- do not have these challenges. There might be pockets of poverty with food insecurity in almost any country. But the majority of Haitians live in or close to food insecurity.

After the main port in Haiti was nearly destroyed in the quake, we see that it has been operating at only a fraction of its pre-quake volume. So you have this daily dilemma of what to let in -- military supplies, humanitarian aid like food and medicine, or commercial goods. How radical a shift is it for the U.S. military to allow commercial goods to take precedence over the other two, and have you seen any effects of this decision on the Haitian economy?

It’s certainly a radical shift from recent practice for the U.S. military to take a backseat to commercial shipments. Although, to be fair, the U.S. military was in Haiti to assist, not to run the place. So, it would make sense that they wouldn’t push aside the local economy as much as they did in Iraq. I’d say the impact is clear. There wouldn’t be as much rice in the markets as there is if the military didn’t allow rice to come in.

How close is the Haitian economy to returning to pre-earthquake levels?

It’s important to remember that pre-earthquake levels were pretty awful. Haiti’s average income per person is half of what it was in the 1960s. Haiti has been on an almost continuous slide downward for decades. The last two years were a period of some growth and real optimism. After several years of unusual calm and stability in Haiti, the private sector was building better ties with the rest of the world. There were new investments coming in. I do get the sense that the economic momentum has returned and may even speed up. It’s easier, these days, to sell T-shirts with the “Made in Haiti” label than it was a year ago. Consumers now see that as a positive.

All that being said, it seems clear that the average Haitian is in far worse straits now than before the earthquake. We don’t have statistics yet, so we don’t know for sure. But it would be surprising if the average person hasn’t suffered a dramatic hit to their income. It will be a long time before that turns around.

One of the military officials in the piece says that rebuilding the port will ultimately improve its total capacity; in others words, it will allow the port to bring in more containers than it could pre-quake. Have you seen other instances where rebuilding will actually offer an opportunity to improve infrastructure in Haiti?

The Haitian government’s plan -- crafted along with the UN and other international bodies -- is to radically improve Haiti’s infrastructure. The idea is not only to rebuild Port-au-Prince and much of the rest of the country, but to create a new foundation for a healthier state. There are plans for investing billions of dollars in new housing, many new roads, electric power plants, hospitals, schools, and so forth.

Of course, any massive plan like this is subject to lots of potential problems -- inefficiency, corruption, poor planning. But it seems clear that there will be a lot of new construction in Haiti. The big question is whether that will lead to a fundamental improvement in Haiti’s capacity to govern and create meaningful jobs for its people. It is not yet clear if that will happen.

How new is this idea of shifting from sending food to providing vouchers or cash to buy food, and how widespread is it now in Haiti? Does it have enough of a track record, in Haiti and elsewhere, for us to judge its effectiveness?

The WFP [World Food Progamme] and others have been using vouchers for at least a decade, if not longer. They have worked well in much of the world, including such troubled places as Afghanistan. There have been some mistakes. Vouchers can create inflation or become sources of corruption. They require reasonably healthy markets to function. And they are, inherently, an artificial intervention, so they will almost certainly cause some distortions.

We see the U.S. military and the World Food Programme in the piece, but how many different organizations are down there now offering aid? How does this affect how efficient the foreign aid is?

There are thousands of NGOs working in Haiti. Huge international organizations, like the World Bank, the U.N., Inter-American Development Bank; the large NGOs like Oxfam, Mercy Corps, IRC [International Rescue Committee]; and many smaller ones, ranging from church groups to Doctors Without Borders. There is no question that coordination is a constant struggle, and there are areas of redundancy and gaps where nobody is serving a population because of lack of information. Foreign aid is such a huge aspect of Haiti’s economy that coordinating with the aid givers is a primary role of government. Some say it distracts from doing the business of governing. There is much room for improvement in the coordination.

After being there to report a number of different stories, what do you think are the biggest issues still facing Haiti in its rebuilding process?

I think the core issue is where Haiti will be in a decade. We know that there will be corruption and inefficiency. Of course there will be. It’s many billions of dollars being sent to a very poor country with very little government capacity. [But] I don’t think that’s the crucial issue. The key question is to think about 10 years from now, when all the money has been spent: Will the Haitian government be better able to govern and provide services? Will there be at least the beginnings of a Haitian professional class that sees staying in Haiti as a real option? Will there be an environment that allows business to grow and hire new people and to compete?

Haiti will be poor in 10 years. Haiti will be poor in 20 years and 30 years. But I do think there’s a chance that Haiti could be on a path to sustained economic growth for the first time in a long time. But it will only happen if the world understands that it has to be Haitians themselves who, given the tools and skills and resources, build their nation. It can’t happen from outside. The best the rest of the world can do is give some help and guidance.

Ask Adam Davidson

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posted june 25, 2010

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