Development expert: ‘Haiti would be better off without international aid’

The 2010 earthquake in Haiti left 5bn cubic metres of detritus to be cleared. [RIBI Image Library/Flickr]

Haiti is one of many poor countries where international aid has failed to fulfil its objectives. Despite billions of dollars being pumped in, little has changed since the disastrous earthquake of 2010, Joel Boutroue told EURACTIV France.

Joel Boutroue was deputy special representative of the secretary general of the United Nations for the UN Stabilisation Mission in Haiti (MINUSTAH) from 2006 to 2009. The post carried the responsibilities of humanitarian coordinator, resident coordinator and resident representative for the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP). Boutroue then became special advisor to the prime minister of Haiti (2009-2011) and the prime minister of Norway (2011-2016).

Boutroue will take part in the ID4D conference “Haiti: how to take the time for development?” hosted by the French Development Agency in Paris on 6 June.

This interview is published in partnership with the ID4D blog, coordinated by the French Development Agency.

Haiti is one of the most fragile countries in the world. Seven years after the 2010 earthquake, what challenges is the country facing?

Haiti is still exploding. Beyond poor governance, which is the central problem, agriculture is still a big problem. Haiti is an agrarian country but no investment has been made in this sector, there has been no implementation of sustainable practices and agricultural tools have not evolved since the Haitian revolution.

The country has to invest in agriculture and the first step is to make a modern land registry. Today they are still using books from the colonial era, like the land surveys conducted by Moreau de Saint Mery in 1794.

The second big issue in this country is education. It has deteriorated at a terrifying pace these last few decades. Until the 1960s, the Haitians were exporters of knowledge but today the level is catastrophic.

And finally, the third issue is water and sanitation. Haiti is an open sewer in need of treatment. This challenge comes upstream of any action on health, because the population in poisoning itself. There is not one sewer, not one sanitation station in the whole country. This is an enormous problem and will only grow with demographic expansion: Haiti’s population will grow from 11 million to 18 million in 40 years. And this – demographics and urban planning – is the final challenge. The city of Port au Prince was designed for 200,000 people and already it has a population of 3 million.

Haiti has received uninterrupted aid from the international community, particularly since the 2010 earthquake. How is it used?

Donors are often caught between a rock and a hard place. One the one hand there is the need to demonstrate tangible results to their own citizens and show that their money has served a purpose. On the other hand, the beneficiary country only has a certain capacity for absorption. And this does not progress at the same pace. But many donors, either out of cynicism or laziness, pursue short term interests.

In Haiti, where deforestation is a huge problem, some of the population has begun cutting less wood because we have managed to interest them in fruit trees, for example by teaching farmers to graft mangoes onto fruit trees and increase its value, rather than cutting it down. But this takes time.

After the 2010 earthquake, about 15 billion cubic metres of detritus had to be moved. In the end it took months for the operation to even begin because nobody wanted to fund it. It was not a sexy operation for donors and the results were not visible enough.

Does this kind of behaviour affect relations with the most fragile states?

In light of the need to deliver in a short amount of time, donors take liberties with states that cannot react. Haiti is often described as the NGO republic, which is not entirely false. The NGOs financed by international donors pay very little heed to the Haitian state. But in so doing, the state becomes marginalised and weakened in its interactions with the population. And this creates other problems. Aid in Haiti is not a partnership, it is not a relationship of equals.

Why does a fragile state like Haiti not manage to set its own development priorities?

Just because a state has signed a development strategy does not mean its priorities are the same as those of its donors. The Haitian state has the same problem as any fragile state that does not necessarily have the means or the capacity to have priorities. But it is precisely when donors intervene in a fragile state that they should clarify the priorities and stick to them, instead of accusing the state itself of not having any. But in this situation, choices tend to be imposed because the road to stronger governance in the fragile country is longer and more complex. Yet, all development initiatives are in vain if there is no strengthening of governance, that is to say, a state’s ability to produce and implement policies.

Has international aid helped Haiti to develop in any concrete way since the 2010 earthquake?

Haiti would be better off without aid. Or at least, without the bad kind of aid that allows the administration and the elites to continue without changing. It would be better to create the conditions in which change could happen. If we get involved, we should do so in an intelligent way, even if that is less visible in terms of the value it brings. I am not saying that all aid is bad. For example, the international presence should allow us to put pressure on the corrupt state.

Rather than funding road building, which is very expensive in Haiti, we should ensure the laws are in place to look after the roads that are built using international aid. That is even more important than building the road itself.

After the earthquake, $5bn was spent by the international community. But a large proportion of this money never reached the ground because it covered operational costs. Of all the money handed out, the Haitian state may take 10% as budgetary support for its programmes. Most is absorbed by international NGOs with not even 1% taken by local NGOs. And the rest is spent on humanitarian aid programmes.

So has international cooperation in Haiti been a failure?

In large part it is a failure, but not just in Haiti. In fragile countries, development agencies often work with the public administration, which is an empty shell, and with the elites who are responsible for the situation in the first place. This only strengthens the status quo. The World Bank’s 2017 report on governance and law makes this point: the countries that receive aid make less effort to change their governance.