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A conversation about Haiti and a new era of aid and development

A farmer in Haiti tends his field. (Credit: uusc4all/Flickr)

Today marks seven years since a 7.0-magnitude earthquake devastated Haiti, leaving more than 100,000 Haitians dead and 1.5 million homeless. In the aftermath, the international community and private donors responded by pouring billions of dollars into a relief and reconstruction effort largely led by private nongovernmental organizations.

Almost immediately, Haitians and activists began to wonder where the money went. Most of Haiti is still without clean, running water, and 50,000 people still live in makeshift camps. The failed response has raised hard questions about the lack of transparency required of the aid industry in a country with an estimated 10,000 NGOs.

But Haiti may be entering a new era in terms of aid and development after the recent election of President Jovenel Moïse. The former banana exporter faces enormous challenges, from rebuilding Haiti’s failed health and sanitation systems to addressing a surge in cholera after a recent Category 4 hurricane destroyed the homes and livelihoods of some 1.4 million people.

Moïse was also elected under a promise to overhaul the government’s current model of managing foreign aid and development projects.

To reflect on lessons learned and speculate on the future of development in Haiti, Humanosphere spoke with Gerald Murray, a Haiti expert and American anthropologist at the University of Florida. Murray has carried out extensive fieldwork in Haiti since the 1970s, evaluating NGO programs in Haiti, the Dominican Republic and more than a dozen other countries.

Murray is widely known for developing an agroforestry project that planted trees (for charcoal and lumber) to help more than 250,000 Haitian farm families in the 1980s.

The following interview has been edited for length and clarity.

David Nabarro [special adviser to the U.N. on the sustainable development agenda] said Moïse’s election raises Haiti’s prospects of moving out of the phase of humanitarian aid into longer-term development assistance. Do you think that’s likely?

It’s not that there has been a purely humanitarian approach to Haiti versus a developmental approach. Haiti is not simply the object of humanitarian aid. It has, since the 1970s, also been heavily involved with development projects as well.

The major change that happened is, when I first began doing this in the 1970s, all aid was channeled through the government. When I proposed my project for tree planting, I recommended that because [Jean-Claude] Duvalier was so corrupt, it would best to run it through NGOs. So my project was really the first major foreign-funded project that worked with millions of dollars through NGOs. And that has been the major change.

What’s going to happen under Moïse – and by the way, in my view, he was the best of all of the candidates, it’s delightful that he was the one that got elected because of his background – but he has promised to deal with the corruption issue in the government. How well he can do that, that’s another question.

You say you support Moïse, because of his background. Can you give some details on that?

Well, [Moïse] has never been in the government. He has never been a politician before. He was born in a small town in the Northeast of Haiti, it’s called Nord-Est, which literally means ‘northern hole.’ He moved to Port-au-Prince and has had all his education in Haitian schools.

But about 20 years ago he moved back, after he finished his college education, and he founded his own business – an auto parts shop. Then he turned to rural development issues. He’s interested in agriculture and irrigation, water systems. He actually started a plantation of organic bananas, and during his campaign he called himself ‘the banana man,’ or Nèg Bannann.

He’s also shown interest in irrigation and drinking water. Cholera is devastating Haiti now, because drinking water is often contaminated. He opened a business that would provide clean water by teaming up with a company in the Dominican Republic. Basically, his absence of involvement in the corrupt political establishment – his hands-on involvement in agricultural and health issues – this all shows promise.

Let me go back a little. You were talking about how Haiti’s government shifted away from overseeing and channeling aid money through the government. But Moïse’s plan has been to revert to that model. Why is he promising that?

The NGO strategy of development has become almost an obscene source of wealth for these NGOs. In other words, there are NGOs that are raking in large amounts of money. And Haitians know it. They’re legitimately concerned about this fact, that the money is being used to enrich mostly foreign development agencies.

The Norwegian government asked me to evaluate a Washington, D.C.,-based agency, which they had given a couple million dollars, and they had said that the agency could take out 8 percent. Well, I analyzed their budget. I went down to Haiti and analyzed their budget on paper and these guys were raking off 40 percent from the Norwegians by clever wording that the Norwegians had not seen through. I mean, it’s outrageous.

Basically, Moïse is in line with Haitian sentiment about the ripoff that NGO development in Haiti has become. … So he is correct in wanting to do away with this kind of white-collar racketeering. But Haiti’s government is corrupt from within. People join the government to enrich themselves, and he’s got to deal with that. He’s not going to convert the whole Haitian government into dedicated public servants. But [the government]doesn’t have the capacity to do most things, so they will be dependent on NGOs if they want to get anything done.

However … I wish I could have at [Moïse] for a couple of hours. There has to be an evolutionary, gradual shift away from dependence on the NGO strategy. I would caution him against a radical policy that says all money must be managed by the Haitian government.

Moïse isn’t the first president of Haiti to promise to rebuild the country’s hospitals, schools and other basic institutions. Is there reason to believe this time will be any different?

Well, [Michel] Martelly also had no experience – he was not corrupt, let’s put it that way – he went in with good intentions. But there are preexisting government systems in place, and they seriously constrain and channel the behavior of anyone that comes into a position of power anywhere in the system, including the guy at the top.

You cannot go in and with good will transform an apparatus that, since Haitian independence in 1804, has been oriented towards increasing wealth for the government itself and from its employees. You cannot suddenly change that because you have good intentions.

I’m not that optimistic that [Moïse’s] going to able to effect deep structural changes. But it has to be done by people like him if it’s going to occur. Outsiders cannot come in with money, as the U.S. government has done by giving money to the Haitian government, to change its behavior. You can’t do that. Changing of government has to be done by insiders. Outsiders can come in and help build roads, and set up water systems and things like that. Outsiders cannot, with their money, change the basic character of the Haitian government. That has to be done by Haitians. This may be a good start.


About Author

Lisa Nikolau

Lisa Nikolau is a Madrid-based reporter for Humanosphere, covering gender equality, indigenous rights and poverty in Latin America and worldwide. Find her on Twitter at @lisanikolau, email or see her latest work at