Built back better? For whom?

by Theo Sitther

In the aftermath of the earthquake in January 2010 the international community pledged to “build Haiti back better.” World leaders mobilized to raise support for the rebuilding ef­forts, pledging more than $12 billion. One of the most generous pledges, $1.8 billion, came from the United States. The term “build back better” became the standard motto for con­struction efforts post-earthquake.

Almost three years have passed since the earthquake and so have these feel-good moments. A recent report from the Center for Global Development (CGD) states, “Hai­tians are disillusioned with the overall lack of progress, and with the lack of transparency and accountability.”

Almost $6 billion in aid has been spent in Haiti according to CGD, and many Haitians are left wonder­ing where the money has gone. While much of the rubble has now been removed from the capital city, a coor­dinated strategy and plan for helping to reduce poverty, offer meaningful employment, and a life with dignity remains elusive. How did we get here?

Coordinating relief and develop­ment efforts was especially challeng­ing post-earthquake. Haitian state institutions were weakened and vulnerable after the disaster. Many public buildings including ministry offices were flattened, records were lost, and nearly 16,000 public sector workers were killed.

Although the Interim Haiti Recov­ery Commission was co-chaired by the Haitian prime minister along with UN envoy Bill Clinton, the Haitian government’s capacity to respond was debilitated. Haitians felt that it was Bill Clinton who was running the country, rather than their own government. Furthermore, throughout the decision-making process, Haitian civil society organizations were excluded.

Where and how donor money was spent was decided by a board primar­ily composed of international actors. As a result, large sums of money have been prioritized for projects that will mostly benefit outside interests.

One of the largest development projects is the Caracol Industrial Park on the northern coast of Haiti, which will be managed by a Korean garment manufacturer. Desperate for jobs post-earthquake, Haitians are seen as an ideal source for cheap labor. Along with a lack of transpar­ency and low environmental stan­dards, it was rather effortless to get this factory park established.

Criticism will most definitely abound on the earthquake’s three-year anniversary, with the Haitian government unfortunately bearing the brunt of these criticisms. But perhaps this will be an opportunity for international non-governmental organizations and governments to re-evaluate the method by which they have undertaken development efforts. A reorientation toward lasting devel­opment that focuses on truly serv­ing the Haitian people, rather than outside interests, is necessary.

Rico Jean Pierre/PAPDA

Supporting the local economy

MCC supports relief and development efforts that boost the local economy in Haiti. One such partnership is with Haitian Advocacy Platform for an Alternative Development (PAPDA), an organization that has trained more than 90 youth in the northern cities of Plai­sanse and Limonade to produce goods, food and livestock that can feed their family or be sold for profit.

Just 15 kilometers north of Limon­ade, the Caracol Industrial Park is scheduled to open its doors. Funded by the U.S. Agency for International Development, the Inter-American Development Bank and the Haitian government, this compound of factories has displaced families that were living on the 593 acres of land and producing crops for local consumption. In this remote area, the families are left with little option other than to take jobs in the free trade zones, seeing their income levels dropping as their long days of work are compensated at minimum wage ($4.20 per day) or less.

Free trade agreements and destructive food aid programs with the United States have discouraged local farmers from growing their own products, creating price imbalances that make competition difficult. The programming by PAPDA builds pride in Haitian production, and helps youth reverse the decline of agricultural and livestock production.

In addition to these tangible skills, PAPDA ran a large awareness campaign that called on the Haitian government to pause all free trade agreements for at least five years to undergo a thorough evaluation of their effects. While the government has not yet sus­pended these agreements, the campaign spread knowledge of the negative impacts of free trade agreements and the need for local production and consumption.


  1. Davidr Hiebert

    You illustrate the problem in Haiti in your own newsletter. I think the person commenting on the problem is from Pittsburgh, PA not Haiti. Can we really trust his point of view? Where are the Haitians who can comment on their own situation? Let us hear their voice.

  2. Theo Sitther

    Dear David,

    The MCC Washington Office works on a variety of domestic and international policies. All of our work on international issues are informed by the work that MCC carries out on the ground. Our advocacy and analysis work on Haiti especially is fully vetted by MCC program staff. This article in particular is an analysis on U.S. policies in Haiti, which is what we are tasked with doing here in the Washington.

    Here’s a link to a video that MCC released soon after the 2010 earthquake that features the voice of our partners in Haiti. https://washingtonmemo.org/2010/06/29/haiti-disaster-to-decentralization/

    Though I believe that your intentions were good, I feel that your concern about trust is somewhat misplaced. While I am not myself from Haiti, and though I do have relatives in Pittsburgh, it is out of my experience and expertise in US policy that I write articles and articulate the position of MCC when working on Capitol Hill, speaking in churches, or writing articles. The voices of our partners are incredibly important and are a critical part of the work of MCC, so too is the work of our program staff here in the US, wherever we may have been born.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s