“Haiti doesn’t have a voice. It doesn’t have an identity. We, Haitians, need to take back the role of storytellers and tell our own history.” This was one of the reasons for filmmaker Raoul Peck to follow the reconstruction efforts in his home country after the earthquake in January 2010. Peck emphasizes that he was not planning on filming crying women and dead bodies in the streets. His goal was to challenge the country’s role of victim and turn the cameras on those who normally do the storytelling and the observing.
The result is the documentary “Fatal Assistance” (Assistance Mortelle), a painful 100-minute exposé on how international development and humanitarian aid have gone bad. It is a story about well-intentioned donors and aid organizations that have lost themselves in rituals of red tape, having become the inefficient players of a rudderless multinational aid-industry. Last week the documentary had its American premiere during the Human Rights Watch Film Festival in cooperation with the Margaret Mead Festival and the Tribeca Film Festival. Peck himself was available for questions after the screening and I had access to an earlier interview that Peck had given to a crew from Haiti Reporters before the film’s first screening in Haiti.
Peck has documented the efforts of the Interim Haiti Recovery Commission (IHRC) that was created shortly after the earthquake. With the Haitian prime minister Jean Max Bellerive and Bill Clinton as its co-presidents, the IHRC was tasked to oversee the spending of billions of dollars of international assistance in a way that was in alignment with the concerns of Haitians and the Haitian government. It was not new to see that after more than two years of “reconstruction,” too many Haitians are still living in extremely poor living conditions. Or, to quote a man who has lost his house in the earthquake, “in houses that the donors wouldn’t even let their dog live in.” It was new to see a two-hour indictment of those who try to help. The main critiques are that the international organizations left the Haitians and its government out of equation and that subsequently, too much of the money has been spent in terribly inefficient and non-transparent ways.
Economic rules that have long been proven to work elsewhere have been ignored and turned on their head. One example is the problem of NGOs that keep prices and salaries artificially high because it is in the interest of their organizations and their donors, while it ruins the workings of the local market economy and destroys incentives. Another painful phenomenon is the urge and conviction of many do-gooders that this moment in history will be Haiti’s finest hour to start with a clean slate, and en passant can function as a laboratory for people’s craziest ideas. As Priscilla Phelps, an American adviser on housing and neighborhood reconstruction explains in the film, “We’re dealing with what people can think of in their wildest dreams. We had an offer for the development of plastic houses. Plastic houses? But it is not only houses but people come with all kinds of products and ideas!”
Media have long been reinforcing the frame of Haiti as the ultimate example of a failed country. Raoul Peck is tired of the endless refrain that the country is too corrupt, its government too weak and its citizens too helpless. In his film, Peck points the accusing finger at the international organizations, Clinton’s organization chiefly among them, but he lets the Haitian government easily get away without much critical questioning. Only one of the heroes in the film, the Head of Sanitation in Port-au-Prince, squarely puts blame on both the local government and foreign helpers for the overall lack of progress. It causes the film to lose some of its strength and begs the question if this was the trade-off for Peck after getting such extensive access to filming the former prime minister and President René Préval. Interestingly, after the showing in Port-au-Prince, many Haitians were critical of Peck for giving the former Haitian government carte blanche.
While not during the documentary, in interviews Peck admits that corruption in Haiti certainly is a problem, but he says it cannot be used as an excuse. In the meantime, the atmosphere in the streets of Port-au-Prince and among Haitians and the foreign visitors isn’t changing for the better. At a recent conference on investing in Haiti, the Haitian crowd answered a berating of USAID (United States Agency for International Development) practices with cheers and applause. During a walk in the neighborhood of Delmas in Haiti, you will hear young kids at the market place yell at foreigners, “go back to your own country,” and many a disillusioned aid worker is wondering if they have overstayed their welcome.
With his film, Peck wishes to start a discussion, which should have started years ago. And it is not only about Haiti. Of course, discussions about a better approach to foreign aid have been brewing for at least ten years. Economists Jeffrey Sachs and William Easterly represent the two main camps between a more clinically planned strategy and a local market based approach to foreign assistance. Peck, clearly closer to Easterly, pleads for stronger involvement of the people for whom the assistance is organized in the first place. Peck: “If all these NGOs would have been private companies, they would long have been shut down, and their CEOs would have landed in prison. …We have sixty years of experience of development work. The current approach doesn’t work. It needs to stop.”