Haiti used by Tories to attack aid budget

By Ken Cable

‘Deye mon gen mon’ is a favourite phrase in Haiti and means ‘beyond the mountains are more mountains’. It captures not only the difficult and rugged geography of the country but also the difficulties encountered by the majority in everyday life where poverty and acute underdevelopment are stark realities.

It can also act as a metaphor for the latest episode where Haiti has hit the headlines. Oxfam, one of the most prominent non-governmental organisations (NGOs) working in Haiti has been accused of sexual misconduct by its employees and a consequent cover-up. The British government has used the opportunity provided by this to attack Oxfam directly and indirectly the provision of British aid to underdeveloped countries indirectly. The Haitian government has been forced to temporarily suspend Oxfam’s work in Haiti and to review its relations with the many NGOs who work there.  

In January 2010 Port au Prince, Haiti’s capital, suffered a devastating earthquake which killed some 250,000 people and made over a million homeless, many of whom remain living under tents and make-shift shelters.

OXFAM was one of the many NGOs which responded, both immediately with emergency aid and in the subsequent reconstruction programme.   In 2011 seven of its staff, including its director of operations, resigned or were dismissed for organising sex parties with prostitutes, including allegedly some who were under-age.

At the time no-one took any interest in this matter, partly because OXFAM covered-up the incident giving only a partial account of what occurred to its regulatory authority, the Charity Commission, and none to the Haitian government.

On February 9, 2018 The Times broke the story as its lead item and other newspapers and the electronic media quickly followed suit.  Within days the head of OXFAM was summoned to a meeting with Penny Mordaunt, the British International Development Secretary, who loudly condemned its actions; and then to appear before the House of Commons International Development Committee. In the meantime co-operation between the British Government and OXFAM was suspended pending further enquiries.

The interest of The Times and other British media in this matter seven years after the event is a surprise since there is little sustained interest in Haiti in the UK. Indeed the only British agency providing regular coverage of events in Haiti is the website of the Haiti Support Group, which maintains an excellent coverage on Haitian affairs.

So also surprising is the interest of the British Government. Formal diplomatic relations with Haiti were only re-opened in June 2013 after an absence of nearly fifty years during which Haiti was monitored, if at all, by British diplomats based in the Dominican Republic or Jamaica. The current British ambassador to Haiti lives in Santo Domingo, the capital of the neighbouring Dominican Republic, and is conveniently the wife of the current British ambassador to the Dominican Republic. A two-for-one bargain as it were!

Given this record it can only be deduced that the British government’s prompt intervention in and shrill denouncement of OXFAM in Haiti is motivated by other matters.

The chief suspicion here has fallen on OXFAM’s widely publicised recent report on inequality which pointed out that 82% of all wealth created in 2017 went to the top 1%, and nothing to the bottom 50% (Oxfam, Reward Work, Not Wealth, January 2018).

While this report no doubt discomforted the current Tory government, the real reason is the opportunity it provided to criticise the aid budget which is seen as too generous and not sufficiently attentive of British foreign policy objectives. In an article in The Telegraph on 15 January Penny Mourdant claimed that aid should be spent ‘in the national interest’, involving collaboration with other government departments – a long-standing objective of the Foreign Office which has argued that foreign aid should be brought back under its direct control as was the case for many years before the Labour government of 1997 created a separate Department for International Development.

The immediate criticism of this article the following day by British NGOs, prominent among them being OXFAM, would not have gone unnoticed by Mourdant.

Lastly, there is the reaction of the Haitian government.

Politics and government in Haiti is beset with difficulties, and the current government has been in office for little over a year (see The Socialist Correspondent, issue 28, summer 2017). Not much has changed but in this matter it has moved with remarkable speed.

On January 13 the president, Jovenal Moise, condemned OXFAM and promised an inquiry and a week later its minister of planning and external co-operation suspended OXFAM’s activities in Haiti. Behind this lies a long history of distrust of NGOs.

Haiti has been characterised as ‘the Republic of NGOs’. More than 10,000 NGOs have at one time or another been working in the country to make it per capita the highest NGO aided country in the world. Many of these have operated with their own agendas with little co-ordination with other NGOs and virtually no accountability to the Haitian government or their funders for their actions.

The billions of US dollars raised following the earthquake have been badly spent, spirited away or misused leaving little to show in its wake. The needs of the poor majority remain unaddressed (see Haiti Support Group website).

It is this situation which President Moise had in mind in his article in The Washington Post (February 23, 2018). Referring to the events of the last few weeks he noted:

“The general paradigm of aid and power in Haiti, as in the developing world, is not a balanced one. Our government is often sidestepped by aid agencies that refuse oversight as they pursue their own development and humanitarian agendas in our country. The level and direction of aid, and its implementation, is controlled by donor forces with little or no input from Haiti’s government or other local stakeholders.

Something clearly needs to change. Our government must now move into the driver’s seat”.

His concerns are well made. The question is whether his government has the administrative capacity or political will to carry them out. The past record of Haitian governments do not give much hope and there are mountains, and even more mountains to climb, to give effect to them.

To do this ordinary Haitians must be put in charge. Haitian civil society groups and community leaders need to be brought into the process and their priorities acted upon. International advocacy needs to prioritise Haiti more than it does and directly tackle those in the British government and elsewhere who have habitually sought to exploit Haiti for their own interests.

In Haitian creole -  ‘Pise marengwen ogmante larivye’ (every little drop counts). Now more than ever.

"The interest of The Times and other British media in this matter seven years after the event is a surprise since there is little sustained interest in Haiti in the UK. Indeed the only British agency providing regular coverage of events in Haiti is the website of the Haiti Support Group."