Why Does USAID Outsource Development in Haiti?

As someone who works in international development, and has been asked to perform tasks for which I am unqualified, this section of an (excellent!) article on Haiti’s reconstruction piqued my interest and guilt:

By the spring of 2010, it had become clear to many observers that imposing a lack of expertise on a situation that required a tremendous amount of it had become a hallmark of the State Department’s “results” strategy. […]

One of Dalberg’s assignments was to do an assessment of a broad, bow-tie-shaped swath of land near the Corail camp, where thousands of Haitians had moved earlier that spring. Even as refugees were streaming onto the land and establishing squatter camps, the State Department hoped to create new communities in the area as part of an attempt to depopulate Port-au-Prince. […]

After looking at the photos in Dalberg’s report, he said, “it became clear that these people may not even have gotten out of their SUVs.”  […]

Vastine says the entire process could have been avoided if USAID had simply relied on its own surveys of the area, which had been done on a regular basis for the past 50 years. “I kept telling these State Department people to go and look in their frickin’ filing cabinets, but it fell on deaf ears,” he says. “It was truly astonishing to me. The amount of previous study on Haiti is immense. But there was no reflection on the existing knowledge base. Instead, they would go out and hire some company to the tune of half a million dollars to barge in equipment from the United States and go punch some holes in the ground, even though we already knew what was down there. Then they’d hire some Ph.D. to study it for six months and do a PowerPoint presentation. Haiti doesn’t need any more Ph.D.s to study it. What it needs are some professionals who know what they’re doing to go out and do the goddamn work and rebuild it.”

This is what happens when you outsource your aid agencies to consultants.

Instead of developing a team of professionals well-versed with the economy, politics and culture of Haiti, who could have used their contacts to coordinate a fast, appropriate response to the earthquake, USAID relied on a for-profit firm to fulfill its core function.

This is like going to Denny’s, ordering a Grand Slam and being told by the waitress, ‘We don’t know how to make breakfast! I’ll go buy some eggs from McDonald’s across the street.’

I’ve met a number of people at USAID over the years, and it apparently conducts most of its projects this way. Get an idea, hire a consultant, hope for the best. The staff of USAID itself is basically a bunch of accountants, making sure all the Excel sheets are in order and that consultants are meeting their self-defined objectives. Oversight is limited to reading summary reports.

Professions like human rights, international development and humanitarian aid aren’t just playgrounds for bleeding-heart Harvard kids who want to ‘make a difference’ between summers in the Hamptons. They’re technical, professional fields that require long-term knowledge of the languages, economies and cultures of developing countries.

We would all find it incredibly strange if, say, the French Ministry of Foreign Affairs set up a food bank in South Chicago run by a bunch of people who had never been to the US, didn’t speak English and hadn’t asked any residents what they actually eat. So why does America’s official aid agency operate this way?

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