PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti — Few countries have as complicated a relationship with international aid organizations as Haiti, a small Caribbean nation wracked by structural and environmental crises. Hundreds of aid groups began arriving decades ago on a development mandate; and when a 2010 earthquake reduced large parts of its capital, Port-au-Prince, to rubble, killing around 200,000 people, it was estimated that up to 10,000 aid organizations assisted with the recovery. That same year, members of the United Nations peacekeeping mission were accused of causing a cholera outbreak, lasting seven years and claiming nearly 10,000 lives.
While most aid professionals work hard to assist their beneficiaries, last month’s Oxfam scandal lifted the lid on instances of sexual abuse and exploitation in the sector. That included cases of international NGO workers paying local women for sex, in some cases in exchange for food and other aid supplies. The scandal, sparked by a case in Haiti, caused long-precarious tensions between INGOs and locals to rise. Many in Haiti have accused the groups of operating as a de facto “state within a state,” ignoring the orders of local authorities.
“Haiti has a difficult relationship with aid … No one is surprised by this scandal, by everything that was going on,” Ralph Youri Chevry, Port-au-Prince’s mayor, told Devex in a compound outside the city center. The historical mayor’s office was destroyed in the quake and has not yet been restored. “They have long done what they want and we are now at a changing point. When I took office last year, I met with several of them and said they can’t just act without respecting us.”
Trust in INGOs — never high to begin with — is now at an all-time low. Many see the organizations as maintaining a hierarchy between foreigners and locals, and say it is time for them to show more solidarity with Haiti if their trust is to be regained.
Sabine Lamour, the director of Haitian Women Solidarity, or SOFA, a local NGO focused on women's rights, argues that the Oxfam scandal and the abuses it has uncovered is a result of a lack of respect for locals on the part of INGOs and their workers. “Perhaps international organizations could better instill a sense of their values before they come here,” she said, in SOFA’s Port-au-Prince office in a late 19th century gingerbread house — a Victorian style wooden building that survived the earthquake. “They need to better show solidarity, and exploiting the vulnerability of women, especially after the earthquake when they were on their knees, is not how you do that.”
One way INGOs could show more solidarity, Lamour suggests, is by hiring more Haitian staff. Many organizations do rely on the Haitian workforce, she said, but for lower-grade positions such as driving and clerical work. She went further to argue that some INGOs, which she refused to single out by name, perpetuate the historical slavery that Haiti revolted against in 1804. “We are locked into poverty and slavery … They don’t give enough space for Haiti to develop its own society,” she said.
The Haiti Support Group, a civil society organization that works with local groups, has also been vocal in its skepticism of the INGO community. “Aid workers regularly liaise among themselves, they hold meetings in their own language, they fly in their own people,” a recent statement given by HSG chair Antony Stewart in the wake of the scandal read. “All of this systematically excludes Haitians from any serious involvement in their own development.” He went on to allege that when problems arise, it is Haitians that are typically blamed. “If we want to start breaking down the culture of impunity within the aid sector, we need to ensure local populations are not only part of the conversation, but are leading it,” he said.
SOFA’s Lamour’s views echo those of many Haitians who have grown impatient with INGOs and their perceived inability to improve living conditions. “The idea of help from abroad is all very good,” said Maritza Saint-Dic, a street vendor on the outskirts of Port-au-Prince. “But I am 30, and I have seen these people here all my life, so why isn’t anything getting better?” Dozens of other vendors, who congregate at night hawking cigarettes and beer to passers by, shared similar sentiments. “No one can act surprised by all these sex scandals; they think they are the law here,” Saint-Dic said.
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Moving around Petion-Ville, a wealthy mountainside suburb popular with INGO workers and diplomats, the disparity between those who work for international organizations and ordinary Haitians is stark. SUVs and pickup trucks zoom by, emblazoned with logos. Restaurants sell hamburgers and burritos for $10, while 59 percent of Haitians earn less than $2.41 a day. Prices are listed in U.S. dollars rather than Haitian gourdes, a volatile currency. Swanky hotels have tarmacked driveways, generators, and 24-hour security, while handfuls of people sleep on the streets outside next to piles of uncollected trash.
Petion-Ville is a neighborhood where prostitution is rife. “This is where people pay the most,” one sex worker, who asked not to be named, said. “Here I can make more because foreigners pay three or four times more than locals.” She added, between calling out at passers-by, that she had not heard news of the scandal, but that she was not in the least bit shocked. “It’s part of everyday life here,” she said.
Though commonplace, sex work is illegal in Haiti. Oxfam’s internal investigation into the use of sex workers by some of its staff also concluded it could be neither substantiated nor ruled out “that any of the prostitutes were under aged.” The behavior was in breach of Oxfam’s code of conduct. Yet the incidents were not reported to local authorities. Some of the men involved in the scandal were allowed to resign instead of being sacked, and continued to work for other development organizations on international missions. Oxfam says new safeguarding measures were brought in to prevent the incidents from happening again, but aid workers like Lamour say more trust could be built if perpetrators were submitted to justice.
Laure Bottinelli, a young French-American based in Port-au-Prince, worked with Inter Aide and Solidarity International for three years before setting up Anacaona Community, a soap upcycling business with a social mission named after an indigenous chieftess killed for refusing to become a concubine for Spanish settlers. Bottinelli believes that while many INGOs do good work, many also operate under a post-emergency mandate, with a tendency to foster dependency.
“The emergency was the earthquake in 2010, and eight years later some organizations are still supposedly assisting on those grounds,” she said, adding that cholera and malnutrition are the only acute emergencies she sees in Haiti. “People still expect to be given water, rather than to treat the water in their own supplies. We should move toward structural development and away from emergency recovery.”
Bottinelli’s company employs Haitian workers, women where possible, and pays them above the average wage. “If we have 15 people working for us, we are empowering 15 people,” she said, agreeing that INGOs could work better to empower Haitians by employing more of them.
Alongside experiencing low levels of trust from Haitians, INGOs also often find themselves at odds with the government. That situation is unlikely to improve soon. President Jovenel Moïse was outspoken following the scandal, describing it as “an extremely serious violation of human dignity” on Twitter. He later went after aid agencies in general, calling for a review of the conduct of INGOs in Haiti. “The general paradigm of aid and power in Haiti, as elsewhere in the developing world, is not a balanced one,” he wrote in the Washington Post. “Our government is often sidestepped by aid agencies that refuse oversight as they pursue their own development and humanitarian agendas in our country.”
While Oxfam and other INGOs have carried out their own investigations into these incidents, for Haitians in Port-au-Prince, there is little trust they will be thorough. “They need to submit to the government, and to the weight of the law,” Lamour at SOFA said. “If they don’t, how can they expect our trust that this won’t happen again?”
Update, April 15: This story was updated to clarify that sex work is illegal in Haiti