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In Haiti, the aid-industrial complex revives colonial stereotypes

The tyranny of experts and alliances with state-run aid groups should not delegitimize humanitarian assistance

June 10, 2015 2:00AM ET

Every few months, a disaster strikes some of the least fortunate in the world — an earthquake in Nepal, a tsunami in Thailand, a cyclone in Vanuatu or an Ebola epidemic Liberia. Images of the devastation flit across the screens of the affluent world. For humanitarian aid organizations, these moments are big business. In offices and boardrooms far from the losses, the bounty of disaster relief amassed from well-intentioned donors is divvied up.

A June 3 report by ProPublica and National Public Radio examines the gory details of at least one such case. Their investigation exposed how the American Red Cross, which collected billions of dollars in the aftermath of the 2010 earthquake in Haiti, built only six houses out of the 130,000 it claimed to have erected. In addition to its refusal to provide an accounting for the $500 million raised as part of the disaster relief, the Red Cross spent far more on overhead costs than previously disclosed, by hiding the operating cost of its subcontractors.

The American Red Cross’ deceptions and obfuscations in Haiti are neither accidental nor isolated. The success of transnational aid organizations depends on donors believing that they are an apolitical means of assistance, through which humanity comes to the aid of those afflicted by a disaster with no strategic strings or exploitive paradigms attached. In doing so, however, the world has failed to consider how these organizations are enabling the inequalities of power and privilege to replicate themselves, just as they did in a world divided between colonizer and colonized. While these divisions may no longer be explicit, they lie just beneath the aid-industrial complex’s deft rhetoric of local involvement and communal sustainability.

Reviving colonial stereotypes

The details of how the American Red Cross employees mismanaged disaster relief in Haiti point to how colonial stereotypes of native versus occupier are being relocated into the neocolonial aid machinery. As with the colonists of old, many of the aid workers in Haiti did not speak French or Creole. As a result, they either did not attend community meetings or, when they did, had no idea what was being discussed. In effect, there was often no communication between these workers and the communities they went to assist.

Foreign Red Cross workers in Haiti occupied most of the top positions and enjoyed a host of perks. A project-manager position came with relocation expenses, home leave, rest and relaxation breaks, all of which added up to $140,000 a year. When the organization hired locals, they were relegated to lower positions. The highest paid Haitian employee made only $42,000 a year. Hiring Haitians for the lowest spots, however, enabled the Red Cross to claim that 90 percent of its workforce was Haitian.

The disdain toward locals was not limited to discriminatory remuneration. It also came in handy when explaining failures, which were inevitably caused by local ineptitude. In the words of one Red Cross employee, the organization’s failure was due in part to “delays in Haitian customs.” Other reasons include the cumbersome Haitian land title system, which caused disputes among the natives.

Humanitarian aid organizations have the capacity to do great work, but they must break through endemic corruption and demeaning stereotypes that see communities as unable to make decisions about their own welfare.

One source of prejudice could be the increasingly cozy relationships between humanitarian aid organizations such as the Red Cross and governmental agencies such as the USAID. In Haiti the Red Cross collaborated with USAID (as it does in other regions) on projects worth at least $30 million. For one project, the Red Cross was to build houses after USAID built a road. When USAID reneged, the Red Cross followed suit, so no road and no houses.

The Red Cross’ alliance with USAID, which considers development a means of promoting U.S. foreign policy objectives, is an invisible one. Many or even most of those who give to the Red Cross do not believe that they are promoting the agenda of any particular state, let alone the United States, whose billions in USAID spending can be and is accompanied by military occupations. This may not have been the case in Haiti, but it is certainly so in Iraq and Afghanistan. Unsurprisingly, as with the Red Cross in Haiti, USAID in Afghanistan blames Afghan customs for its many failed projects and reporting discrepancies. If local land disputes kept the Red Cross from building houses in Haiti, local tribal customs kept the USAID from empowering Afghan women. Waste and condescension are the hallmarks of both efforts.

In past decades, the world’s rich have come to trust transnational NGOs such as the Red Cross to deliver aid to the world’s have-nots in the aftermath of disasters. And there are examples of aid agencies doing good work. However, those who give do not want their dollars to end up paying for the moving expenses of a German or American worker sent to Port-au-Prince. To ensure continued giving, the Red Cross has concealed these expenditures and preserved the myth that giving is a mechanism of ameliorating the vast inequalities inherited from the colonial era and perpetuated in the global era. In reality, however, a significant percentage of aid money is spent on sustaining an aid-industrial complex that enriches and provides employment (and savior status) to the world’s haves.

Humanitarian aid organizations have the capacity to do great work, but they must break through endemic corruption and demeaning stereotypes that see communities as unable to make decisions about their own welfare, allowing foreign aid workers to make choices for them about which projects should be funded. The overreliance on ill-informed development experts and alliances with state-run aid organizations with political agendas should not be allowed to delegitimize the apolitical character of humanitarian assistance.

Disaster is not a spectacle. The American Red Cross’ abuses in Haiti reveal that for the aid industry, it has become just that. On the one hand stand donors, eager to flatter themselves for having done their part with donated money while Western aid workers tell the natives how and what to rebuild. The losers in the equation are the disaster-struck — the homeless of Haiti, the diseased of Liberia — victimized first by disaster and then by humanity.

Rafia Zakaria is an attorney, a political philosopher and the author of “The Upstairs Wife: An Intimate History of Pakistan.”

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera America's editorial policy.

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