Jovenel Moïse is the president of Haiti.
As many have heard by now, allegations have emerged about staff members of the British charity Oxfam sexually exploiting vulnerable women — and possibly girls — in the communities they were in Haiti to support in the aftermath of the 2010 earthquake. Reports have surfaced of Oxfam staff in 2011 arranging ‘sex parties’ and hiring prostitutes, while either coercing or bullying low-wage local staff, including drivers, into complicity. We have also learned that the regional director involved had apparently engaged in similar conduct in Chad a few years earlier and, instead of being fired, was sent to manage activities in another country — ours.
When Oxfam learned what had occurred here, it did not inform the government or the Haitian police. It did not inform the donors who finance Oxfam and it paid the salaries of those sexual predators with taxpayer money from foreign donors. Even after becoming aware of this director’s actions a second time, Oxfam still did not fire him — he was allowed to resign and thus preserve his career prospects. Handling the matter this way allowed him to move on to another organization, and it put others at risk.
Oxfam disputes the term ‘cover-up’, but semantics don’t concern us. Here in Haiti, we understand exactly what happened, how it was handled, and why.
We understand that an agency’s staff was caught treating Haiti as its personal illicit playground, committing sexual crimes, and that those responsible were swiftly removed from the country without the Haitian police or social protection services — whose duty and absolute right it is to intervene in such situations — even being alerted. The abuse took place on Haitian soil, involved Haitian citizens, and it was Haitian law that was broken. It may surprise some to learn that, in such a case, Haitian authorities are in charge — even when the perpetrator is white and privileged, and the victim is black and disadvantaged.
We understand, and are familiar with, this scenario because the problem is bigger than Oxfam, and is much broader even than sexual abuse by aid workers. So let’s take this “Oxfam moment,” this ugly moment of reckoning, to reflect on the bigger picture.
The general paradigm of aid and power in Haiti, as elsewhere in the developing world, is not a balanced one. Our government is often sidestepped by aid agencies that refuse oversight as they pursue their own development and humanitarian agendas in our country. The level and direction of aid, and its implementation, is controlled by donor forces with little or no input from Haiti’s government or other local stakeholders.
Under this current setup, billions of dollars in foreign aid are being wasted on development projects — both here and around the world — that are overpriced and inefficiently managed.
Something clearly needs to change. Cutting aid certainly is not the answer, and very few people — save for a few ideological outliers — believe it would be an effective or responsible solution. For many decades, donor governments have been guided by a remarkable empathy for those suffering beyond their borders and, more recently, have also understood aid as a means to global security and stability. Haiti needs support from the international community while working toward economic stability and ultimately the type of national prosperity that will enable us to be self-sufficient. And we remain truly grateful to the taxpayers and decision-makers who continue making such support possible, and to the many good-hearted and dedicated aid workers.
Our government, however, must now move into the driver’s seat. If foreign tax funds are to be effectively spent in Haiti, multilateral organizations, charities, and nongovernmental organizations must shift from singular control over planning and execution to a structure in which these projects are both aligned with the government’s priorities and implemented with government oversight. Enhanced, country-led ownership of aid would turn short-term or one-off results into long-term, sustainable ones, while reducing duplication of efforts across various agencies. Furthermore, nothing would increase accountability among Haiti’s own institutions more than working hand in glove with donors in a way that provides opportunities to strengthen government management systems and that makes our institutions distinctly answerable to donors, even at the risk of losing significant resources.
For decades, despite copious foreign aid, Haiti has struggled in a cycle of poverty and underdevelopment. But this can change — this aid can go from money spent to money well spent. We’ve already proven that we can cut costs and get the job done. Last year, the government launched several infrastructure projects, including one that equipped local public-works departments so they could build roads. And the projects were completed for a fraction of the bloated prices at which they were previously being constructed by outside groups.
We know exactly what we need in order for our country to develop, to become more self-reliant, to move away from aid dependence. For instance, Haiti does not have a national electricity grid. If we cannot provide electricity 24 hours a day across the country, our economy will never grow, and we will never progress. That’s one key area where we need foreign funds — from both donors and investors. Without the grid, all aid will be temporary and all gains will be fleeting.
We know where we need to go, and we know how to get there.
Haiti needs development that is real and lasting. And, as our country becomes meaningfully developed and our economy becomes strengthened, more of our communities will be lifted from poverty — which means fewer individuals at risk, such as the women who were preyed upon by the Oxfam staff. While we pursue accountability for what occurred in 2011, we must simultaneously pursue long-term, clear-eyed solutions to the root causes. It’s not enough to punish one or two individuals, or to shame an organization. We have an entire cycle to break in order for the vulnerable to become the empowered.