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Anti-Militarism: Why localization is the only way forward in Haiti

By Tanvi Nagpal // 02 June 2022

There is no better example of the complex need for localization than Haiti, where it is a first step to correcting historic exploitation of the Haitian peoples and their land, including the “double debt” that has burdened the country for over two centuries.

The Biden administration has a new Haiti strategy, which “outlines a path for Haiti to begin to take charge of its own development.” The strategy’s nod to self-determination echoes the U.S. Agency for International Development’s agenda for localization and Administrator Samantha Power’s commitment to “place local communities in the lead to either co-design a project, set priorities, drive implementation, or evaluate the impact of our programs.”

The idea of locally led development is hardly new; scholars and practitioners make a compelling case that effective localization is morally justified as a step to decolonize development and also because it is just more effective. Given Haiti’s current situation, it is also the only practical way forward.

Continuing uncertainty surrounds the legitimacy of current Haitian Prime Minister Ariel Henry and elections to replace him. Violence, hyperinflation, and fuel and food shortages have deepened poverty. Fleeing Haitians continue to risk their lives to find refuge, only to be turned back at borders. Absent an elected and empowered government, donors must find ways to credibly work directly with local NGOs and civil society groups. Here are three practical reasons why this is the only way forward, and the actions to take accordingly.

1. Redefine local capacity

Local groups are always the first to respond when disaster strikes. They simply know more and do more with fewer staffers and money. Changing the narrative about their “limited capacity” is critical to decolonizing development and addressing the country’s long history of exploitation and plunder. And donors would do well to learn a lesson or two on resilience from them.

2. Support effective institutions, not projects

Haiti is not the only country where local organizations have had to work in protracted crises stemming from political unrest, natural disasters, or health emergencies. It is one of the few where all three have coincided, leaving local organizations at the front line of service provision.

Haitian organizations committed to long-term development find themselves dealing with even more acute needs. Take for example sanitation services. Cap-Haïtien, Haiti’s second-largest city on the northern coast, has no sewage system, and 28% of the population lives in informal settlements with neither regular water delivery nor access to safe toilets.

USAID and other donors would do well to understand and accept the risks associated with ceding control to those who stand to gain the most.

SOIL-Haiti, an NGO run by local staffers, has managed to deliver sanitation services in informal settlements despite catastrophic floods following the 2021 earthquake. This hasn’t been easy — as food prices soared, SOIL began providing highly subsidized meals to its staffers who are members of the communities they work in.

Project grants do not cover such additional costs. If donors are serious about localization, they would do well to make their own funding flexible to mirror the adaptive capacity of local organizations. In fact, researchers have shown that organizations that receive highly constrained grants may develop the capacity to raise more money, but could actually become less effective over time, spending the bulk of their resources on compliance.

3. Accompaniment in crisis

“Accompaniment,” a simple yet powerful idea, used by the late Dr. Paul Farmer, is rooted in the value of patient partnerships, no matter how hard they are. Aid should not circumvent governments, which are ultimately responsible for the provision of public goods. Yet Haitians have had no legitimate government for two years. Local government agencies have not received central transfers in weeks or months, and salaries haven’t been paid. Local businesses and nongovernment groups are providing basic services.

The World Bank has concluded that strengthening the relationships between official service providers and humanitarian groups allows the latter to step in more effectively during crises, and it also helps official providers — water, sanitation, health — to resume operations more effectively once crises end. The key is to find local groups who are more effective in crises and present when they end.

Where are we now

By all accounts, previous assistance in Haiti dominated by private U.S. contractors has fallen far short of its aims. According to a recent report by the Center for Economic Policy Research, after the August 2021 earthquake, U.S.-based contractors were awarded $50 million in contracts. Not a single Haitian organization won a contract. According to the same report, despite a series of commitments to “build country systems” and create “local solutions,” the percentage of USAID funding going to local groups has remained far below the aspirational 25%. In 2021 it was just 5.3%. 

Following Power’s renewed commitment to localize aid, USAID launched a resource portal, hoping to simplify engagement for international partners. Centroamerica Local — USAID’s $300 million commitment to work directly with community partners in El Salvador, Guatemala, and Nicaragua — will be an at-scale test for aid.

Changing the development landscape is far from simple. Sadly, it is unlikely that localizing aid, a Sisyphean task, will solve Haiti’s problems. The U.S. continues to play an oversize role in Haitian politics and mistrust of its intentions runs deep. Still, USAID and other donors would do well to understand and accept the risks associated with ceding control to those who stand to gain the most.