The Invisible Walls of Aid

By Scott Freeman, Visiting Scholar

In order to prepare students for the aid industry, graduate and undergraduate institutions have designed degrees and concentrations in international development. Focusing on thinking critically about policy and procedure, students are ostensibly prepared so that previous errors will not be repeated again. But once one is ‘in’ the industry, is knowledge about ‘good policy’ enough?

Conducting research on international development aid most often involves examining a project or initiative, looking at both the implementer and recipient perspective, and using data to critically analyze the situation. Without going into a large literature review, suffice it to say this trail has been walked more than once.

A number of authors (Fechter and Hindman 2011, Lewis 2011), have followed aid workers themselves in an attempt to understand their realities, rather than basing criticism only on the bookends of written proposals and completed projects.

Looking at the ways that movements and interactions might be regulated within certain NGOs allows researchers examining policy to move from considering just documents and paper, to thinking about the individuals that make up the development industry. Their movements and interactions are actually key parts of aid, and for some NGO workers, may be a major lens through which ‘the way things work’ is fostered.

While hanging out on a beach in the southwest of Haiti, I had drinks with a number of NGO workers, one of whom enlightened me to the Port au Prince “NGO world” of mobility and immobility. He worked for an agency that was particularly lenient: he had a driver, but was free to drive himself on evenings and weekends. However, he shared with me that most of his other friends and colleagues outside of his organization did not benefit from such leniency. Rules governed where and with whom they could drive. Their movement was largely relegated to a company car. To get in another car, the license plate had to be taken down, the driver verified- a whole series of checks performed before riding in another car, that often served to derail any impromptu rides. Furthermore, his colleagues’ movements within the city might be limited to particular districts. For example, he said, they may not be able to go have a beer in a roadside bar at night in the Delmas area.

His perspective on the situation was eye opening. While beer at a roadside watering hole proves to be out of the question for some workers, getting one of his lower income Haitian friends from Delmas toc come up to an expat drinking hole in Petionville seemed equally as prohibitive. The high prices of drinks, and the difficulty/safety of transport on motorcycle at late hours of the night meant that more often than not, his plans were thwarted.

The NGO worker saw these restrictions as creating a class division that inhibited interactions. He was friends with Haitians of different social classes, but with these security rules in place, facilitating the meeting of one NGO worker with another Haitian friend for a drink became nearly impossible.

What happens when social interactions are restricted in space and time? Are security policies contributing to a growing gap between expat aid workers and the broad diversity of Haitian citizens?

The intersecting immobilities in Port au Prince have implications for how Haiti is experienced and described. These effects ripple through the design of projects and initiatives and, in narratives of Haiti’s  insecurity and limited ‘capacity’, buttress the neo-colonial justification for foreign aid itself.