Research support was provided by the Investigative Fund at the Nation Institute and the Puffin Foundation.
The wire fence that surrounds Haiti’s National Palace in the heart of the country’s capital has been covered, recently, with a green mesh. Inside, the multi-domed structure has been reduced to rubble, finally knocked down after it was all but destroyed by the country’s deadly 7.0-magnitude earthquake on January 12, 2010. The worst national disaster in the history of the Western Hemisphere, the temblor killed an estimated 200,000 people in just thirty-five seconds.
A lone blue-and-red Haitian flag waves from the gigantic pile of rubble. Along the western edge of the palace grounds, lots that once housed government ministries and the Palace of Justice continue to lie vacant. More than 16,000 civil service employees died in the quake. Now their offices are occupied by new employees in temporary buildings or even tents. Some still lack standard operating equipment such as telephones and computers, along with a backup electrical system to deal with blackouts, a routine occurrence here.
Several miles northwest of downtown sits the Logistical Base, or Log Base, the headquarters for the United Nations and its recovery efforts. Here, it’s a different world. Within the massive blue-and-white compound are revamped trailers, golf carts and more glistening public toilets than any other place in Haiti. (Log Base is germ—and cholera!—free.) Flowers line the walkways, and machines blow a cool mist into an outdoor restaurant whose menu, on one random day, included sushi, jasmine rice, German potatoes, Brazilian cheese bread, halal shawarma and Häagen-Dazs ice cream. The American dollar, not the Haitian gourde, is the currency of choice.
Shortly after the earthquake, Log Base became the nerve center of the international recovery effort, the place where aid organizations could coordinate reconstruction strategies. At the peak, there were more than seventy coordinating meetings each week among aid agencies and other interested parties— though not all interested parties. Few Haitians can cross from one side of the compound’s walls to the other. To do so requires identification documents and an invitation from someone on the inside, two things very few Haitians have. And when they do, they find that most meetings are held in English, not Creole or even French. When a steering committee for NGO coordination was elected in July 2010 at Log Base, sixty international organizations cast their votes, but since there were no local NGOs present, Haitians were not represented.
Welcome to the NGO Republic of Haiti, the fragile island-state born, in part, out of the country’s painfully lopsided earthquake recovery. On one side are the thousands of aid organizations that came to Haiti with the entire international aid budget in their bank accounts (several billion dollars among them) and built a powerful parallel state accountable to no one but their boards and donors. On the other are the many representatives of the Haitian people—elected officials, civil society leaders, businesspeople—who remain broke and undermined by the very NGOs that swooped in to help. And in between? The Haitian people themselves: impoverished, unemployed, homeless and trapped in a recovery effort that has all too often failed to meet their needs.
This was not how the recovery was supposed to unfold. When the NGOs first descended post-quake, there was all sorts of sensitive donor-speak about respecting the needs and input of the Haitian people. At the International Donors Conference “Towards a New Future for Haiti,” held on March 31, 2010, eleven weeks after the quake, donors pledged $5.3 billion for Haiti’s recovery, to be disbursed over two years. They also agreed to work in partnership with the Haitian government to adhere to “the principles of aid effectiveness and good humanitarian donorship and to build on lessons learned.” They created the Interim Haitian Reconstruction Commission (IHRC), also known as the Clinton Commission after the man who was its public face, to help them do just that.