Does Aid Work? What I learned after 2 years in Haiti
A few months ago, I stood on a hillside in Petionville, Haiti, overlooking the small, green town below me. Most of the wooden buildings survived the earthquake in 2010, and from the hill, I could hear the church bell in the village square ringing out the hour. It was my first visit back to Haiti in 18 months and the reconstruction appeared to be making progress.
Near the white church, I saw children running out of school into the town square, a small park. The square was recently renovated by charitable organizations. Winding cement paths led to new benches, and local artisans had laid colorful mosaics along the concrete. At the end of the park, a large fountain was just finished.
From the looks of things, the bad old days of post-earthquake Haiti were over. Everything was supposed to be better now. I wondered: Why does this happy view make me feel so sad?
The view was undeniably improved. For two years after the quake, the square was covered in tarps housing hundreds of homeless families. It was a dense and often dirty refugee camp.
When I lived in Haiti, I visited the camp almost every day. I watched the World Cup in one family’s “living room” under their big blue tarp. I chatted with girls getting their nails done in the camp’s “salon.” I asked mothers about their dreams for their children.
In those days, I often met with a little boy named David, who was content to follow me from tent to tent as I spoke with his neighbors. I wasn’t sure if he was protecting me or I was protecting him. Once in a while, I bought him treats like potato chips or candy.
In retrospect, I probably should have bought him rice or beans, which would have been more nourishing. But I didn’t want his mother to get the idea that he was useful. I wanted to see him smile.
The park was not well suited for a refugee camp. When I visited there, I stepped carefully along the edges of the square because people used the curbs as toilets. When it rained, sewage ran along the gutters, a river of waste.
In the new park, the blue tarps were gone. The sewage was gone. People sat and ate lunch on benches. There were no signs of David or his family. It was much neater now and less complicated. But the colorful optimism of the park left me gutted.
For many, the park is all that remains of the billions of aid dollars dedicated to Haiti after the quake. Although 1.5 million people were made homeless by the earthquake and more than 100,000 homes were destroyed, only 7,515 new homes were ever built.
I saw the new park as a concession prize, an overly cheerful placeholder for real change. That’s it? I thought. I felt like my neighbors’ house burned down and the community came together to build them… a fountain.
Unfortunately, the facts support my dismal view. For a while, organizations held onto the hope that they would build actual houses for Haitians, and they raised tons of money by promoting their plans. But after a few years, most proved untenable.
A report from the Government Accountability Office found that the U.S. Agency for International Development aimed to build 15,000 houses for $59 million. In the end, they spent $97 million to build 2,649 houses. And it took twice as long as they’d hoped.
While not high by U.S. standards, $34,000 per house is a fortune in Haiti. $34,000 is more than the majority of Haitians will earn over the entire course of their lives. What did it buy? Most of the houses are 12 feet by 12 feet. Some, but not all, have toilets that flush.
In Petionville, families like David’s stuck around for two years while they waited for housing. They never got a house; instead, each family was paid $500 to resettle somewhere else. The money was meant to be a rent subsidy. To some, it seemed like a bribe.
By 2014, almost every organization working in Haiti has stopped talking about houses. Charities now use the terms “housing alternatives” or “improved shelter.” It’s a small linguistic change that belies the bigger sentiment: We give up.
At times, I wish the aid community had just done nothing at all. Because that would have been a more honest response. The U.S. government alone spent $2.9 billion in Haiti promising to “Build Back Better.” Despite billions, most Haitians didn’t get a better life—they were swept into ever-darker corners of the country.
Does aid work? I know lives were saved. And yet I can see that, in many respects, we failed. Seeing the reconstruction myself, with all its miracles and inefficiencies, changed me. Nothing is hypothetical anymore. It’s real.
Do I wish that we had left David and his family to die without clean water? Absolutely not. However, during the aftermath of the earthquake, I rejoiced in the resilience of the Haitian people. Now I wish they had been more fragile, more angry, and more empowered to demand accountability from the people who claimed to serve them, including me. I wish David’s mother had marched to the National Palace and torn down the gates.
In retrospect, the solution is simple. We needed the aid community and Haitians to come together on a strategy that balanced short-term aid and long-term development goals. So what stopped us?
I think back to David and the candy I gave him instead of rice. I wonder if it really was the best I could do. Junk food? The most I can say is that on any given day I had a lot going on. I wanted to see him smile. Maybe, I wanted to know I could make him smile.
More than anything now, I wish I had changed David’s life in some way that I could look back on with satisfaction. I wish I had been part of creating something durable and important. I wish we had taken all the fountain money, and the mosaic money, and potato chip money and built one water treatment facility instead.
Aid.Works is for all the people who have made a life out of helping other people. This is powerful, world-altering, heartbreaking work. The goal of Aid.Works is to share stories, such as this one, that will make our aid community more informed, accountable and inspired.
I think we can do better and I intend to do my part. I hope you will join me.