The aftermath of the assassination of Haitian President Jovenel Moise has highlighted the country’s extreme insecurity. It has no head of state, no functioning legislature until recently, two rival incumbent prime ministers, and a third candidate for power – the Senate chairman; and the chairman of the Haiti Supreme Court died of the coronavirus in June.
In the meantime, the country has not given a single dose of the Covid-19 vaccine and armed gangs are running amok, kidnappings and violence are on the rise. Finally, there is the dire poverty of Haiti – it is the poorest country in the Latin America and Caribbean region – and it is facing acute fuel and food shortages.
Haiti appears to be in a steeper downward spiral than ever before in its history. Haiti’s problems have many complex reasons. One is the state’s inability to build on the successful slave revolt against France 217 years ago and to ensure that the country’s institutions are strong and the needs of its people are met. But the failures of the Haitian state could also be viewed differently.
Ten years later and after billions of dollars in aid poured into Haiti after the earthquake, it has brought no discernible benefit
After realizing its limitations, it could have stepped aside in some crucial areas and enabled other companies to succeed.
A good example of such self-denial is Bangladesh, just under 15,000 kilometers from Haiti. Bangladesh turns 50 this year and is recognized for its achievements. The latest United Nations Human Development Report noted Bangladesh’s progress between 1990 and 2019 on social indicators such as life expectancy at birth, education, maternal mortality and female labor force participation. Bangladesh was ranked 133 out of 189 countries and territories on the Human Development Index. Haiti was almost at the bottom of this list with a rank of 170. But it was the detailed details of the report that made the difference between the two countries clear.
A child born in Bangladesh could expect to live 72.6 years and receive 11.6 years of schooling. The prospects for a Haitian baby are grim, with a life expectancy of 64 years and only 9.7 years of schooling. And there is more data to support the assumption that Bangladesh is a pattern of development.
Last month, Bangladesh officials announced that GDP per capita rose to $ 2,227. This is a remarkable feat considering the per capita income of Pakistan, its larger neighbor, is $ 1,543. Half a century ago, when Bangladesh broke away from Pakistan and declared its independence, the new country was much poorer. It is much richer now, which recently led Pakistani economist Abid Hasan, a former World Bank advisor, to say, “It is within the realm of possibility that we could seek help from Bangladesh in 2030”.
The result is that Bangladesh is hailed as a global paradigm. Arvind Subramanian, a former chief economic advisor to the Indian government, has called it “a miracle on the Meghna” (a river).
How this happened to a country that the then US Secretary of State Henry Kissinger dismissed as a “basket case” when he was born is worth considering, especially in view of the deepening agony of Haiti.
The truth is that it happened despite the state of Bangladesh, and not because of it. Thousands of non-governmental organizations (NGOs) have been working continuously on social development across the country for decades. They offer a range of services including microcredit, basic health care, sanitation, family planning, education, skills development, empowering women, and advocacy for rights. Some NGOs also serve as agents of economic change by providing marketing assistance or employment to artisans and producers such as hand weavers and farm workers.
They have created vast networks of members that span tens of millions in thousands of villages in Bangladesh. The networks fulfill multiple roles, including social mediation, empowerment and information sharing, which have proven effective in rapidly disseminating warnings and coping strategies for the common natural disasters in Bangladesh.
Some of Bangladesh’s NGOs have become international success stories, not least the Grameen Bank, the Bangladesh Rural Advancement Committee and Gonoshasthaya Kendra. Their example has led to similar attempts in some Asian, African, Latin American and European countries, but part of the success of so many NGOs must surely be attributed to the realities of the system in Bangladesh.
The country was so desperately poor and so unable to provide public services to its people that the state went out of its way and allowed NGOs to do what it couldn’t. It is telling that the role of NGOs as influential partners of the government in socio-economic development during the rule of HM Ershad and his Jatiya party from 1982 to 1990, initially through martial law, has expanded NGOs significantly in their businesses.
Haiti was also once described as a “republic of NGOs,” with the UN special envoy for Haiti, former US President Bill Clinton, declaring that the country has one of the highest numbers of NGOs per capita in the world. In contrast to Bangladesh, however, they had no powers and were not organic units, but mainly international NGOs.
After a major earthquake struck Haiti in 2010, concerns arose about regulation and accountability from well-funded NGOs, and calls were made to strengthen the Haitian government instead.
If the situation had been ten years later and after Haiti had flowed billions in aid with no apparent benefit, would the situation have been different if the government in Port au Prince had embarked on the Dhaka route?
The state of Bangladesh went out of its way in providing services. Instead of keeping that monopoly, it allowed NGOs to get the job done. There is no evidence that what worked in Bangladesh would work in Haiti, but it shows that different models of development work for different countries. Perhaps a one-size-fits-all approach is not appropriate for nation states with different preferences, systems, and capacities.
The author lived in Haiti for three years and reported from there for The Guardian, The Economist and other media outlets
Updated: July 21, 2021, 9:03 am