Haiti - Putting NGOs in their Place

On March 31, the United Nations and the United States will co-host a conference in New York in attempt to “lay the foundations for Haiti’s long term recovery.” It is vital that this platform is used to address the fact that the country has become too reliant on international NGOs to provide basic services to citizens. Those attending the conference – representatives from Haiti, Brazil, Canada, Spain and France - must attempt to redefine the role of NGOs in Haiti to help create sustainable and effective solutions for the country’s future. 

For years, international NGOs have been involved extensively in Haiti, in particular, in the provision of basic services such as access to health care, education, food, and clean drinking water to citizens. According to a World Bank report, there are approximately 10,000 NGOs operating in Haiti - the highest number per capita in any country in the world. In 2008, the Library of Congress reported that around 70% of the country’s total expenditure on economic and social development was provided directly through international NGO funding - and in certain sectors, the accumulated budgets of NGOs exceeded those of government departments.

This level of NGO involvement has been justified repeatedly on the basis of the dire economic and political situation of the country. In addition to being the poorest state in the western hemisphere, the Haitian government has also been classified by Transparency International as one of the most corrupt and inefficient in the world. However, the fact that financial aid has been channeled directly through NGOs, bypassing government institutions, has (over time) led to the substantial weakening of national government structures. Amending this will be a big challenge for Haiti when looking forward to its future, and is a topic which deserves extensive discussion at the impending International Donors Conference.

Those countries participating at the conference must therefore seek to significantly alter the role of NGOs in Haiti by devising a concrete action plan which shifts NGO activity away from direct service provision and towards government capacity building. Over time, this will hopefully enable the government to provide basic services to citizens independently. It will be a gradual process, and inspiration must be drawn from other developing countries in the creation of an action plan.

In Afghanistan, for example, at the time of the fall of the Taliban in 2001, international NGOs were providing education to around 500,000 children across the country. When the new government came into power in 2003, it sought to ensure that NGOs gradually shifted their attention away from direct service provision and towards teacher education programs and creating shared education management information systems – this was done in order to build the capacities of the Afghani teachers, ensuring they had the necessary skills to act independently.

Similarly, political turmoil in Iraq had a detrimental impact on many government services, particularly in the area of health. Since the initiation of the new government in 2005 however, government officials have been working alongside national and international NGOs to improve health care facilities for Iraqi citizens. NGOs have been called upon to facilitate training sessions with public service doctors, nurses and community workers, and other NGOs have been granted permission to provide particular services directly - as a way of temporarily alleviating pressure from government services. For example, one American NGO - the Heartland Alliance group - provides basic health care for up to 10,000 internally displaced Iraqis each month.

These types of handover programmes must be implemented in Haiti too, and guidelines must be drafted to ensure that capacity building is done in a way which is both effective and systematic. In looking forward to Haiti’s future, NGOs must be put back in their place. They will play an important in handing over to the government, monitoring new systems and assisting with service provision where required. The "International Donors Conference: Towards a New Future for Haiti" provides the ideal platform to discuss how this will be taken forward, to ensure that in the long run, the national government can provide basic services for its own citizens, and not be reliant on NGOs to do so on a charitable basis.

Afghanistan, Haiti, Iraq, Relief, United Nations