NGOs Fail at Saving a Failed State
Fatal Assistance (Assistance Mortelle) dir. Raoul Peck, Haiti, France, USA, Belgium, 2012, 99 minutes
Haiti, the victim of endless misfortunes – many of them self-inflicted – is treated like a recidivist criminal. Always dependent on outside intervention – an irony for the first country to win independence in Latin America – Haiti tends to be confined, in the hope that its hopeless circumstances can be cauterized. Its people are so inundated with foreign help that they are discouraged from forming their own institutions, even though the international help doesn’t help much.
What keeps the economy going in Haiti is money sent home from emigres, yet countries nearby, especially the US, are actively discouraging emigration. If Haiti seems like a tape ready to replay, it’s no wonder that much of the rest of the worked has moved on to the next crisis, in Syria or Mali or wherever.
Where does this leave Haiti. Still in a deep deep hole, Raoul Peck suggests in his new documentary.
In January 2010, an earthquake brought Haiti to its knees, killing 250,000. Two years later, in Peck’s discouraging look at that country, Haiti was still down, thanks to the botched relief efforts of international organizations who were committed to doing good.
In its title, Fatal Assistance evokes the deadly rage of a rejected lover from a one-night stand – remember Glenn Close? — but non-governmental organizations (NGOs) stayed much longer in the Pearl of the Antilles. While they didn’t kill Haiti, Peck’s doc shows that they left it on a perilous life support, if you can call it that, since most aid has been withdrawn.
Peck’s film, which premiered at the 2013 Berlinale, isn’t the kind of boilerplate tirade that you would expect from the Right against international relief to address natural disasters, refugee problems or collateral damage from wars. The problem isn’t that Haiti didn’t need help, but that the help was awkwardly administered in an approach that went over the heads of the people who needed it most.
Fatal Assistance premiered in Berlin just after two new books appeared on the attenuated pain of post-earthquake Haiti, each by a journalist who didn’t just parachute in with the NGOs. Amy Wilentz reached similar conclusions about foreign aid in Farewell Fred Voodoo: A Letter from Haiti, and AP veteran Jonathan Katz put his judgments in the title of his new study, The Big Truck That Went By: How the World Came to Save Haiti and Left a Disaster Behind. For more history try the recent Haiti, The Aftershocks of History by Laurent Dubois, who teaches at Duke.
These three authors echo Peck’s grim take on the flood of well-meaning philanthropy after the earthquake, an institutional aftershock. Shrewd in its analysis and poetic in a voice-over narration, Fatal Assistance suffers from the problem that Haiti is no longer the crisis of the week. The doc will play in festivals, which tend to show films that exhume long-neglected trouble spots. Yet theatrical release seems unlikely, except in rare cases, so Fatal Assistance’s odd fate is that it may screen at events sponsored by non-governmental charities, perhaps some of the same institutions that it skewers at feature-length.
The veteran Peck (The Man by the Shore, Lumumba-Death of the Prophet) travels along a timeline as interviews and nightmarish archival footage examine the devastation that the earthquake brought to his native Haiti. He then tracks the international help that would soon put it deeper into the hole.
Priscilla Phelps, an American housing adviser, attacks the institutions for whom she worked while acknowledging their good intentions. Like the eloquent voice-over by producer Hebert Peck, she is credible, and damning. (A female voice-over, in the form of a letter evoking the crisis, is less persuasive.)
Haiti hasn’t lacked for leaders, just for good ones. In Fatal Assistance they emerge at election time like an endless number of dark-suited characters exiting a car at the circus. Peck also gives us plenty of footage of dull meetings with Haitian leaders (mostly silent) and top personnel from all over the world, led by (but hardly limited to) Bill Clinton, who chaired the Interim Haiti Recovery Commission (IHRC). Insiders joke that, when the camera-friendly Clinton was around, the relief umbrella organization was called “Haitian Reconstruction: The Movie.” This wasn’t the Dream Team that Haiti needed.
Relief wasn’t just about exposure for politicians. Most of the money spent went to firms and contractors in the donor countries, we’re told.
Yet the talk-aholic Bill Clinton was far from the worst adviser to take up Haiti’s time. Peck shows haunting footage of the return of the ghostly aged “Baby Doc” Jean Duvalier, Haiti’s brutal ex-president-for-life, who flies in with a once-chic wife (bearing battle scars of too much plastic surgery) when there’s a leadership void. Who says former tyrants can’t suffer? Haiti did not immediately imprison the former dictator, but exonerated him of crimes against humanity, proof that there were other problems facing the island than the bureaucratic inertia and ineptitude of the NGOs.
And there were. A vast plain outside Port-au-Prince was covered with houses of concrete and wood, which lacked plumbing but still leaked, without transport or any amenities – hundreds of reminders of the rich friends who decamped for the next disaster.
Peck’s doc is distilled from hundreds of hours shot, attesting to a substantial budget – and the help of NGOs? In cutting so much to reach the doc’s current length, the stories lose continuity and context. Much of what he leaves out are also the many instances of violence, gangs and rampant corruption — the obvious clichés, Haitians like Peck might say, but still ugly truths in that still-desperate country.
Lyrically filmed, given the subject matter, Fatal Assistance is a timely reminder of the inadequacy and incompetence of so many relief efforts worldwide – including unfinished efforts in the US for Katrina and Sandy. It’s also testimony to how quickly the moralists of the major institutions forget.