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An Open Letter to Haiti’s President Martelly



Dear Mr. President,

I watched your speech at the United Nations General Assembly last week. It was frank, a rarity in UN speeches, and frustrated, which is a byword for UN diplomacy.

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You were provocatively blunt about the failures of the international donor community and the development industry. The world came rushing to Haiti’s aid after the earthquake, and then almost as quickly, they wandered away. Over 18 months later, only 43% of the promised aid has been disbursed, and that money is largely invisible. The refugee camps are still full, half of Haitian women are still giving birth with no medical care, and cholera is still rampant.

In your speech you said that Haitians feel left behind and left out. The donor money that does flow, flows into the hands of expats and international agencies. There are too few new schools, but the streets are crowded with white SUVs, the international symbol of “aid” from Kabul to Kigali.

International Development Assistance (for Tokyo)

Haiti’s experience is not unique. Again and again, the international community responds to war, tsunami, and earthquake the same way. Billions are pledged. Less is disbursed. And almost none enters the hands of the local community.

In PDT’s peer-reviewed research, we have documented that on average only 5% of UN budgets enter the local economy.  In larger missions, like Afghanistan, the broader donor community does not much better, spending only 37% of its money locally. But when you subtract salaries to local staff, local spending by international staff and direct budget support, the actual amount of donor money that focuses on contracts to local businesses can be as low as 1%. In other words, what is happening to Haiti is the norm: Aid is spent on the countries it is meant to help, but not in those countries.

As you noted yourself, “it is nice to talk about human dignity, human rights, stability, and peace. But a hungry stomach has no ears. It is through the creation of decent jobs, fair pay…that justice begins.”  If Haiti is to have a future, it must first have jobs. And those jobs cannot be given to high-priced “capacity building consultants” or “private sector development advisors”. Those jobs must be for Haitians. Donors have never created employment with “economic growth log frames”. These merely generate consulting fees for expats. Only entrepreneurs create jobs.

Something can be done to put Haiti first. In Afghanistan, faced with the same paradox of billions in donor promises, but almost nothing in the hands of Afghan entrepreneurs, the US government under the leadership of Gen. Karl Eikenberry, implemented an “Afghan First” policy which called for the Afghanization of foreign assistance. The Afghan First movement, designed to “ensure that Afghans lead, not follow, in their path to a secure and economically viable Afghanistan.” Was soon adopted by other donors such as the British, and by NATO and UNAMA.  Its impact was extraordinary, leading to billions in new local spending, and the creation of over a 100,000 jobs.

As President, you should call upon the donors to adopt a “Haiti First” policy. Ask them to spend their development dollar twice. Instead of merely building a $1m hospital, ask them to use Haitian construction companies in order to also leave behind $1m in wages, profits, and taxes.  The key donors, such as the US and the UN have already proven they can do this. If they did it in Kabul, then can do it Port au Prince.

Like you were in New York last week, be frank. Demand that the aid money spent on Haiti is actually spent in Haiti. Demand “Haiti First”.


Respectfully Yours,


Scott Gilmore

Peace Dividend Trust

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  1. Linda says:

    Hi Scott,

    I think it right that better efforts must be made in creating better financial security among Haitians. At the moment, you go there and there is no money in the system for trading – lots of people selling tiny bits and pieces, and no buyers.

    However, I think asking the international community to “use Haitian construction companies in order to also leave behind $1m in wages, profits, and taxes” overlooks the obstacles this community faces in its efforts to support Haiti’s development. Firstly, it’s just wrong to imply that ‘capacity-building’ and ex-pat construction supervision is where the money should be diverted from. I work for a very small constuction NGO, but my impression on the ground is that almost all international agencies employ local labour wherever they can find the skills. Every Haitian contractor I’ve come across acts as an impediment to a safe and efficiently costed project. They don’t supervise properly (often they can’t), they often don’t pay their staff as promised, thus encouraging their staff to skimp on materials and make their money from selling the left-overs, and they frequently charge more when you ask them to fix one of their own mistakes. Many thus conclude that their development dolars go a whole lot further when they employ local people directly, pay them well, train them up, and cut out the added hurdle of a contractor who’s only interested in extracting from you as much personal profit as possible. Indeed, a lot of the best community housing/ schools projects I’ve seen, in terms of outcome and cost, were realised this way.

    I don’t deny that there are some who ship in people from abroad entirely, and no doubt many do so because development is not priority. However, again, when you desperately need destroyed facilities and you’ve got a budget, it can be difficult to invest the time and effort in going the right way.

    The disaster hit for many reasons. But one of the biggest ones was that the construction industry was exceptionally poor. Capacity-building within the construction industry is essential, along with better-enforced building regulations, and, indeed the bettering of many conditions that cause workers to cut corners and build unsafely. As a school construction coordinator in Haiti, I have every intention of using as much Haitian skill as possible, of running training during construction, and sourcing materials as best I can (almost all safe construction materials are imported); however, I’m not convinced paying a bad contractor will do Haiti’s people and economy more favours than hiring labour directly, and I have no intention of taking my ex-pat project manager off the job, because I can’t afford a Haitian with the skills to see that the facilities we build will keep its students safe.


  2. Lucy Heady says:

    Linda, thanks so much for your comment. Over the last six months we have been interviewing several procurement officers in NGOs and Haitian construction companies and the responses very much echo the frustrations you describe. In particular, the problem of intense supervision is a common one. We are aiming to publish a report based on this research either towards the end of this year or early 2012 and use the launch to bring procurement officers and Haitian businesses into the same room to discuss what steps could be made to improve the status quo for both parties.

    If you would like to find out more about this research and perhaps contribute to it please get in touch with Scott McCord, our market researcher based in Port-au-Prince (

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