Helping Haiti: Should donors make the decisions?

A US Marine shows a Haitian woman how to use a radio

In a widely-circulated editorial opinion piece that the International Herald Tribune printed under the headline “Don’t let Haitians help themselves“, Pulitzer prize winning journalist Joel Brinkley argues that the Haitian government is so corrupt and ineffective that “If the world wants to help Haiti, aid officials should put aside that Paris Declaration on Aid Effectiveness. The donors should decide what to do with their money”.

In criticizing the OECD-backed Declaration that over 100 ministers, heads of agencies and other senior officials have now adhered to, Brinkley focuses on the principle of “ownership”: “Developing countries set their own strategies for poverty reduction, improve their institutions and tackle corruption.”

Brenda Killen, head of the OECD division working on aid effectiveness, replies to Brinkley.

We agree with Joel Brinkley that corruption can undo the best of efforts and intentions, and it has a strong hold in many of the neediest countries. But we strongly reject his conclusions that Haitians should not be trusted with their own rebuilding and that donors should abandon the principles of the Paris Declaration.

The Paris Declaration sets out five strong principles to make aid work for development. Brinkley zeroes in on one of them: countries must take the reins of their own development. The reasons for this seem obvious to those of us who have had the privilege of growing up and living in countries that do so – at least when we are talking about our own countries and futures.

But the principle of ownership, like the other principles that underpin the Paris Declaration, is not an expression of political correctness. It is based on objective assessments of what works – and what doesn’t – and drawn from experience in the field.

Countries like Vietnam (which has adapted the Paris Declaration to its own priorities and needs) and Ghana (which has set its own programme to achieve middle income country status by 2015) illustrate why local ownership is essential if aid is to be a catalyst for effective development.  And even where systems are weak and there is corruption and inefficiency, ownership is key to uncovering and reversing this. Post-conflict Uganda in the 1990s provides a well-known example in the form of the Public Expenditure Tracking Surveys of education grants that showed a reduction in the diversion of funds from 80 percent to 20 percent over a decade – reflecting strong ownership by the public (through broad public debate and citizen engagement) and government (through reform and strengthening of public financial management systems) of the country’s post-conflict process.

Referring to the origins of the Paris Declaration, Mr Brinkley states that it came out of “decades of unproductive work”. Certainly, if the donors and developing countries that adhered to this Declaration found it worthwhile to work on making aid more effective, it was not because aid had achieved nothing. It was, rather, that the experience gathered over time provided evidence of what could be done to make it work better. The Paris Declaration made harmonisation of donor efforts imperative long before the media reported stories of duplicated and wasted efforts due to turf battles among donors.

One of the major obstacles to aid effectiveness during the decades referred to by Brinkley as “unproductive”, was that a substantial part of aid was tied to conditions and services set by the donors. In other words, donors – not recipients – controlled it and how it was used. The Paris Declaration has helped to reverse this situation, and today almost 90%of aid is untied.

But above and beyond the specifics of aid effectiveness – which are often very complex and process- oriented – there is another, overarching lesson that today seems obvious: aid is not an end – or a solution – in itself. Nor can it take the blame, or the credit for that matter, for what has or has not worked. The problem in Haiti is about much more than aid, and here – as in so many other places – the Paris principles must be applied not in isolation, but rather in the context of much larger, more complex development issues.

Brinkley states that “Haitians were as poor and uneducated as ever” before the earthquake. It could be argued that this is simply not true. The 2009 Human Development Index report states that “Between 1980 and 2007 Haiti’s HDI rose by 0.77% annually from 0.433 to 0.532.” Not great, but still an improvement.

Yet this still leaves the fundamental question raised by Brinkley: earthquake or not, is Haiti in a position to be able to direct all international aid resources through its own government systems? Absolutely not. On this we agree. But does this mean we should not be working with the Haitians? Or does it mean we should be working to help them get to a point where aid can eventually go through Haiti’s national systems? We believe the answer is the latter. Absolutely, we should and we must.  

At the heart of the issue is the question of how to combat corruption. Punishing a crime requires legal institutions. Should foreign charities or donor governments run these too? Rather than standing on the high moral ground and telling Haitians what they must do, shouldn’t we be helping Haiti to build those institutions?

The Principles for Good International Engagement in Fragile States are about just this – how do we move from the chaos of disaster and conflict to a stable development path?  The ultimate aim is to support Haitians in building the ownership (in the form of democratically elected government, strong institutions and a voice for the poor) that will enable them to achieve – and sustain – their own development.  Fragile states realise this and the g7+ group of fragile states is calling on donors to recognise it as well. 

Just as South Korea was able to use aid as a catalyst to move from poverty and conflict to leadership of the G20 in less than two generations – building on strong national ownership and committed international support – other countries can do the same.  Liberia, Timor Leste – and Haiti.

The Paris principles are highly relevant to Haiti’s current situation.  In particular, they highlight the need to coordinate the many aid efforts more effectively so aid gets quickly to those who need it. But they can’t stand alone. Without action on many fronts – and action that takes into account the location-specific realities of each country – neither aid nor development will be effective.

Useful links

The Partnership for Democratic Governance  (PDG) is proposing Service Delivery Guidance in English, French and Creole to assist Haitian authorities and the donor community

Watch the trailer of an OECD-PDG documentary about Haiti made to accompany the forthcoming OECD-PDG Handbook on Contracting Out Government Functions and Services in Post-Conflict and Fragile Situations.

Catalyzing development: A new vision for aid,  a workshop organised by Brookings in July 2010, concluded that: “Donors remain far too eager to lead, despite empirical evidence that aid programs that are truly owned by recipients have the biggest impact.”

The DAC Network on Development Evaluation  works to increase the effectiveness of programmes through evaluation. In Haiti, the Network is supporting a collaborative approach to assessing the international aid response.

The Development Co-operation Report is the key annual reference document for statistics and analysis on trends in international aid.

The Dili International Dialogue sets out a new vision for peacebuilding and statebuilding

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7 comments to “Helping Haiti: Should donors make the decisions?”

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  1. terence - 13/08/2010 Reply

    Thanks OECD insights for publishing such a thoughtful defense of the Paris Declaration (PD).

    As someone who is a huge fan of the ethos of the Declaration but who is also skeptical of it in practice, I found it useful to hear the case for the PD approach to aid spelled out so strongly.

    And yet…

    The trouble with ‘ownership’ is not that it’s the wrong principle, or that it’s incorrect to state that countries will only develop when they own their own development processes. The trouble is that in practice it’s often very hard to distinguish just who the owners ought to be: recipient country political elites? the government?

    The answer to this question will certainly be yes if we’re talking about a well-governed functioning democracy (yes because the government itself will effectively be owned by the people). However, the trouble is many (but not all) developing countries are not well-governed functioning democracies. And for those that aren’t, handing ownership of development work to political elites may quite likely be a recipe for: (a) wasted aid and (b) further entrenchment of such elites vis a vis the people that they rule over. (While I’m at it, much the same could be said about the PD principle of partnership.)

    None of this is to say that we should invariably revert to donor owned project aid, even in the worst governed countries. What I’m stressing though, is that optimal strategies for aid are strongly dependent on context. Which is something I think isn’t emphasised enough in the PD. Which is why I’m sceptical of it, despite thinking that the ethics it encapsulates are good.

    Further, in the case of disasters, there’s a time horizon issue: what might be good practice in the long-hall that is development aid might be bad practice in an emergency. It may be worth accepting some leakage in development aid given to governments if the flip-side is the slow strengthening of government institutions. But disaster aid (and much reconstruction aid) is a completely different kettle of fish – relief needs to be delivered quickly by the most appropriate means, and if that means circumventing the government to save lives, then so be it.

    FWIW – I know lamentably little about the Haiti case so my comments here aren’t Haiti specific but rather more general points about the pros and cons of the Paris Declaration.



  2. terence - 13/08/2010 Reply

    Actually, one other thought – to be fair. I’ve just clicked through to the linked article on the principles for working in fragile states ( Principle 1 – take context as a starting point – seems spot on to me as does Principle 7. Here’s hoping these principles become as prominent as the PD itself.

  3. Talaat Abdel-Malek - 25/08/2010 Reply

    Talaat Abdel-Malek
    Co-chair, OECD/DAC Working Party on Aid Effectiveness

    I do understand and agree with most (but Not all) Brinkley has said. But it is very unfortunate that he has “thrown the baby with the bath water” when he improperly dismissed the Paris Declaration (PD) as irrelevant to Haiti’s case. In fact, using his own arguments, the PD could not be MORE relevant. The causes of failure/breakdown he has rightly cited are in the main due to lack of national (not only Government) ownership, lack of accountability, extremely weak institutions, inadequate aid harmonisation (which should be led by the national authorities – if they exist!), and so on.

    To dismiss the PD, which is by no means perfect, is either due to lack of understanding of what they mean/require, or to the availability of a better option. Mr. Brinkley presents no better option by saying we should let donors do what needs to be done with their money. This is precisely what has created chaos and ineffectiveness of billions of dollars of aid over the past 60 years in so many developing countries. In fact, the countries that are doing a better job using international assistance are those that have taken ownership and leadership, upgraded their institutional and human resource capacities, and established a decent accountability system.

    Haiti’s case, admittedly, is an extremely difficult one because of past history and the enormity of the recent disaster. The last thing we wish to see is a (well meaning!) kind of “free for all” scenario to get things done more quickly. The key challenge is to rebuild credible local institutions from the ground up. Without these, sustainability of any positive aid impact will be highly suspect.

    A fragile situation as clearly reflected by Haiti requires patient, persistent and well co-ordinated actions by all concerned.. a difficult challenge in the best of times but NOT a mission impossible.

    This is a time for the international development assistance community to strengthen Haiti’s institutions and support leadership, without condoning corruption and inefficiency.

  4. Enrique Maruri - 25/08/2010 Reply

    Enrique Maruri ([email protected]), Head of the Technical Secretariat, Task Team on South-South Cooperation, and former Director for International Cooperation at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Colombia
    Taking Haiti seriously, towards horizontal partnerships

    When the earthquake hit Haiti on a Tuesday evening in January this year, a wave of shock and deep concern traveled through Latin America and the Caribbean. Governments and people in the region are not only aware of Haiti’s extreme vulnerability, but also exposed themselves to brutal natural disasters, as the Chile earthquake, just some weeks later, illustrated in yet another painful way.

    In the following weeks, the shock became even deeper commitment, building up on the already significant contributions made by Latin American countries through MINUSTAH and on bilateral basis. Countries in the region have pledged historic amounts of support to Haiti, in some occasions even reforming their legal basis to provide budget support. In an unprecedented expression of solidarity, all countries moved fast to provide humanitarian assistance, which proved to be crucial to save the lives of thousands of persons. Today, during the reconstruction phase, Brazil and Colombia are among the only six contributors (including the DAC donors) who already have made the actual money available for the relief efforts.

    And beyond the money, the region has also taken up the mandate to improve the quality of its cooperation. In the aftermath of the Bogotá High-Level Event on South-South Cooperation and Capacity Development, held in late March this year, Latin American and Caribbean representatives discussed frankly how to ensure the effectiveness of their cooperation with Haiti in its reconstruction efforts. Facilitated by the Organization of American States, it was the first time that the region gathered to discuss development effectiveness issues in the Americas. This dynamic is also reflected in an innovative Iberoamerican program dedicated to improving the quality of South-South cooperation.

    We can therefore state that Haiti has brought us, as Latin American people and governments, a challenge and a commitment to become more effective when implementing development solutions. Our conclusion is the exact opposite of the effect that the earthquake and its implications appear to have had on Mr. Joel Brinkley and his interviewees from Northern donor agencies.

    For us as Southern providers, the principles of the Paris Declaration and the Accra Agenda for Action, enriched and complemented with the experiences of South-South Cooperation, cannot be more stressed than in cooperating with Haiti. Why? Because the answer to the lack of institutional capacities and workable public policies is not to point fingers and just do it yourself, but to build institutions and policies hand-in-hand, as partners, and investing on the long run. This is even truer in the case of fragile states, where national leaders and champions need smart and sensitive tools. Instead of patronizing attitudes, this should include, for example, the use of soft skills, networks and trust-building mechanisms to ensure the development of national capacities.

    Of course, this is not a task as easy as writing a polemical article. But there are good examples. My country has suffered some of the deep-rooted challenges Haiti has also faced for several decades and which have been dramatically aggravated after the earthquake. Colombia knows that national leadership and growing capacities are the only way to convert violence and conflict into development and peace. At the same time, it needs to be shared and inclusive. Only if we give space to critical voices, from inside and outside the country, ownership can become smart and effective. The balance of this decade is positive: In only ten years, Colombia has moved from being seen as “almost a failed state” to being part of the quickly growing, stable and crisis-resistant CIVETS group (Colombia, Indonesia, Viet Nam, Egypt, Turkey and South Africa). Still, the country faces many challenges to ensure solid development, but the institutions, public and private, are better prepared.

    For many successful developing countries, therefore, ownership and leadership have constituted an imperative. These concepts emerged in the 1990s from the disastrous results of the widespread system of conditionalities and donor flag-planting. The literature is full of econometric studies and real-life examples of how unsustainable and bluntly ineffective donor-driven aid can be. And the literature also states encouraging experiences showing the transformative capacity of development cooperation, when national leadership are respected and local capacities developed.

    As 1700 high-level representatives have agreed upon in Accra, it is indeed necessary to look beyond the government-lens of ownership and to build capacities at governmental and non-governmental levels. This is, by the way, a responsibility of donors, recipients and the rest of stakeholders. Concentrating the criticism to one sentence in the Paris Declaration, thereby bypassing the rich learning around best practices in development cooperation, illustrates the lack of deeper understanding of how relations between North and South have changed in the last five years.

    And because we know that aid effectiveness principles are neither perfect nor written in stone, we are working intensively on adapting them to local conditions and enriching them further. In an increasingly multipolar world with a growing number of middle-income countries, South-South cooperation is in full swing. As shown by the Task Team on South-South Cooperation, knowledge exchange and mutual learning between developing countries can contribute important lessons around partnership, efficiency and capacity development.

    Haiti is hosting an important share of this deep change, where Southern partners, NGO, private global funds and traditional donors face the challenge of improving the capacities of the government and the people. Horizontal partnership, from South to South, has a great opportunity to demonstrate once more that being respectful of national leadership is more effective, by strengthening Haitian capacities to lead the country through the reconstruction and towards sustainable development.

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