Helping Haiti: Moving beyond the blame game


Click on the image for links to government and state institutions

Following the previous post on aid to Haiti, Jerzy POMIANOWSKI, Director of the OECD’s Partnership for Democratic Governance Advisory Unit and Bathylle MISSIKA, Technical Advisor for the OECD-PDG sent us this contribution to the debate. You can find information on PDG work on Haiti’s reconstruction and development here.

Brinkley is absolutely right when he underlines some of the shortcomings of donor involvement in Haiti. The “by the book” application of some of the pivotal Paris Declaration principles  of ownership or use of country systems (“alignment”) has not delivered according to plan. But should we expect the same pace of improvement from “good performers” like Tanzania or Ghana in countries like Haiti, which are emerging from decades of political and social instability and rampant poverty?

As outlined in the DAC Principles for Good International Engagement in Fragile States, donors need to adapt their strategies to fragile contexts. In other words, discarding the ownership principle altogether is not the answer and certainly sounds schizophrenic after the political and financial commitments made by aid donors in March at the international conference in New York when more than USD 5 billion was pledged to help Haiti “build back better”.

Clearly, this money cannot be given in the form of a blank check. Brinkley is also right to warn against the misuse of funds and the risks of seeing monies disappear in the wrong pockets. This does not mean that donors should “decide what to do with their money”. A countless number of evaluations have showed that “ring fencing” funds by creating isolated projects run by donors using their own procedures and staff, and accountable only to themselves only leads to greater alienation of the government, a lack of efficiency and unsustainable results. Haitian stewardship is not incompatible with safeguarding mechanisms.

The Reconstruction Commission mentioned by Brinkley, which approves all new development and reconstruction projects, has been established with a built-in, independent “Performance and Anti-corruption Office” with a compliance unit and investigative powers so as to limit the risks of embezzlement in reconstruction projects.

Moreover, Brinkley is wrong in asserting that Haitian leadership has led nowhere in the past. It is precisely the past practice of aid donors avoiding the state that needs to be let go. Since former dictator Jean-Claude Duvalier fled the island in 1986, donors have unfortunately often bypassed the government. But Haitian ownership has manifested itself in many ways. It now needs the right stepping stone to take off.

The most recent example cited by Brinkley of displaced people on the Champ de Mars is a good example. Whatever the Government (or in this case, President Préval) puts forth as its own agenda, some international critics raise eyebrows because things should be done by the (their?) book. Should tents have been left in front of the destroyed Presidential Palace, fingers would have been pointed at the Haitian government for its inertia.

The biggest risk now is not to avoid having “Haitians help themselves” but, rather, a return to the sub-optimal pre-earthquake model, in which donors, NGOs and other non-state providers bypassed the state, with 85% of essential services such as health, education or water primarily administered and delivered through NGOs, private companies and other non-state actors such as charities, associations and faith-based groups, with little accountability to the government or the beneficiaries of these services.

As discussed during a workshop organised from 8-9 July 2010 by the Haitian government in collaboration with the OECD’s Partnership for Democratic Governance, the Govern­ment of Haiti, donors and service providers have laid the ground for a new approach to the delivery of basic social services. “We need to redefine the model that prevailed before the earthquake, in particular to allow Haitians to have access to the essential services [they] can rightfully expect from the State,” Prime Minister Bellerive said as he opened discussions at the July workshop.

This new paradigm for service delivery, in which all stakeholders accept the Haitian state’s primary stewardship role and, at a minimum, its core policy-making, standard-setting and monitoring roles, can mark a turning point in what has so far been an uncoordinated tango between donors, NGOs and the government.

This uneven relationship of mistrust and low mutual accountability probably stems from Haiti’s complicated history as the first black republic, which freed itself from slavery and declared independence in 1804, while reinstating a culture of dependency through dictatorships, the oppression of the elite and a reliance on foreign aid.

Now is actually the time to allow Haitians to help themselves. Finger-pointing has not led anywhere and it is high time for donors and the Haitians to “walk the talk”. The new rules of engagement discussed in July are premised on the Government setting its policy orientations, being informed of the activities of all donors and non-state providers, and applying its norms and regulations, while being able to decide what services should be delivered and where. This is the least that citizens can expect from their sovereign state and the first step towards greater accountability.

This approach of enhanced transparency was behind the creation of the IHRC, which is not co-chaired by President Préval as incorrectly stated by Brinkley, but by Prime Minister Bellerive. The Commission has become an easy scapegoat, while it is simply the tip of the iceberg of a bigger problem: Donors tend to supply technical responses to political problems and apply old recipes, such as hiring big management consulting firms to set up multi-donor funds and expecting donors to fall in line behind their approach.

Brinkley rightly notes that the Commission has “met only once” and implies it is far from being operational, but this situation has more to do with all the weaknesses of international recruitment systems and the superimposition of donors’ own red tape and pre-defined organigrams than anything else.

The Commission is about to meet a second time on 17 August and is certainly behind schedule. But before resuming the never-ending ‘blame game’ it should be given the space and time to operate. If donors do not support Haitians to help themselves according to a set of mutually agreed new rules of engagement and through the mechanisms that they themselves have helped to create, it would be, as a popular Creole proverb goes, like “lave men siye a tè” (washing your hands then rubbing them in the dirt). 

Useful links (the previous post on this topic also has many links)


Atelier sur le renforcement des capacités du Gouvernement haïtien : Provision et coordination des services sociaux de base (8-9 juillet 2010)


Plateforme pour la refondation d’Haïti


BetterAid unites over 700 development organisations from civil society working on development effectiveness and “is leading many of the civil society activities” in the lead up to the Fourth High Level Forum on Aid Effectiveness (HLF-4) in Busan, Korea in 2011


Inter-American Development Bank on Haiti

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2 comments to “Helping Haiti: Moving beyond the blame game”

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  1. Philippe Besson - 16/08/2010 Reply

    Jerzy POMIANOWSKI and Bathylle MISSIKA make – I believe – two important points, complementing Brenda Killen’s response:
    – on the question of whose ownership counts: it can’t be just the “elite’s” or the bureaucracy’s
    – the danger for donors to think that they know best, that they can’t be manipulated, that they are immune to any form of corruption, according to the principle of: let’s trust nobody but ourselves.

    I would like to remind ourselves also of the principles of Good Humanitarian Donorship, which basically pick up the notion of ownership, and not out of political correctness, but because alternatives simply don’t work. Brinkley is wrong in assuming that donor total control provides for better results; experience and evidence prove the opposite, including in an emergency situation. Country ownership can be messy, and certainly we shouldn’t go for sort of a naive and romantic understanding of it: it has a lot to do with power relations and power play; the real challenge from a donor’s point of view thus is not to endorse country ownership as sort of a vague “nice” principle, but to design aid towards inclusive ownership for sustainable development results. If we do it ourselves, we simply miss a chance for all aid actors to do the right things and to do them right, to achieve sustainable effects.

    The opposite of promoting inclusive country ownership is the perpetuation of dependency. Dependency is an ineffective status and runs contrary to development effects. Moreover, in the long run, it is likely to exacerbate social and political tensions and conflicts, at the local, national and global level. This is not just about development ethics (although I would argue they ARE important); it is simply good common sense based on experience to give people a chance to decide and make (informed) choices for themselves, while making it clear from the side of donors that we deal with taxpayers’ money and donations, so that we need to have a say and to request accountability.

    Philippe Besson
    Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation
    WP-EFF Cluster A coordinator (Ownership & Accountability)

  2. Talaat Abdel-Malek - 23/08/2010 Reply

    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.

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

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