Breaking the cycle of dependence in Haiti

But a new way of doing things is just around the corner. In September, President Obama declared that the United States will change the way it fights global poverty and announced the first-ever US Global Development Policy as “a new approach and new thinking that will guide our overall development efforts.” 

Haiti is exhibit A for everything that is wrong with the old model of development, which is precisely why it deserves the investment and effort required to be a model of this new approach to fighting poverty.

The new approach will not offer assistance in perpetuity, but instead support the creation of institutions and conditions that get to the causes of the poverty rather than just slapping on temporary band-aids. It is a vision rooted in one word: ownership. It would mean that the US invests more into supporting efforts designed, led, and controlled by poor countries.

For those of us who have been laboring in these fields for decades, this is welcome news. The US Agency for International Development is already practicing this principle by reducing reliance on large contracts to American for-profit organizations so it can deliver more investments through government systems and local organizations, which should increase their capacity. 

As we mark the one year anniversary of the Haiti earthquake, Congress and the Administration must focus American efforts in Haiti on an ownership principle. This will mean helping the Haitian government become a more modern, reliable and competent counterpart, run by a new technocratic class of civil servants who are committed to providing quality services to their fellow citizens. It will require investing in the will and ability of citizens to hold those civil servants and politicians, accountable for results. And most importantly, it will require resources. In this short term, this will be in the form of aid. In the long run, Haiti needs a revitalized local economy that generates the resources for critical services and programs.

And this means that non-governmental organizations will also have to change their ways of doing their work. Historically, NGOs have implemented often their programs in isolation of the Haitian government, but this is the biggest mistake we can make. In the end, significant responsibility for solving Haiti’s problems must rest with Haitians. If ownership is going to drive development in Haiti, it will require a more open, inclusive, and democratic government that is prepared and ready to take on that responsibility. Cutting the government out of the process only delays the hard work of helping Haitians build a government that serves their needs.

As President Obama stated, "Consider the millions of people who have relied on food assistance for decades. That's not development; that's dependence, and it's a cycle we need to break.”

The bottom line is that in order to move beyond inequality and poverty, Haitians must be given a voice in decisions about their country’s rebuilding process. Leaving them out of the process only creates greater dependency on foreign aid.

As we enter into the critical second year of Haiti’s recovery from the devastating earthquake, the new US Global Development Policy gives us the initial framework to make this a reality in Haiti and around the world.

Raymond C. Offenheiser is president of Oxfam America.