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Did Kristof mistake trees for the aid debate forest?

SOPUDEP school
SOPUDEP school

The often debated topic of whether or not foreign aid has done good reappeared in this weekend’s column by Nick Kristof for the New York Times.

By featuring the story of one young girl’s struggle to go to school, Kristof shows that aid works. Even in Haiti.

Jonathan Katz, he reported from Haiti during the earthquake and cholera outbreak, says the argument has some major holes.

“When you consider these facts, it gets pretty difficult to argue that whatever is going on right now in Haiti—including aid—is working, and much harder to dispute the claim that “dedicated and ethical” or any other foreigners are doing harm,” wrote Katz for the Beacon Reader.

Haiti, the poorest nation in the western hemisphere, as an example of where critics make their attacks and where he sees hope. Kristof uses the example of a Haitian-led private school called the SOPUDEP school. A total of 836 pre-K through twelve students are served by the school. Many come from low-income families who cannot always pay for tuition.

Enter foreign aid (or Exhibit A, as Kristof might say).

The school founder Rea Dol happened to have made friends with a teacher from Los Altos school in California. The students went on and raised $200,000 for SOPUDEP and its students.  It all ties together with the story of a young girl named Darline who stopped going to her previous school due to high fees.

Thanks to SOPUDEP and its donors, Darline is back in school. The Haitian economy is outpacing the US, kidnappings are down, the infant mortality rate is down and the manufacturing industry is up.  Because of these gains, concludes Kristof, aid works.

“Now five other children living near Darline have trooped to the school to see if they, too, can get a free education. Dol is scrambling to find the money to make that happen — because anyone in this slum sees that the right kind of aid can, indeed, transform a child’s life,” concludes Kristof.

The story sounds nice, if the assertions made by Kristof are taken as fact. Katz says that is simply not the case.

Haiti’s economy has gone up and down the past few years, but comparing just about any economy against the anemic growth of the US over the past four years is not all that useful. A closer look at issues like child mortality and even the state of education in Haiti reveal that things are far from good.

The biggest stretch by Kristof is the link between the improvements and aid. Aid going into Haiti at a time when things are getting better does not necessarily mean that aid made things better. In fact, it is just as possible that aid slowed down progress.

Readers of the Kristof column may come away thinking that the majority of the debate regarding aid is over whether it works. That is simply not the case. Some do assail aid on principal, but the real debate is over how to use it effectively.

“In policy circles, the argument isn’t so much over whether we should give some aid or none at all to countries…but over what form that aid should take, and how to make sure those who provide it are held accountable for its results,” writes Katz.

The reason why Haiti has come under scrutiny is because of the lack of accountability and evidence provided by donors. It applies as much to the story of Darline as it does to the entire Haitian education system. There is no information about the teachers, the curriculum, or the quality of education provided by SOPUDEP, points out Katz.

Getting a girl into school is a good thing and something that can be attributed to aid in the case of Darline. Whether or not she is better off in the long term is a question that should be answered.


About Author

Tom Murphy

Tom Murphy is a New Hampshire-based reporter for Humanosphere. Before joining Humanosphere, Tom founded and edited the aid blog A View From the Cave. His work has appeared in Foreign Policy, the Huffington Post, the Guardian, GlobalPost and Christian Science Monitor. He tweets at @viewfromthecave. Contact him at tmurphy[at]