23 August 2011

Rebuilding Haiti?

After some weeks of teaching a summer course at Peking University, I'm back at the blog. (For the curious, virtually all Google-hosted sites are blocked in China, including this one.)

I had intended to start off the new series of posts with something on European bank guarantees, perhaps inspired by this FT editorial. However, before getting to that I just wanted to point your attention to Janet Reitman's Rolling Stone article on reconstruction, or the lack thereof in Haiti.

(Coincidentally, this is the second Rolling Stone article this week suggested by longform.org that I've liked. The other was Matt Taibbi's piece on how the SEC disposes evidence from preliminary investigations. I would blog about that article too but I think I need to just sit down and write the "credibly committing to bad information" paper that I've already mentioned.)

I actually don't have too much to add to the discussion, especially considering Felix Salmon's nice post on the article.

I do want to register my complete astonishment that the Hati rebuilding effort seems to have been plagued by so many errors that are commonly mentioned in basic undergraduate courses on overseas development (I'm thinking of you Rex Brynen):
  • High proportions of aid being spent on external NGO overhead.

  • Lack of NGO/External Government/Domestic Government/Citizenry coordination.

  • Disproportionate focus on donor, rather than recipient needs.

My favourite anecdote for sheer ridiculousness concerns toilets and US building codes. USAID officials turned down a proposal to build composting toilets in new housing because they didn't comply with US building codes. This was despite the fact that the area did not have the sanitation capacity to handle US style toilets. Of course, when you spend more money on flush toilets you build fewer houses.

I understand that managing development aid well is very difficult, especially in countries that have just had massive natural disasters. However, the problems listed in Janet Reitman's article read like a parody of a 1980s development project. My question:

Why is there such a large disconnect between the lessons learned in the academic literature and how development aid is actually implemented?

1 comment:

PinskVinsk said...

The question of why development aid cannot reform itself is almost, IMHO, as intractable as the question of why countries receiving development aid cannot reform themselves. To even ask the question is to get to closer to the moral chasm opened wide by the perpetrators of the last two centuries' well-intentioned disasters. Perhaps I'm being cynical, or anti-humanitarian, or whatever, but in the same way that Haiti would probably just be better off without all those white people trying to fix it, the field of development aid would probably be better off without smart people trying to fix it. Or at the very least, the world would be better off if the smart people stopped trying to fix the poor people, and then failing, and then trying to fix their failed efforts to fix the poor people...because then, theoretically at least, the smart people could look away from their navels, distract themselves with ideas and innovations that actually improve the quality of human life, and maybe those things would just kind of naturally make their way around the world. Am I being too idealistic? Too laissez-faire? Threatening the employment prospects of too many master's-educated, upper-middle-class youth? Who knows.