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Is there a Recipe for Success in Haiti?


Haiti “is positively carpeted with well-meaning but clueless do-gooders. Haitians are pretty accustomed to this, so they have very low expectations.” This is a quote from an email I received from Sara, the mother of a good friend of mine, who lived and worked in Haiti in the mid 1980s with a health development group working primarily in tuberculosis control and vaccinations.

“85% of all foreign aid projects I saw in Haiti failed after the NGO or Christian group left,” Patrick Cummings, the director of World Water Partners told me after his trip to Haiti.

I keep hearing this. In order to find out if it’s true I did some research and read Travesty In Haiti, Timothy T. Schwartz Ph.D.’s account of his 10 years in Haiti seeing the failures of Christian missions, NGOs, and food aid.

This is the first photo that Patrick Cummings took after getting off the plane in Port-Au-Prince.


The message is clear. What is going wrong here as Haiti has been receiving foreign aid since the 1950s?

After reading Travesty in Haiti, my understanding is that the American Plan lead to the quick downhill spiral of the entire country. “Until the 1980s, Haiti was almost entirely self-sufficient in rice consumption.” However, “food assistance to Haiti tripled during the 1980s reaching a yearly average of over $50 million in gratuitous U.S. surplus, beans, corn, rice, and cracked wheat… Enough to meet the calorific needs of over 15 percent of the Haitian population.” Why purchase food from a local farmer if you can get it from the U.S. for free? The U.S. managed to destroy rice, sugar, coffee, cacao, sisal, essential oils, and cotton industries and exports by the 1990s. Haitian government was brought into cooperation destroying the livelihoods of farmers and pushing them into urban factories supported by the U.S. (Travesty in Haiti, p. 109-113). I cannot help but wonder if Haiti would have gotten up on their feet if the U.S. had never intervened.

I have come to the conclusion that anything that does not help people help themselves is useless!

Sara told me, Haiti “looks the same now as it did then (26 years ago): countless uncoordinated agencies doing whatever feels good to them.” During Sara’s time in Haiti, her organization began looking towards getting clean water for a village in a town called Saltadere. It was clear that the community desired a road to the next town 8 miles away more than they desired water. Because “there was no source of clean water for miles and high levels of mortality and morbidity from water-bourne critters,” the organization decided water was what they needed most.

How can a village without any economic development—no source of agricultural income or trade—possibly maintain a clean water source that was given to them? The maintenance requires economic development and incentive!

As a relief effort after the earthquake in Port Au Prince, Oxfam delivered water bladders throughout the country and pumped them full of water via Oxfam delivery trucks. About a year and a half later, this is what most 10,000 liter bladders look like…….


The lack of sustainability here is obvious—without Oxfam, there is no clean water. The people need some motivation, a leader who can show Hatians the usefulness of this waxed canvass that has become trash.

As a result of copious misdirected foreign aid and lack of government involvement, the most sustainable business has become thievery. Would these solar powered panels have continued to function had they been rooted in the ground?


Instead, most of these are now sitting on the property of more affluent Haitians….

The foresight and reliance by the more affluent on these solar powered panels brings about an interesting point. What If foreign aid had been targeted in Haiti to create sustainable businesses (rather than handouts) to those in the middle or even upper economic ladder……. would the benefits have trickled down to those who need it most? Or would the more affluent class in Haiti, have still been inclined to keep it all for themselves?

Is Haiti so different to Cambodia where Eugene Nelson provides wells–see our post 1 Man, 26 Wells (and counting…)–to those who already have a bit of land, who have the incentive to start a sustainable business and are willing to share the water with neighboring less fortunate families. This incentive insures maintenance of the wells, so that those on different economic levels all can benefit.

I have been conversing with Olivia Jeanne, a Forest Resources student studying at Clemson University who is currently working in Ayiti, Haiti. In a message she said, “A LOT of times it just comes down to not really getting to know the people and their situation, it takes TIME to work with them through honest open communication and planning.” Is this the new direction? 

Olivia has been working in small gardens in Ayiti.


Nothing big, but she managed to create a sustainable impact in horticulture by living and working with people in Ayiti through Sonje Ayiti, Helping Hands Noramise, and Bwa Kayiman, organizations committed to connecting locals with resources, materials and education.

 Olivia told me something she learned from her boss, Gabrielle Vincent, at Sonje Ayiti: “Investing in finding out who and what resources a community already has is key, taking time to meet everyone and give people a chance to express themselves. Are there school students interested in engineering/science/technology? Unemployed college graduates? Their inclusion produces goodwill and as many educational opportunities as humanly possible…”

Olivia’s work brings Eugene Nelson to mind again. Here are single individuals who are committed to, love, and understand a culture and its people and have the capacity to create a large impact.

We can learn 3 important lessons from both of them:

  1. Do not ‘dump’ your project in a random location. Invest time and energy into research of the people, culture, and prominent needs of a community.
  2. Create something sustainable. Think grassroots! Before constructing anything, think about how it will be maintained by the people living there.
  3. Changing a local economy instead of enhancing it is a recipe for failure. Support the desired life-style of a group of people; do not destroy it.

Please leave us any comments or personal stories you have to share or send us an email at We would love to hear from you and learn something new!

If you would like to contact Patrick Cummings with questions or ideas feel free to email him at

Emily Berg, Bank On Rain 2011 Intern and Researcher. THINK RAIN!

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Originally published August 9, 2011 on Posterous

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