Cover Story

Foreign aid bust

"Foreign aid bust" Continued...

Issue: "Between Hell and Hope," Feb. 12, 2011

A vivid reminder of Haiti's troubled history with failed aid unexpectedly arrived in Port-au-Prince last month: The country's notorious former dictator, Jean-Claude "Baby Doc" Duvalier, returned to Haiti on Jan. 16 after nearly 25 years in French exile.

The ousted leader's arrival stunned Haitians already near a boiling point over disputed presidential elections and offered a living history lesson in the perils of government corruption and foreign aid.

Duvalier took power in 1971 after the death of his father, François "Papa Doc" Duvalier, a brutal dictator who slaughtered political opponents and drove the nation deeper into poverty. The Voodoo-obsessed Papa Doc enlisted some 300,000 Haitians for his infamous Tonton Macoutes-a security force that dominated Haitian life with fear and brutality. The ruler declared himself "president for life" and altered the Lord's Prayer with this invective for opponents: ". . . deliver them not from any evil."

The younger Duvalier didn't deliver his opponents from evil either. Taking power after his father's death, Baby Doc continued his father's oppression and abuse, using the dreaded Macoutes. Experts estimate that the government-hired thugs killed some 20,000 to 30,000 Haitians during the Duvaliers' combined reigns. Many of Haiti's intellectual elite fled the country, creating a drain of much-needed Haitian talent and skills.

But Baby Doc was also savvy: The president improved some Haitian living conditions enough to please poor masses and impress international donors. The result: U.S. aid to Haiti grew tenfold in the first few years of his rule.

Even today, some Haitians express nostalgia for Duvalier's rule. During my travels around Port-au-Prince just before his return, Duvalier's name appeared scrawled on concrete walls-an oddity that now seems prophetic. When the former leader arrived from Paris, handfuls of supporters chanted: "This is our president." (Duvalier's motive for returning remains unclear, and local prosecutors charged him with corruption and embezzlement.)

If any Haitians romanticize Duvalier's presidency, they neglect the dark heart of his rule: Not only did the dictator brutalize opponents, historians say he funneled millions of dollars of foreign aid to finance his lavish, drug-induced lifestyle.

By the end of his rule, Haitians grew poorer, while Duvalier grew rich. When Haitians finally protested his tactics in 1986, he left on a U.S. plane bound for exile in France. But the precedent was set: The dictator remains a crowning example of foreign aid falling into corrupt hands.

That example is relevant as millions of dollars in foreign aid flow into post-quake Haiti. Though less aid flows directly into government coffers in the wake of corruption scandals, the same principles apply: If government aid hasn't substantially improved Haiti's lot in the past, donor countries should consider how to avoid past mistakes.

So far, Haitian officials have complained that post-quake aid to Haiti has arrived too slowly. Indeed, the first $120 million in U.S. funds for reconstruction arrived in November-nearly 11 months after the earthquake. Haitian members of the Interim Haiti Recovery Commission, an international group co-led by former U.S. president Bill Clinton, complain that the commission leaves them out of critical planning for their own nation.

Still, it's unclear how officials have used funds that are available from other sources like private foundations: A tour of downtown Port-au-Prince reveals that some of the most urgent tasks-like rubble removal-remain largely undone. Heavy equipment seems conspicuously absent from the capital.

Even with all the controversy surrounding reconstruction, Philippe Girard is more concerned about the dangers of long-term aid. The associate professor of Caribbean history at McNeese State University of Louisiana says any nation would need help after a catastrophe like the Haitian earthquake. Indeed, some NGOs are providing life-saving services that the government doesn't offer (see sidebar). But Girard worries that some aid projects directed at longer-term economic relief could harm Haiti by discouraging Haitian productivity.

For example, the United States sent food relief to the hungry nation for years, but even that aid has sometimes hurt local markets: The surplus of free food suppresses Haitian farmers who can't grow anything to compete with free goods. Even boatloads of well-intentioned clothing can suppress aspirations for a manufacturing industry that could tap into a vast Haitian labor force desperately needing jobs.

Girard says a better method is to help create conditions that would encourage foreign investment and trade with the United States-even a tourism industry!-to bolster Haitian productivity instead of simply importing goods. "People tend to be pessimistic about Haiti because things have been so bad for so long," he says. "But I'm optimistic over the long term because Haiti does have some assets."

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