According to François Pacquement and Margaux Lombard, chargés de mission at Agence française de développement (AFD), donors must change their approach to development assistance in Haiti, and consider it in all its complexity.
“We should not mask the sense of waste given by the amounts of energy, time and money poured in the past into this bottomless pit, this cemetery of projects (without graves or headstones), this eternal return of great expectations, where each new cycle wipes out the previous one. In Haiti, the failure rate for cooperation programs is abnormally high. This is also the case for the level of disillusionment among promoters. […] Was the financial aid insufficient ? No, as Haiti has for a long time been one of the most assisted countries in the world in per capita terms. This consequently means it was partly ineffective. And we have our share of responsibility in this ineffectiveness. […] We must then not confuse the quality of relations with the amount of aid.”
Régis Debray, Report to the Minister of Foreign Affairs, Mr Dominique de Villepin, of the Independent Committee of Reflection and Proposals on Franco-Haitian Relations, January 2004, pp. 17-20.
Fifteen years after the publication of Régis Debray’s report on Franco-Haitian relations, with the earthquake of 2010 in the meantime, the observation holds true more than ever. In Haiti, more than elsewhere, the illusions of development assistance are being shattered. Disillusionment hangs over this country where there is an accumulation of projects, amounts and good conscience. Is Haiti recalcitrant towards aid? Its history bears witness to a tradition of dissent against the established order, since the gateway opened with the independence of 1804 in the fight for human freedoms. And what if Haiti was right in its resistance to development assistance?
The case of Haiti should be regarded as an unprecedented opportunity to take a very close look at the limits of donors, or in any case one of them, Agence Française de Développement. It calls on us to consider development assistance in all of its complexity and diversity, with its many forms and components.
Unravel the knot of time and scales
Aid reveals a mismatch in time. The timeframes imposed by the management of a development assistance project are often not compatible with the time required for its ownership and the deployment of its impacts. In Haiti, time is interwoven with all types of discontinuities: political chaos, natural and climate hazards… Between recurring emergencies and structural issues, how is it possible to work at a pace able to reconcile these time differences? It is not possible to say things have failed after only four years. Why not wait 10 or 15 years?
AFD’s history shows that we are established in Haiti for the long haul, despite a few years of suspension in our cooperation. Accepting the slowness would require throwing off superior and imperious rationales, the first being pressure to demonstrate rapid results, in order to justify the use of funds to taxpayers, and in order to respect the principles of aid effectiveness.
In addition to the paradox of time, Haiti does indeed reveal the micro-macro paradox already highlighted by Mosley in 1986. In Haiti, there are development assistance projects which work and last, investments which are maintained and pay off, transform territories and destinies. But the main economic aggregates do not count them, and this fuels the feeling of failure. Yet the impact of aid also goes beyond what is quantifiable, and is to be found in the sedimentation and the transmission: this is shown by the tremendous human adventures, such as the standpipes project, which is now part of the landscape. It has irreversibly changed the social organization in several Port-au-Prince neighborhoods through the water facilities and irrigators’ associations.
The standpipes project, which was launched in 1995, led by Gret and financed by AFD and the European Union, created a drinking water supply system in deprived neighborhoods in Port-au-Prince. The standpipes are connected to the CAMEP (Metropolitan Drinking Water Plant) network and are managed by elected users’ committees.
In terms of aid, it is consequently becoming urgent to take into account the multidimensional nature of reality and review the priorities. Which country would be better positioned than Haiti, where there are an enormous amount of disappointments over development aid and which borders on the absurd, to initiate the reflection? Given the excessive number or even overkill of studies and projects one after the other: What if we were the ones who should have been asked to make the effort? An initial response is being sought by taking a retrospective look at our history.
Look for the meaning
To fully benefit from a relationship where time and scales go through periods of tension, we should get back to the fundamentals, i.e. the meaning of the relationship between Haiti and AFD.
Yet starting in the 1990s, the end of the Cold War led to an overhaul of aid based on the pursuit of its effectiveness. A standardization rationale was consequently established. But Haiti asserts itself through its atypical history and geography and resists an international approach, whose sole objective would be short-term effectiveness.
Furthermore, there are close ties between our two countries, as demonstrated by the attachment it inspires among the professionals who have worked there. The common history brings about affinities, a specific demand, which requires a unique and original approach! Given the feeling of failure, would it better to put an end to development aid rather than seeking what it is up to us to learn from Haiti? The answer is clear, last November, Haiti joined the exclusive club of the 17 priority countries for French aid. This is a form of recognition of a unique relationship that mobilizes us in a relationship which goes beyond the functional aspect, based on a commitment with several components.
We need to make a constant effort to listen. In addition, given the continual staff turnover, on both the Haitian side and the side of AFD, it is essential to build a form of memory and analyze the meaning of our activity.
We should consequently start with Haitian initiatives, with the vital forces, with what seems promising or works already, with talents, with achievements, in short, capitalize on what already exists, obviously without replacing Haitians, “for both ethical and practical reasons”. Is our role not to maintain what is a priori positive and convey the confidence in a better world, which is the driving force for development assistance, rather than pointlessly dwell on pitfalls and failures?
This stance is likely to establish greater mutual understanding, which remains to be built by interdisciplinarity.
Accept diversity in development aid relations
To diversify aid, it is essential to enhance it with approaches from social sciences other than economics. To gain a better understanding of Haiti, some cite sociology, others anthropology, philosophy, literature… Multi-faceted pathways are likely to shed new light on the issues that are meant to guide development aid, in Haiti and elsewhere.
By construction, interdisciplinarity promotes dialogue (get disciplines to communicate), connection (link issues which are a priori far from being related), and decompartmentalization (share methods, concepts, fields). On the one hand, it leads to increased requirements in terms of the content of partnerships, with a methodological supervision, which is complementary to purely financial supervision. On the other hand, it focuses the external partner’s added value on the capacity to combine issues and get actors to meet in a crosscutting manner, giving everyone a work schedule and environment, leaving the depth of field to the specialists. Interdisciplinarity thus outlined is in keeping with corporate culture, conducive to its enhancement, and facilitates the transition from a window logic to a network logic.
Yet donors like AFD do not have a critical mass of “social science” competences, with economism prevailing over methods. In fact, neither strategic cycles nor operational cycles provide for an intervention by these other disciplines. Project appraisal, which is still mainly conducted by engineers and economists, could, however, benefit from an analysis of the socio-anthropological dimensions, if only for due diligence concerning risks. For strategies such as for operations, interdisciplinarity could enhance conceptualization and capitalization, by broadening the scientific scope used.
It is important to remember that development rationales cover multiple components which interact in complex ways. By overly ignoring the plurality of aid, we turn it into a monochrome, dogmatic and undifferentiated policy. Yet aid covers four units of action which are increasingly different. Alongside traditional project aid, three other policies are becoming more and more important: crisis prevention and management, support for multilateral negotiations, and economic diplomacy.
The crisis and post-conflict response (measured as the aid to fragile States) has accounted for the bulk of the increase in development aid since the turn of the century. Support for multilateral negotiations continues to be a core diplomatic issue, as shown by the recent example of the negotiation of the Paris Climate Agreement. Economic diplomacy, which involves giving priority to operations of interest to the donor country, is becoming increasingly important, under various names, from China to the Netherlands and including Austria, Denmark and Germany. The differentiation between these policies should be considered in the field so that they are tailored to expectations with modus operandi in proportion. If, under the guise of aid, there is a combination of so many different approaches, how can we have a clear vision in a uniform search for effectiveness?
Let us dare another development assistance in Haiti
What if the fulfilment of aid defied the requirements of effectiveness and was based on the long term, on patient listening to partners permitted by the deployment of interdisciplinarity? Haiti constitutes a great invitation to promote a return to the meaning of relationships. As we constantly come up against enigmas, aporia, misunderstandings and disillusionment, the issue of meaning is fully relevant.
Haiti is a powerful indicator of the limits of donors like AFD. One of them is the myth of the single policy, whereas it is time we recognized the multidimensional nature of development assistance, which cannot be solely based on economism. Haiti sends out stronger signals than elsewhere, insofar as it is the focus of many issues, but it allows us to question the limits of development assistance more generally, beyond Haiti’s borders.
Let us accept the slowness and modesty: let us assume this supporting role, which is difficult to measure and without guaranteed success, subject to considerable risks and constraints, but essential. Let us work to build a memory and learn lessons from history and not confine ourselves to a binary reasoning in terms of failure/success. Let us dare take on board the diversity of aid.
 A book about the history of AFD in Haiti, to be published in early 2018, will aim to contribute to this.
 Régis Debray, Report to the Minister of Foreign Affairs, Mr Dominique De Villepin, of the Independent Committee of Reflection and Proposals on Franco-Haitian Relations, January 2004, p. 17.
The opinions expressed on this blog are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the official position of their institutions or of AFD.