Let’s start with Haiti

Imagine that you live in a region that comprises Washington, DC, and Maryland (roughly the size of Haiti). Then imagine that you are one of many experiencing extreme poverty, lack of education, and other forms of deprivation. If that’s not bad enough, then imagine an earthquake of the magnitude that struck Haiti in January. Then picture 1.3 million people living in tents in the DC area.

With this thought exercise, Ray Offenheiser, President and CEO of Oxfam America, opened his talk on October 20 at the Elliott School of International Affairs of George Washington University. His presentation was titled “Let’s Start with Haiti: Making President Obama’s New Vision for Development Work.” It was sponsored by the Elliott School’s Culture in Global Affairs (CIGA) Program. Robert E. Maguire was moderator. Maguire is associate professor of international affairs at Trinity Washington University in DC; Chair of the Haiti Working Group of the United States Institute of Peace; and a Visiting Fellow with CIGA. To watch a video of this talk, click here.

Ray Offenheiser, President of Oxfam America; Photo credit: Oxfam America
Ray Offenheiser, President of Oxfam America; Photo credit: Oxfam America

After that stark opening, Offenheiser turned to considering President Obama’s new approach to international development in the context of Haiti. Speaking at the United Nations in September, President Obama argued that the United States needs to change the way it handles development aid. This speech proposed the first ever global development policy of the United States and offered the only major rethinking of the approach established in 1961 by President Kennedy to shape development during the Cold War.

In this new approach, Offenheiser explained, America is redefining development. Instead of controlling development through a focus on aid, it will take a comprehensive approach to sustainable development. America is now poised to focus on results, especially long-term results that support institutions rather than providing assistance in perpetuity.  Broad-based economic growth is a goal through support to market infrastructure. Mutual accountability between the US government and partner countries is the new goal for bilateral aid relationships.

Offenheiser hailed Obama’s vision as breathtaking and most welcome in its emphasis on country ownership: countries must own the process of development, the investments, and the partnerships. The rationale is that poverty can only be solved by poor people and their governments, in partnership with other countries. In the past, too little attention was given to the hopes, dreams, and plans of people in developing countries. Aid projects were likely to be driven by earmarking in the US. From now on, aid will go toward investing more in country-designed ideas.

On the US side, it has not always been a reliable partner, especially so because of its one-year budgeting for aid. This is another area in which the US has to be willing to give up control, a very difficult thing for aid planners to do in DC because the city is about control so has to be accountable to US taxpayers.

The challenge, Offenheiser pointed out, is how to turn this new vision into policy, and the government is currently working on the details and then sharing them with the public. The real test will come with the budget fights in January. Then we will see if the President can deliver on his vision and begin to implement it.

In a bold move, Offenheiser proposes that the entire process of reforming US foreign aid be started with Haiti, as Exhibit A of everything that is wrong with the old model.

Compared to what happened in Southeast Asia after the tsunami, Haiti is months behind with relocating displaced people back into safe homes. The Haitian government is severely overstretched, having suffered huge losses of personnel during the earthquake. Aid from governments and NGOs is still mainly short-term emergency relief assistance, the most expensive form of aid in the world.

How can the US change its aid relationship with Haiti into one of partnership? First, the US must acknowledge the history of Haiti and 200 years of exclusion from the global economy and victimization. For 200 years, Haiti has had few international friends. President Thomas Jefferson refused to recognize the newly independent country. In 1915, the US occupied Haiti and left a legacy of a brutal police force and political instability. Another enduring result of this history is a weak state that was then further weakened by the earthquake.

Bob Maguire (left) panel moderator and Ray Offenheiser (right); Photo Credit: Elliott School of International Affairs
Bob Maguire (left) panel moderator and Ray Offenheiser (right); Photo Credit: Elliott School of International Affairs

Right before the earthquake, however, the Haitian economy was doing relatively well. Even in 2009, when the economy of most other countries was reeling, Haiti’s grew by 2.9 percent. The government had passed a comprehensive development plan that was supported by global donors. Then, the earthquake, and ministries crumbled. Twenty-five percent of the civil servants were killed and many more injured.

Offenheiser mentioned long-term problems, exacerbated by the earthquake, such as the inability to provide for social welfare including public education, the devastation of the agricultural sector due to international trade policies including pressure in the 1990s by donors to cut the rice tariffs. Many of the former rice-growing areas of Haiti are now those with the highest rates of malnutrition.

How to change these patterns in a situation where the government is weak? If the US follows the ownership principle, it needs a reliable and strong partner in a modern state in Haiti, not a government controlled by a narrow elite class. A new class of civil servants must be trained with a sense of accountability to the public. The economy must be revitalized through short-term aid and then provide a broader tax base to support the government. For now, the US and other donors must provide direct funding to the government.

In terms of revitalizing agriculture, the Bumpass Amendment needs to be waived. Oxfam’s report, Planting Now: Agricultural Challenges and Opportunities for Haiti’s Reconstruction, provides a blueprint for how to rebuild the agricultural sector.

NGOs in Haiti need to change. They have to learn to work with the government, not in isolation from it, to implement their programs.

The US administration needs to keep its focus on Haiti and not be diverted. It cannot allow itself to fall back on the old narrative that Haiti is a lost cause.

The US citizens need greater accountability from the US government and NGOs about what has happened to the millions of dollars pledged last spring. Where is the money? How much has been dispersed, and how much is still available? Offenheiser insisted that the money trail be tracked.

In conclusion, Offenheiser provided a different thought exercise in which we imagine a genuine dialogue between the US and Haiti, with development initiatives driven by Haitians, and transparent information about aid money.

After Offenheiser’s presentation, moderator Robert Maguire offered some prescient comments about how the upcoming November elections in the US might affect the chances for implementation of President Obama’s new vision for development and foreign aid.

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