KICKING THE BALL: WHEN GO’S AND NGO’S PLAY “DISASTER SOCCER,” WHO LOSES WINS.

KICKING THE BALL: WHEN GO’S AND NGO’S PLAY “DISASTER SOCCER,” WHO LOSES WINS.

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April 12, 2011

Aldy Castor, M.D.
President, Haitian Resource Development Foundation (HRDF) Director, Emergency Medical Services, Association of Haitian Physicians Abroad (AMHE) Haiti Medical Relief Mission Le 4 mars 2011  

For about thirty years, I’ve closely observed the pursuit of social development conducted by the Haitian government [GO’s] and by non-governmental organizations [NGO’s], both native and foreign.  On both sides, there have been many combinations and configurations of programs and projects, in a range of subjects – health, ecology, agriculture, food, education, jobs, infrastructure, public works and disaster preparedness.  The relatively few that succeed are sources of pride, especially to local communities.  The rest we tend to forget, but the worst cause continuing embarrassment, shame and damage.  The past year’s attempt by GO’s and NGO’s to recover from the earthquake is an example of few successes and many failures.

I.  GO’s vs. NGO’s 

Even before the earthquake, GO’s and NGO’s together launched hundreds, perhaps thousands of projects every year.  In total, they compete for billions of dollars annually, but ironically they also anticipate that many programs and projects are doomed from birth, never to reach maturity.   There are start-up problems, funding problems, staffing problems, supply problems, problems with oversight and quality control, operations and maintenance – these can be overcome.  But there is also the Haitian syndrome: illiteracy, corruption, poor communications, lack of transparency and accountability – these are not so easily overcome.  There is also the attitude that development can be a profitable business first, a moral imperative second – this is very problematic because it is an incentive to prolong development projects, not complete them.   Thus, despite the dire need for development, GO’s and NGO’s have grown accustomed to expecting and even contributing to waste, delay and disappointment.  So, instead of eliminating poverty, they often perpetuate it, each in their own way. 

In fact, the high rate of failure creates a sort of competition between GO’s and NGO’s.  They are like two opposing soccer teams, playing on the same field but with different reasons for being there – the NGO’s to introduce development and the GO’s to control the pace and the payoff.  What they have in common is strange.  On the one hand, they can spend the whole game just passing, dribbling and kicking the ball around, without scoring, i.e. competing for money, materials and workers to continue doing what they have always done.  On the other hand, they are constantly either blocking or positioning themselves to avoid blame for their lack of engagement – i.e. the expected failure of their projects.

What kind of game is this?  The spectators, including ten million Haitians and a few million Diaspora, are wondering, too. They sit and watch GO’s and NGO’s unproductively running around the field, sidestepping, heading, waving at the crowd, fouling, tackling, accumulating penalties, scoring handballs and seldom a goal.  When they do, it is often by chance or the other team’s egregious mistake and it is always a big surprise.  For the spectators, watching and waiting for a real engagement, this game can become very tiring – the same as waiting for development to occur.

II.   “Disaster Soccer” 

For the past year, GO’s and NGO’s seem to be playing a game of “disaster soccer.”  This is a variation played without referees and rules.  When the earthquake occurred, the GO’s and NGO’s rushed onto the field and started the kicking ball.  Their cheerleaders, i.e. fundraisers and public relations specialists, began yelling for money.  In response, the spectators threw millions onto the field, expecting a high-scoring game.  It didn’t happen.  In the absence of referees, the players became distracted by money on the field.  As a result, for more than a year, both team are still playing the same disengaging game.  The spectators are disappointed.  Under these conditions, they would be leaving the stadium, but approximately a million have nowhere to go.

We are now in the second half of the game.  Suddenly, many spectators have cholera, they are afraid of touching each other, they cannot drink the water and they are suspicious of the food.  But down below, the game continues.  The cheerleaders are still yelling for money, there are no referees to call penalties or clean the field, and the GO’s and NGO’s are still running and kicking unproductively.  Instead of making goals, they are issuing press releases about the goals they will make, not now but in the future. The spectators finally realized that the game was fixed and both teams were expecting to lose. 

Predictably, the competition to avoid blame becomes more important that scoring goals.  The GO’s have a fantastic story: their players are not well-qualified and their cheerleaders are not good fundraisers, but they want more money and constant possession of the ball.  Also, they will tell the NGO’s where to stand on the field.  For their part, the NGO’s are much better at picking up the money.  But they would rather play other NGO’s than GO’s.  At this point, the spectators stop throwing money and ask each other, “What kind of game is this?  Where are the rules and the referees?”

III.  The Power of GO’s, the Service of NGO’s

By and large, NGO’s appear when GO’s are absent or, as in Haiti, not doing their jobs or not a match for the problems at hand.  Said another way, their purpose is to repair or help rebalance social disparities when, in the language of soccer, “the referees have left the field.”  But unlike GO’s – ministries, offices, etc. – that are meant to be permanent features on the governance landscape, NGO’s are intended to be temporary unless forced to continue providing essential services and helping people survive from day to day.

The history of NGO’s in Haiti goes back to 1860 with the Concordat between the Government of Haiti and the Roman Catholic Church.  For a century, NGO involvement in Haiti was limited to social, health care and educational activities.  Then, in the 1950’s and 1960’s, organizations, such as Cooperation for American Relief Everywhere (CARE), Catholic Relief Service (CRS), Haiti Christian Service (SCH), Haitian-Netherlands Cooperation (COHAN) and the North American Protestant Churches became involved in humanitarian affairs.   Finally, the fall of Jean-Claude Duvalier on February 7, 1986, led to a massive return of cadres from different fields of exiled Haitians.  This led the creation of new NGO’s, especially concerned with human rights and professional training. 

Lately, some Haitian leaders have complained that the NGO community has become a kind of “parallel government,” “a state within a state” affecting the lives and livelihoods of Haitians much as a government would, or should.  The fact is, NGO’s are limited to providing services.  They have no interest in running the country, they have no authority to tax the people, they cannot run for office, hire or fire ministers, or change the political regime. 

Despite their complaints, others believe the Haitian government needs NGO’s more than NGO’s need the government.  Among the reasons:

– In recent years, and especially at the local level, many NGO’s have filled gaps for Haitian governance.

– NGO’s consistently infuse large amounts of money, materials, educational and employment opportunities into Haitian communities; these are things the government can’t, won’t or hasn’t provided for many years. 

– The backbone of Haiti’s future civil service is likely to be provided at first by NGO personnel who have been working in the country for several years.

– NGO’s are not powerless against government power plays to control their activities and take their funds.  There may be exceptions, but it could be that since the earthquake, more Haitians may owe their lives to NGO’s than they do to the OG.  These survivors represent a significant constituency for social and political change.

– NGO’s can choose to save “Haitians” rather than “Haiti.”  This means that instead of risking time and resources on development projects that may never bear fruit, they could just as easily use the money to attract, evacuate and resettle tens of thousands of promising Haitian college students and young professionals for NGO work overseas.  Why not?  Emergency response, rescue and recovery after disasters are growth industries, and will be for years to come.  Haitians could learn these trades and be in demand all over the world. 

IV.  Transition to a Balance Point

If it takes the initiative, the next Haitian government can improve relations and chances of success without getting confrontational.  It can: 

– Reinforce the managerial and technical capacity of the Coordination Unit of Non-Governmental Organizations Activities (UCAONG) from Haiti Ministry of Planning Coordination [Unité de Coordination des Activités des Organisations Non Gouvernementales]. A permanent liaison between UCAON representatives and NGO communities would improve understanding and cooperation through regular meetings, alerts, project opportunities, broadcasts, expositions and model communities.

– Propose a set of ethics, relations and operating principles for NGO’s in Haiti, 

– Apply the Paris Declaration and the Accra Agenda for Action.  These are international agreements signed by more than one hundred ministers, heads of agencies and other senior officials who pledged to harmonize, manage and monitor the effectiveness of foreign aid.

– Sponsor annual “NGO Appreciation Days” in every commune, and national “GO/NGO Summits” to review and improve the status of governmental and non-governmental cooperation in Haiti.

– Separate humanitarian shipments from commercial imports by designating special docks to speed incoming equipment and supplies, and streamline and modernize customs administrative procedures for humanitarian shipments.  This will win immediate friends at home and abroad and increase contributions of material goods needed for disaster and health emergencies.  

– Set a goal to reach a GO/NGO balance point by 2015 where both share the planning and providing of essential social, technical and humanitarian services across the country. 

Instead of competing in a game of mutually-assured failure, GO’s and NGO’s, with the help of experienced referees, could reach a balance point where development is shared according to the strengths and mandates of each team.


Aldy Castor, M.D.
President, Haitian Resource Development Foundation (HRDF) Director, Emergency Medical Services, Association of Haitian Physicians Abroad (AMHE) Haiti Medical Relief Mission Le 4 mars 2011  
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The Haitian Resource Development Foundation prioritizes programs that enable and empower various Haitian locales to further personal and collective independence. Engaging in a range of programs over 20 years, the HRDF continues a commitment to providing measurable results for program beneficiaries and program benefactors. Working with multiple international partners from North America and Europe, the HRDF is committed to fundamental improvements in Haitian villages to ensure greater economic vitality in the near future.