PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti -- For the past three years Hugh Locke has been conducting an unusual experiment in Haiti, creating a new development model for a people who have known profound hardships for many years – and who are facing a headwind of more misery this year.
Experts believe Haiti is likely to experience a severe food shortage in 2013 -- beginning as soon as April -- though hunger is less likely to affect those who have participated in Locke’s experiment.
Locke has about 30 years of experience in the developing world, where he used many of the same methods established by the foreign aid community.
Today he is strongly critical of the way most foreign aid is spent in developing countries, including Haiti.
"Imagine for a moment that the current rules of foreign aid were applied to the Hurricane Sandy recovery efforts in New York, New Jersey and Connecticut," Locke wrote in a February blog post.
"In this 'foreign aid scenario,' overseas governments would step forward to provide the $50 billion in aid instead of the U.S. Congress.
Those foreign governments would each decide how their money was to be spent, and the U.S. and state governments would not be consulted.
Each government would bring in its own contractors and its own charitable organizations to implement the recovery efforts, with almost no money going to local groups or contractors. And when the funding stopped, all activities on the ground would stop and the resulting projects would collapse.
With few exceptions, this is how foreign aid is given out by wealthy countries to poor countries the world over. Is it any wonder that it is not having the intended impact?"
Locke -- a Canadian whose background is in forestry -- had an epiphany while embarking on a new tree-planting effort in Haiti.
An enormous part of Haiti’s energy comes from trees that are turned into charcoal. The charcoal is used not just for domestic cooking but also in industry. Who knew that a dry cleaner could be powered by charcoal? Over decades, Haiti’s countryside has been stripped of most of its trees; and with them, vital protection for agricultural topsoil has also been stripped. The nutrient-rich topsoil -- on which crops grow -- has been washed away in floods and storms, crippling the nation’s fragile agricultural production. More recently, it has also been further devastated by weather systems such as Superstorm Sandy.
To stop this topsoil erosion and to help give Haiti’s farmers a chance to produce abundant crops, Locke wanted Haitians to plant trees. But he wasn't sure how he was going to persuade farmers struggling to grow crops to get involved in a forestry project. What would be their incentive? And how would he satisfy his sponsor -- Timberland’s Jeff Swartz – who insisted Locke create a business model that would continue to function after Timberland’s project funding stopped? What Swartz was asking went against most of the established development tenets.
Locke explains that the current practice in foreign aid is to give out money for short-term projects with measurable results, even if a longer program can be shown to build local capacity. "Giving out fish is preferable to teaching people how to fish," he wrote.
"At the same time, there is a rule in foreign aid that those with the money, whether governments or non-profit organizations, can deliver any given service more effectively and efficiently than the local people being helped. The problem is that both of these approaches tend to create a dependency on handouts, and this is particularly true in Haiti."
Helping Haitians help themselves
In a state of conflict and some confusion, Locke came up with a radical idea that would become an ingenious experiment.
Locke calls his model exit strategy aid – and, in Haiti at least, it is a radical departure from classic development paradigms fusing ideas derived from established aid models with hard-nosed business practices.
We recently traveled to Haiti to see Locke’s experiment underway. We left Port-au-Prince early in the morning, but not early enough to avoid the Haitian capital’s gridlock, which seemed a fitting metaphor for a country that doesn’t seem able to move forward, no matter how much traffic there is on its roads.
Leaving the city we soon encountered a surprising smooth asphalt road – which, we remarked, was better than many of the roads in the United States. The road, it turned out, had been constructed by a foreign contractor and was paid for by foreign aid. While it seemed to be a noble effort, it troubles Locke, who said:
“A road that is built by donor money using foreign contractors is never going to be fully a part of the national transportation system. So it will not be maintained. It will always be absolutely dependent on foreign funding on every aspect of its creation and its maintenance forever.”
Locke wanted to break that pattern and encourage Haitians to help themselves.
After two and a half hours driving north, past the fertile soils of the Artibonite Valley, we saw an aid project three years in the making.
In early 2010 Locke and his Haitian partner Timote Georges struck a deal with 2000 small-scale farmers near Gonaives in the north of Haiti: if they formed a cooperative and made a commitment to plant trees, Locke would give them robust seeds for their crops as well as farming tools and training.
Not only would the farmers benefit from improved crops, his theory went, but the cooperative to which they belonged would also be able to sell the trees at a profit – a profit that would be shared. Right at the beginning, Locke decided funding for the project would stop in early 2013, giving the farmers a precise target to hit. The “agro-forestry” project had to be successful by then because at that time Locke would walk away.
It was an audacious plan but is it working? Locke is tracking the progress of the exit strategy aid project on his website.
Locke’s effort in Haiti coincides with a new outside recognition that foreign aid practices in Haiti must change. It is a sentiment echoed by one of the most prominent and knowledgeable figures in Haiti's aid landscape, Paul Farmer, who co-founded Partners In Health, and who has worked in Haiti for three decades.
“If I had been asked 30 years ago, when I first started coming to Haiti, how best to direct international aid to address disease and poverty, my answer would not have been what it is today," Farmer wrote in a recent UN report. "Working in partnership with non-governmental organizations felt right in the early 80s, the third decade of a dictatorship."
"My belief now is that the only way to create durable and transformative change—to break the cycle of disease and poverty affecting the lives of millions of Haitians—is through direct investment in and accompaniment of national and local institutions that confer basic rights.”