Monday, November 29, 2010

Aid and Haiti

Short and intriguing note in the current issue of Foreign Policy by Paul Farmer: "5 Lessons from Haiti's Disaster." Farmer is basically calling for "development, not relief." He is entirely correct in pointing out that creating jobs, even temporary ones, will do more than offering handouts to help rebuild Haiti, that building government capacity and offering people basic shelter, health care and education are crucial, and that too much aid never reaches recipients.

However, these are not "lessons from Haiti's disaster"; they are insights that have been around in the aid community for quite a while. At best the Haiti case illustrates their enduring validity. More importantly, building on these insights is not nearly as easy as Farmer implies.

Unfortunately, successfully building government capacity is very difficult. So is offering decent healthcare to all, as Farmer himself knows better than anyone (he created Partners in Health in 1987, in part to sustain his work with a healthcare project in Cange, Haiti). Creating a widespread public works program or a universal-access education system are not trivial either.

Farmer's appeal ought to be read not as lessons to be applied to the next 'disaster', but rather as a call for continued aid to Haiti even after the immediate post-quake emergency has passed. As one of the poorest countries on earth, there is a fair amount of "low-hanging fruit" in Haiti in terms of development initiatives that offer excellent bang for the buck. Taking advantages of these opportunities now can mean that the next disaster in Haiti will be far less devastating.

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