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Haiti First: Confronting the economic implications of relief aid

   /   Jun 14th, 2011News

Rubble after Haiti Earthquake

Mark Danner covered Haiti’s tumultuous transition to democracy in the 1980s and 1990s. He knows that foreign interventions have a long history of mixed results and consequences that outsiders often overlook.

“Like the ruined bridges strewn across the countryside — one of the few traces of the [US] Marines and their occupation nearly a century ago,” he wrote in a New York Times op-ed shortly after the 2010 quake, “these attentions tend to begin in evangelical zeal and to leave little lasting behind.”

How little? Until now, it has been hard to quantify. But a study of development programs in fragile countries — conducted by Peace Dividend Trust (PDT) — found that, on average, international agencies spend less than 5% of the money donated for post disaster and post conflict rebuilding programs in country, preferring instead to buy supplies from foreign companies.

And that cuts out a lot of opportunity for growth within the country–growth that could build an economic infrastructure that lasts after the aid organizations go home.  One of Danner’s suggestions for promoting lasting change in Haiti is for “the United States and other donors [to] make a formal undertaking to ensure that the vast amounts that will soon pour into the country go not to foreigners but to Haitians…”

That’s the end goal of Haiti First,  PDT’s “buy local” program that aims to identify Haitian entrepreneurs and connect them to the major international agencies overseeing projects, like the Red Cross, US Agency for International Development and Sean Penn’s nonprofit, JP/HRO. Though such relief agencies often try to avoid getting involved in long-term development work, there’s a growing appreciation for the urgency of scalable economic opportunity in relief operations.

“But,” says PDT spokesperson Elmira Bayrasli, ”a lot of the international organizations that have a mandate to operate in places like Haiti often don’t know what the local small business landscape is.”

So Haiti First identifies local business suppliers and gives them a crash course in the process of how international agencies do business. Then when one of those agencies makes a tender to buy supplies, they disseminate them and try to find a match. So far, Bayrasli says, they have facilitated more than $13 million in deals — a tiny sliver of the reconstruction dollars flowing through the country, but a start.

It’s based on a similar, successful program PDT worked on with the US military in Afghanistan, ”I think they’re all starting to see that you can’t view economic development in isolation…they’re starting to look at this very holistically in terms of how that fits in with US national security policy… There are a lot of young men between the ages of 17 and 25 who don’t have employment and that is a problem in places like Afghanistan or Haiti.”

It’s also, Bayrasli said, an impact of the competitive pressures from social entrepreneurs. “One thing social entrepreneurs are a big advocate of is impact measurement. It’s actually forcing organizations like the UN and World Bank to say, well, what is your impact? Don’t tell me how many pencils you delivered. Show me what you’ve done. What are the outputs?”

William Wheeler reported on the reconstruction effort in Haiti with a grant from the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting.

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