06/16/2010 03:43 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

Haiti Offers Opportunity to Begin New Era for U.S. Foreign Assistance

In the wake of Haiti's January 12 earthquake, the community of U.S.-based international nongovernmental organizations (NGO's) has focused efforts on rebuilding the country. While the commitment to the long haul of rebuilding has been impressive and progress has been made, there is always room for improvement, especially in how NGO's coordinate to handle such a massive effort.

At the InterAction 2010 Forum, Dr. Rajiv Shah, Administrator for the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), highlighted some of the progress made on NGO and development work in Haiti since the earthquake. "Data shows more people getting clean water now than before the earthquake," said Dr. Shah. "There is less diarrhea and many people are healthier."

Dr. Shah's announcement of the creation of USAID's new Bureau of Policy, Planning and Learning, which he previewed at the Forum, will only help in regards to Haiti and other disaster zones. This department has been tasked with evaluating what natural disasters or other humanitarian crises most urgently need the agency's resources.

Still, NGO's are under huge amounts of pressure in Haiti and their job is likely to get harder in the coming months. Also speaking at the annual InterAction conference, Jude Banatte, Head of Program for Catholic Relief Services at their Les Cayes office in Haiti, mentioned that since the earthquake, the rural regions of Haiti have experienced a huge influx of people fleeing Port-Au-Prince. These people will need assistance and training to survive in their new environment.

Cheryl Mills, Chief of Staff to U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, said the NGO community, the Haitian government and Haitian people still need greater coordination on the ground in the country. "The Haitian government must lead and NGO's must figure out how to be effective partners in leading Haiti to sustainability," said Mills in a keynote address during the Forum. "NGO's must allow themselves to be coordinated so that capacity-building activities lead to a real transfer of skills."

Mills' points also speak to the most important aspect of reconstruction in Haiti: local outreach. All stakeholders agree that for lasting change and improvements in Haiti, local communities and the country's government need to be the most important voices.

In my conversation with World Bank President Robert Zoellick during the InterAction Forum, he stressed this point.

"We've talked with Haitians and other international organizations and governments," said Zoellick. "Based on experiences in Aceh and Afghanistan, the only way that Haiti or another country's success will be embedded, is that the government itself has to be in the driver's seat."

As the Obama administration prepares its plan to illustrate how the U.S. will strive to do its part in meeting the UN's Millennium Development Goals by 2015, this is a lesson that can be applied all over the developing world. Zoellick noted that NGO's and government agencies, like USAID, have to realize that the world is different than it was 20 years ago. They need to engage with their clients in developing nations and enact policies that make sense for their situation.

"In some ways, it will be a more difficult time for some of the institutions," said Zoellick. "But it can also be a more exciting time because you can bring in more players and more views."

The end goal should be a new era for foreign assistance; one that does not rely on Cold War-era rationales. This is an idea that Dr. Shah, President Obama, Secretary Clinton, and Defense Secretary Robert Gates have already gotten behind. President Obama has called development a "cornerstone of our national security strategy" and Secretary Clinton has called it a "strategic, economic and moral imperative."

Still, though, as Dr. Shah noted last week, the window to enact lasting change is closing. These development policies face "strong headwinds" on Capitol Hill and the community may only have 12 to 18 months to put policies in place to truly change the culture of foreign assistance.

Working towards sustainable change in Haiti is the best way for the NGO community to prove that money and energy funneled towards development would be well-spent. As Mills noted, right now, the stakes are as high as they've ever been and the NGO community "must get it right."

"This time is different," Mills said. "There is a greater investment and there must be greater impact in Haiti."

A true success story in Haiti could have ripples far past the Caribbean and could herald a new and more productive era for the worldwide NGO community.