NGOs and the Business of Poverty in Haiti

No other country in the world has more non-governmental organizations (NGOs) per capita as Haiti. After the January 12 earthquake these NGOs received the bulk of the global relief funds, while the Haitian government, regularly accused of corruption by the U.S. State Department, has remained marginalized in the recovery and rebuilding efforts. This leaves a country where unelected organizations, unaccountable to the Haitian people, are calling the shots and accused of profiting from the poverty they are entrusted to fight.

Kevin Edmonds

Haiti has the most privatized social-service sector in the Americas, with some 80% of the country’s basic services provided by the private sector through non-governmental organizations (NGOs). No other country in the world has more NGOs per capita. Edmond Mulet, head of the UN mission in Haiti, conservatively estimates that there were more than 10,000 before the January 12 earthquake. Many Haitians ironically refer to their country as a “republic of NGOs.”

The Haitian government, regularly accused of corruption by the U.S. State Department, has been marginalized in post-earthquake recovery and rebuilding efforts. Less than one cent of each dollar of U.S. earthquake relief is going to the Haitian government. As reported by the Associated Press, NGOs working on disaster assistance receive 43 cents, while 33 cents of that same dollar ends up with the U.S. military. This has been the pattern of aid since deposed Haitian president Jean-Bertrand Aristide—not one of Washington’s favorite politicians—was elected in 1990.

An umbrella organization of anti-Aristide activists and NGOs called the Group of 184, for example, was largely financed by the United States Agency for International Development (USAID), the International Foundation for Electoral Systems, and the International Republic Institute. As Peter Hallward reports in his book Damming the Flood, USAID and other government agencies from Northern countries provide 70% of the funding of NGOs in Haiti. The other 30% comes from corporate and individual donations. Thus, the label “non-governmental” is a bit of a misnomer.

In Haiti, the state has been circumvented, and unelected organizations that are unaccountable to the Haitian people have been carrying out a program of neoliberal transformation. The relationships between the NGOs and their donors continually undermine the Haitian people’s right to self-determination, while the organizations are at same time cultivating and profiting from the poverty they are entrusted to fight.

One of the largest NGOs, the American Red Cross, has come under fire for its handling of earthquake relief funds. The Red Cross collected $255 million from private donations, but allocated only $106 million to Haiti relief. This left $149 million of donations unaccounted for. Exposing the massive overheads of the big NGOs, Bill Quigley of the Center for Constitutional Rights notes that more than $200 million was given to the U.S. Red Cross, which had only 15 employees in Haiti before the earthquake, while Partners in Health and their 5,000 (mostly Haitian) employees received $40 million.

Despite the passage of two months and the raising of billions of dollars of relief aid worldwide (totals can be tracked here), the lack of transparency and accountability has negatively affected the delivery of services. Haitian prime minister Jean-Max Bellerive stated his frustration with the disorganization: “We don't know who has given money to NGOs and how much money have they given. . . . At the moment, we can’t do any coordination or have any coherent policies for giving to the population.”

The recent Post-Disaster Needs-Assessment donor conference in Santo Domingo, the Dominican Republic, on March 16, did little to change the status quo of NGO-led development. The meeting was another example of Haitians’ exclusion from the decision-making process in the rebuilding of its own country. The paternalistic nature of the meeting led Haitian president Réne Préval to angrily challenge the U.S. State Department. He called its allegations of corruption “arrogant” and demanded that the Haitian government have veto power over any reconstruction projects.

Despite Préval’s challenge, the result was more of the same. There was no discussion of working with popular Haitian organizations, which are crucial to local development. The “experts” decided that Haiti should take steps to further strengthen the private sector, transparency, and good governance. The final irony of the donors conference is that the NGO prescription to the Haitian government is what the NGOs themselves desperately need: more transparency.

Kevin Edmonds is a NACLA Research Associate.


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