Yesterday, Oxfam America and Foreign Policy Magazine gathered diplomats, aid practitioners, journalists, and advocates to talk about Haiti.  What opportunities does the current situation in Haiti provide for the US and the development community at large to finally get development right?

What exactly does it mean to get development right?  According to Paul O’Brien, Vice President of Policy and Advocacy at Oxfam America—a man with five years of experience as advisor Afghan government—doing development right means grounding our discussion in the reality and struggles of the people we aim to help.  Superpower we may be, we cannot develop other people’s countries for them.  The US certainly has a role to play, but people need to be able to hold their own governments accountable and those governments need to be able to responsibly manage the challenge of long-term social and economic development.  Ownership, says O’Brien, is the key to effective and sustainable development.

The current challenge and the topic of yesterday’s discussion is: how do we translate “ownership: into meaningful policy change and practice?

You can watch the complete panel discussion with Haitian Ambassador Raymond Joseph, Root’s editor Joel Dreyfuss, Trinity College’s Robert Maguire, and Management Sciences for Health’s Paul Axila here.

A few of my own notes/thoughts:

The panel emphasized re-empowering the Haitian government to serve its own people.  According to Dr. Maguire, the allocation of foreign aid has been systematically bypassing the Haitian government since the 1980s.  This trend was not with out reason; for many years the Haitian government was not an ally of the Haitian people.  But now, hey says, Haiti has a government that “talks the talk, but has no resources to walk the walk.”  Foreign aid donors need to engage the state as a leading partner, along with NGOs and contractors, to bring decision-making power back to Haiti—not Washington, DC.  Auxala added the analogy of a train: the Haitian government needs to be the one to lay the tracks; it doesn’t matter who the wheels are, as long as their all running in the same direction (which I assumed was a reference to the current state of poorly coordinate aid distribution).

Ambassador Joseph alluded to a burgeoning new era in Haitian history—one of political stability and cooperation.  In part, he has to say that, he’s the Ambassador, but he also pointed to critical opportunities the earthquake has opened up for Haiti to decentralize its economy and reinvest in the infrastructure of towns outside of Port of Prince.  He also spoke of possibilities of renovating agricultural systems and exporting solar power.

To truly appreciate the magnitude of Haiti’s struggle I feel that it’s important to know its history. How many of you knew that Haiti wasn’t always the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere?  That Haiti was, in fact, the wealthiest of all the French colonies, the first independent nation in Latin America, the first black-led republic in the world, AND the one to lend critical military and financial support to Simon Bolivar and the liberation of the rest of Latin America?  Quite a different image from the one of poverty-stricken desperation marketed recently, no?

As luck would have it, Haiti’s sustainable recovery will depend on more than just securing effective foreign aid.  In order to understand those complexities, it’s important to understand Haiti’s history.

Americans are known for their generosity, not for their attention span.  Do you have the attentions span to sustain debate and interest, to mobilize the support of your peers and national legislators, around effective and sustainable development?  If you do, I’d love to talk.

Ready to start taking action?

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