If you head down to the small makeshift bar next called Marco’s in Cite Soleil, a marginalized neighborhood on the outskirts of the Haitian capital of Port au Prince, you may find young men (and sometimes women) sitting on the curb talking about NGOs over a beer. There will be endless stories of the incompetence of international NGOs – how they send out absurd needs assessment surveys, how they don’t know (or don’t care) that they are reinforcing the power of local gangs, how they build houses that are too small and drive cars that are too big. They may express anger at how internationals collaborated with the UN soldiers (who residents of Cite Soleil dislike even more than the local police) and discuss rumors about them functioning as spies for the American government. There may be laughter at the foreign missionaries and volunteers who arrive with useless projects and goods, and grim satisfaction at how those resources were diverted to meet actual local needs once the foreigners went home with their photos and good feelings.
But there would not likely be much praise for Haitian organizations, either. There is the impossible exercise of counting the number of ‘pocket NGOs’, fake schools, and orphanages who exist solely to siphon resources from international groups. A mix of resentment and pity for the elite Haitians who are more comfortable speaking French than Haitian Creole and navigating Boston, Massachusetts than Boston, Cite Soleil. Amused questioning over whether the motivation for that pastor to do those high-profile charitable projects was his love of Christ or his thinly concealed political ambitions. And, if people are feeling brave, a hushed debate over whether the charitable foundations the local gangs have established are good for Cite Soleil, or whether they are simply a money laundering front for hidden political and criminal interests.
If you were to bring up the localization agenda to the young men at Marco’s, they would likely be skeptical. It would be taken more or less as a given that internationals can’t be trusted. But it is also not a given that a person or a group can be trusted just because they are ‘local’. Aid, politics, and violence have long been intertwined in Haiti, and even more so in marginalized areas like Cite Soleil. If you took all of the money given to INGOs and gave it to Haitian NGOs, would the outcomes be better? That might get a shrug – some things would probably be better. Perhaps less waste, fewer irrelevant projects, fewer entitled foreigners who thought they were sent by God. More dignity, more dialogue, and more access. But there would be new problems as well. Perhaps more classism and colorism against the people in the slums. More competition between local organizations. More opportunities for the political and economic elite to capture those resources for their aims and agendas.
This blog is part of CDA’s From Where I Stand series, designed to listen to people most affected by aid as they explore and amplify their leadership experiences, stories, and lessons for the aid sector.