Haiti and the Importance of Area Studies in Development

ProPublica’s report on the Red Cross’ horrific mismanagement of aid dollars in Haiti should not be surprising to anyone who has followed development studies over the past two decades (and really, the antecedents go much further back).

The quotes though don’t get much worse than this:

One issue that has hindered the Red Cross’ work in Haiti is an overreliance on foreigners who could not speak French or Creole, current and former employees say.

And

None of that ever happened. Carline Noailles, who was the project’s manager in Washington, said it was endlessly delayed because the Red Cross “didn’t have the know-how.”

And

“They collected nearly half a billion dollars,” said a congressional staffer who helped oversee Haiti reconstruction. “But they had a problem. And the problem was that they had absolutely no expertise.”

And

“Going to meetings with the community when you don’t speak the language is not productive,” she said. Sometimes, she recalled, expat staffers would skip such meetings altogether.

Ad nauseum.

This is exactly the sort of situation that we can expect when development studies ignores the importance of actual situational knowledge of the land in which an aid organization operates. Yet, academic programs focused on development eschew area studies in favor of economics, since these are “practical” skills that are supposedly “universal.”

Economics is actually the easy part of developing a country. It’s obvious (in most cases) what the problems are: chronic lack of housing, chronic malnourishment, bad sanitation, poor infrastructure, and the list goes on. The hard part is going from objectives to actual actions on the ground where culture and local dynamics will play the decisive role in the success or failure of the mission.

The world needs far more people who are attuned to the local sensitivities of the regions of the world, not more bureaucrats capable of using Excel.

It’s not just the fault of universities though, since the pathways to the top posts in these organizations rarely are based off of actual local knowledge, but rather academic knowledge. Specializing in a region means resigning yourself to never moving up in an international development organization, since it is those universal skills that are so prized.

We need to actively seek out and encourage people who actually know how to operate locally to succeed internationally. That’s the only way to avoid spending half a billion dollars and see it materialize in the form of six houses like in Haiti.

Image by United Nations Development Programme used under Creative Commons.