AIDependence: Haiti and the failings of international aid

AIDependence looks at the aftermath of the 2010 earthquake in Haiti, when huge amounts of international humanitarian aid were pledged to help rebuild the country. However, five years later many projects established by international NGOs either proved futile or remained unfinished, and hindered by their inability to include Haitian citizens. Rather than providing relief and stability in a time of crisis, humanitarian aid, including the distribution of free food and clothes, often came into direct competition with local businesses.

“I have been to Haiti for seven years, coming and going, and most projects I have seen are only making people more dependent,” said Smeets during the Q&A that followed the screening.

Smeets argued that Haiti’s lack of economic independence stemmed directly from the overwhelming presence of international aid organisations in the country who, rather than involving the Haitian people themselves, employed field workers from abroad. Organisational skills were therefore not passed on to local communities, who consequently found themselves relying almost entirely on this international staff.

In addition, the aid distributed to Haitians in various ways – in the form of free food, shelters and local staff wages – created divisions between communities. This aid likewise worked in direct competition with the government, that was not in a position to provide the same level of assistance or compensation to its employees, as well as with local producers.  “If you distribute free goods, you destroy the economy,” Smeets said.

AIDependence highlights this damaging dimension of the aid industry at play in Haiti, which has resulted in increased corruption and has divided communities.

However, this reality is not unknown to the foreign NGO field workers who work within Haiti, by whom the film was well received.

Smeets said: “Most of the people who work in the NGOs already know about the situation and they want to change it, but they are blocked by the bureaucracy.”

In the wake of the devastation caused by the 2010 earthquake, “the UN tried to coordinate the NGOs to avoid that the same project was done twice or more by different organisations, but it failed.”

The problem, as Smeets explained, is a lack of flexibility. “As soon as something planned is financed by the NGO, [the execution of the project] has to stick to the plan.”

The distorted effects of aid often arise in spite of altruistic motives. “I learnt how hard it is to help even if you have really good intentions,” confessed Smeets, who has previously worked in the aid industry.

Smeets then said that the solution to this cycle of dependence lies with a greater reliance on local communities. “We should tell them, ‘You are very strong: be creative and find the solutions. We are here so we can help’.”

A member of the audience pointed out the difficulty in local citizens solving problems independently in the wake of such a devastating natural disaster. Smeets replied: “We have to separate the immediate help after the disaster and the long term aid. In Haiti there are always disasters, [mainly] because it lacks the infrastructures that should have been improved long ago.”

Visit the AIDependence website for more information on the film and upcoming screenings.