Vijaya Ramachandran Headshot

Is Haiti Doomed to Be the Republic of NGOs?

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Co-written by Julie Walz

Two years ago, a 7.0 magnitude earthquake struck Haiti, plunging an already poor and unstable country into complete and utter chaos. In the days and weeks that followed, international responses and donations were overwhelming. Yet almost all of the assistance provided to Haiti has bypassed its government, leaving it even less capable than before. Humanitarian agencies, NGOs, private contractors, and other non-state service providers have received 99 percent of relief aid -- less than 1 percent of aid in the immediate aftermath of the quake went to public institutions or to the government. And only 23 percent of the longer-term recovery funding was channeled through the Haitian government. Figure 1 shows the breakdown of relief aid from all donors to Haiti, by recipient.

Haiti is often called the "Republic of NGOs." Because of the limited capacity of the Haitian government and weak national institutions, NGOs have risen to play a very prominent role, one equivalent to a quasi-privatization of the state. One study found that even before the January 2010 earthquake, NGOs provided 70 percent of health care, and private schools (mostly NGO-run) accounted for 85 percent of national education. Charities and NGOs have become the main thoroughfare for foreign assistance as a result of the immense volatility in Haitian politics and U.S. reluctance to give aid directly to the Haitian government. NGOs are seen as more stable and can be held more accountable to international donors than the government. International nonprofit organizations also bring much-needed expertise and a stable stream of funding to the country.

Yet this situation is a Catch-22. The dominance of international NGOs has created a parallel state more powerful than the government itself. NGOs in Haiti have built an alternative infrastructure for the provision of social services, creating little incentive for the government to build its capacity to deliver services. A "brain drain" from the public sector to the private, nonprofit sector is also observable, pulling talent away from government offices and resulting in the Haitian concept of the "klas ONG" (NGO class). Even quantifying the number of NGOs operating in Haiti is a hurdle: the number is estimated to be anywhere from 343 to 20,000.

In a forthcoming paper, we discuss some of the options for improving the relationship between NGOs and the Government of Haiti, with a view to building public institutions and government capacity. We recommend that NGOs working in Haiti be asked to sign the equivalent of the Paris Declaration for aid donors -- one that would require registration, coordination, and cooperation with the government. Mary Kay Gugerty, an expert on voluntary regulation and accountability programs in the NGO community, presents three solutions that African countries have used to manage NGOs. These may be relevant to Haiti:
  1. National guilds that set national mandatory membership requirements for NGO registration. An NGO code of conduct might also be developed on the basis of aspirational goals rather than strict guidelines. Penalties can vary from a fine to a suspension or de-listing for organization found to be in violation of the code.
  2. NGO-led clubs with high standards for membership, similar to certification or accreditation. Membership acts as a signal of quality, often providing member organizations access to donor funding or other services. The code itself may be a mix of cardinal values and specific practices such as providing annual reports or audited financial statements.
  3. Industry codes, which are the most common form of voluntary self-regulation. Similar to guild requirements, these standards usually reflect broad values and goals that are set at an industry level, typically through an industry association or other third-party. Although they would apply to all NGOs, monitoring and enforcement may be weak.

A system for registration of NGOs would be a good start, especially as the government still has limited capacity. Eventually, the government might be able to monitor NGO activities and ensure coordination. The most comprehensive directory of NGO registration so far, with almost 1,000 organizations profiled, is headed by the Office of the UN Special Envoy for Haiti. Its template can be used to make registration a national requirement. The Office of the UN Special Envoy might also facilitate the creation of a more in-depth accreditation and evaluation process, along the model of an NGO-led club.

Meanwhile, the government (and the international donor community, which is committed at least on paper to supporting the government) should focus on core functions, in particular "core governance": security, civil service, core infrastructure, legal and regulatory reforms, and public financial management and corruption. These are areas where NGOs cannot provide services but are vital for any sustained recovery. This focus would ensure that the state does not remain completely dependent on charities. NGOs, meanwhile, could continue to provide valuable services, especially in the social sector.

Haiti's challenges are enormous and there are no easy answers. However, a two-pronged strategy --- registration and monitoring of NGOs and a governmental and donor focus on "core governance" -- may be a good start.