Haiti: To praise the government or pass judgment?

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

By Chris Herlinger

When should humanitarian groups publicly criticise governments in the countries they work and when should they stay quiet?

It is a question that has bedeviled humanitarian groups in recent years (think Darfur, for example) and is now being raised in Haiti around the six-month anniversary of the January 12 earthquake.

Pushing the question to the fore was a June 25 opinion piece in the Los Angeles Times by Erik Johnson, humanitarian response coordinator for ACT member DanChurchAid. In that story, Johnson took the Haitian government to task, saying authorities “had lapsed into the classic pattern of corruption, inefficiency and delay that holds the country hostage”.

Johnson, a veteran of large-scale emergencies, said that in more than a decade of humanitarian work he had never seen camps like those in Port-au-Prince, which were congested beyond imagination, with ramshackle tents standing edge to edge in every square foot of available space.

He argued the Haitian government had clamped down on importing goods, making it difficult for humanitarian assistance to get through. "Though it's important that the Haitian government is in the driver's seat of the recovery effort, it has not yet stepped up to the job," Johnson argued.

His piece evoked a number of responses, most in private. Some aid workers within the ACT network said Johnson articulated their observations. Even those who had not read the piece said government inefficiencies and roadblocks have hobbled the response.

Other aid workers though criticized Johnson's piece, saying it was important that aid groups and coalitions like ACT not join what one called “the chorus of blanket criticism of government”.

“It is weak, but democratically elected,” the worker, who did not want to be named, said of the government. “Strident criticisms from international NGOs will only give succor to even more dubious elements.”

Well aware of the problems
For the record, ACT members in Haiti said everyone was well aware of the problems, and that some degree of criticism is valid. At the same time, however, they argue that there is a pragmatic element to contend with - that Haitian authorities and humanitarian groups have to find ways to work together in the coming months and years, despite the difficulties so far.

Prospery Raymond, country manager for ACT member Christian Aid, said criticism and pragmatism almost have to exist side-by-side in Haiti right now. Authorities have to display stronger leadership on solving the housing crisis. “The biggest challenge that we are facing now is ensuring that everyone has a safe and sustainable place to live.  There is not enough land currently available to build permanent houses for everyone who needs them. The Haitian government needs to address that issue as a matter of urgency.”

Raymond also said authorities must address corruption, one of the reasons only a fraction of the international aid pledged to Haiti by donor governments has actually been sent to Haiti. Foreign government assistance is distinguished from aid provided by groups like ACT, which reached benefciaries and was used for emergency assistance.

Concurrent with the concern about corruption is Johnson’s worry that Haiti is now settling into an old pattern in which elites – those who “continue to live in luxury in elegant homes high above the dusty sprawl” - try to control events in their favour.

Raymond says corruption needs to be investigated, saying Haiti must move beyond a culture of corruption. "Building back better,” Raymond said, "not only means building back better homes, it also means being accountable." But he is adamant the international community must still deal with the realities of a weakened government that lost large numbers of personnel and almost two-thirds of its buildings.

Raymond won't apologize for saying that the international community has to find ways to build up and "accompany" the Haitian government. “I think it's good to push the state," he said. "But they still have to get back on their feet.”

Same story
In one of numerous stories on the six-month anniversary of the earthquake, The New York Times noted that some of the same complaints about slow pace of recovery, particularly regarding temporary housing, have been heard in other recent disasters, such as the response in Indonesia to the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami.

“I defy any country on earth to be fully functional at this stage after such a disaster,” said Imogen Wall, a spokeswoman for the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, quoted by The New York Times.

Observations like that resonate with Sylvia Raulo, outgoing country representative for ACT member the Lutheran World Federation, who said pitting international NGOs against the Haitian government misses the point. “We're all struggling with capacity issues right now,” she said.

In response to frustrations that relief goods were being stuck in customs, Raulo visited the customs office. There she found a small office, no larger than her own, housing a dozen harried and overworked employees, taking care of customs for the entire country. “Donors should demand that as part of the response, the Haitian government be supported to set up the kind of structures needed to move the recovery along.”

That is one way of viewing the problem. Another is that of an ACT representative who recalled hearing a Haitian colleague at a meeting of humanitarian groups. The colleague said he was tired of hearing complaints about government inaction. Why? “I do more than the government anyway,” was the response.

Haiti: after the earthquake