I don’t know what Nora Schenkel was talking about in the New York Times on Wednesday in her personal essay, “I Came to Haiti to Do Good…,”. The former aid worker argues that Haitians are stuck in a cycle of dependency, fueled by inequalities perpetuated by the aid industry.
I don’t know what she’s talking about because I just came back from Haiti myself last week, and that’s not at all what I experienced. While I was riding around in a white vehicle, I was talking with Haitian farmers who are clearly in control of their futures and who are actively pushing back on the aid system.
In February, 118 farmers in Saint-Marc, Haiti gathered in a community hall to share their views of how well the US government’s Feed the Future program is working in their community. Over the prior six months, the Haitian NGO, Plateforme Haïtienne de Plaidoyer pour un Développement Alternatif (PAPDA), had been working with farmers groups in three communities in the Artibonite region to develop a report card based on The Paris Declaration on Aid Effectiveness to assess the WINNER Project in their area.
Community scorecard processes have been used by many development agencies and aid organizations over the years to rate local services like clinics and schools. I was there to learn what happens when that process was utilized to report on the progress of a large, bilateral aid program. Franck Saint Jean, a PAPDA representative, explained why they got involved in the process, “It is important for us to speak up so that [aid] money doesn’t just go in circles.”
Reports from the farmers about improvements made since the February meeting where they gave their feedback, was underwhelming. Farmers in all three communities reported that they had seen increased communication with WINNER project representatives (employees of Chemonics). Especially from the perspective of farmers in Deluge, a communal section of Saint-Marc, they had not seen sufficient actions taken to address the problems raised in the February meeting.
Specifics of the project aside, what excited me during my time in Haiti was the fact that PAPDA’s efforts had obviously strengthened the ability and the resolve of the farmers to continue engaging WINNER and with other projects in the future, either from aid donors or the Haitian government. Farmers in all three communities encouraged PAPDA and Oxfam to continue this work throughout the country. One farmer in Bois Neuf explained:
“We have a glimpse of what to do next, when another NGO comes…People coming here have to come with a written document of what the project will look like to see if it’s what we need. We can offer alternatives and contribute our own resources. And we can ask for translation into kreyòl!”
I will say that such frank reflections about the difficulty of “doing good” like Ms. Schenkel’s are still too much of a rarity among practitioners in the aid industry and in the popular media. But if I had written a personal essay for the New York Times, I wouldn’t have wasted the opportunity reiterating tired, old criticisms of the aid industry. Rather, I’d talk about the Haitians in the driver’s seat and Oxfam’s latest report, A Quiet Renaissance, which demonstrates that changes to the US aid system are upon us. We can do better to support the Haitians who are bringing about development in their country.
How? Aid providers can invest in direct engagement with civil society organizations like PAPDA who are supporting local groups to make their voices heard. And they can strengthen tools to integrate priorities and feedback from people like those with whom I spoke in Haiti, who had clearly realized they no longer “have to be spectators to all this aid.”
Pa gen anyen pou nou, san nou. Nothing for us, without us.