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Mangoes and Plastic Crates in Haiti or Why It’s Hard to Get Development Aid Right

June 21, 2010

Joe, age 4, orphaned by the Port-au-Prince earthquake in Jan 2010. Photo credit Olav A. Saltbones/ Norwegian Red Cross.

If you have ever made a donation to Médecins Sans Frontières (Doctors Without Borders), CARE, Oxfam or any other organization that focuses on helping people overseas, you’ve probably wondered what these organizations do with your money. For those who have read William Easterly’s The White Man’s Burden or Dambisa Moyo’s Dead Aid, you’re probably convinced that a substantial amount of your money has ended up in the wrong hands or is doing more harm than good to your intended recipients. On the other hand, if you’ve read Jeff Sachs’ The End of Poverty, then you probably think that your donation is helping to save the world.

Easterly, Moyo, and Sachs are all right. Yes, our aid money is often misspent, misdirected, and ends up fueling corruption. But yes, our aid money has also contributed to some enormous improvements in the standard of living in some of the world’s poorest countries. On the face of it, these perspectives seem contradictory, but they really are not. International development is complex and multi-layered. A recent episode of This American Life on the situation in Haiti underscores some of these complexities, contradictions, and paradoxes. But it does so in typical Ira Glass fashion– by telling you some unforgettable stories.

The episode, entitled “Island Time“, is about the situation in Haiti in the aftermath of the massive earthquake that hit Port-au-Prince back in 2010. (For those interested in international development, it is more than worth the $0.99 download price.)

There were two stories in particular that speak to why, more often than not, development aid does not achieve the intended results. The first one is about mangoes and it comes from the fabulous Planet Money folks. It’s about why it’s so hard to get aid money to do what it’s supposed to do. The second story is  about the concept of “capacity-building”. (This post refers to the mango story, but the capacity-building story is another development parable that is worth noting.)

Dreaming of Plastic Crates in Haiti (Listen here)

The Elusive Canal

This is a story about mangoes.  It turns out that Haiti has the perfect climate for growing mangoes. So a natural way for the country to develop its economy would be for it to export its mangoes to the American market. The first part of the story is about a farmer who has two mango trees, but has the potential to grow 100+ mango trees but can’t because she lacks irrigation– even though her farm is right next to a gushing river. It turns out that she needs a canal which would cost $2000 to build. The problem is that she has no way of getting a hold of the $2000– even though the income from the additional mango trees would easily cover the cost of the investment in one year (each tree produces about $300/year).

There is clearly a need here that the international community could easily fill, but how does the aid community in Haiti find out about someone like her? Who is it that she should get in touch with from the international community to build her canal? How would she even get this person to pay attention to her?

Why is it that with billions of dollars going to Haiti, this farmer cannot get this canal built– even though it would vastly improve her standard of living and increase local employment opportunities (more trees=more pickers)?

Plastic Crates

The second part of the program is the story of local businessman Jean Maurice (aka Mango Man). He is a wholesaler, buying locally and then selling his mangoes to suppliers in the U.S. It turns out that there is great demand for Haitian mangoes and that he could easily sell more of them. If only he could increase his supply…. which he can do quite easily! It turns out that quite a lot of the mangoes are bruised in storage and often end up rotten or bug-infested because people were storing them in random places (e.g., under their beds) until Jean Maurice came around to buy them.

Enter the plastic crates. All he had to do was make sure that the farmers stored the mangoes in the crates. His yield would increase and the farmers would receive more income. A win-win situation for all. So Mango Man bought the plastic crates and distributed them to the farmers. For free.

But something got lost in translation. Instead of using the crates to store mangoes, people ended up using them as tables, chairs, bookcases… They were probably wondering, why would anyone waste a perfectly good crate to store mangoes when you could easily store them under the bed? Who cares if the mangoes are a bit bruised? They taste just as good– why does it matter? From their point of view, it’s hard to conceive of the North American consumer who is only willing to buy a perfect unblemished mango.

Enter the NGO

At this point, Jean Maurice decided he needed some help in implementing his scheme. He was not a fan of NGOs, but he set aside his skepticism and engaged the help of one that he trusted. This NGO had been around for a while and were funded by USAID.

Mango Man’s NGO friend tells him that he needs to create a local depot in the area to distribute crates and provide training. He would need to set up a local site. Further, the depot land must be on neutral territory, so the land would have to be donated.  They find an appropriate site, but it turned out that the land is communally owned by a family of 60 people. Amazingly, they managed to get the consent of this group to use the land for the project anyway.

But now they needed proof that the land was theirs before they could begin building the depot. An official deed was needed to prove title. No one was sure what had happened to it so they would have to track it down. They finally find the deed in the basement of a Haitian ex-pat living in New York. At last, they took all of the paperwork and filed it with the government. It was touch and go for a while, but at that stage, the prognosis was good.

Then the earthquake hit. Their application was destroyed in the rubble.

And in spite of the billions of dollars of aid money coming into the country, the local NGO that was working on the Mango Crates project had their funding cut by USAID.

Aid is hard to do right

Perhaps Mango Man could have approached the whole thing more efficiently, as alluded to in this comment on the story. But this criticism misses the point: it’s hard to get the outcome you want, even when a project seems pretty straightforward.

In the case of the mango crates, each individual step in the project seemed semi-reasonable– if perhaps overly cautious and needlessly bureaucratic. A depot provided a physical space to store the crates and a place to do the training. A neutral plot of land eliminated potential ownership or favouritism issues. A deed provided security for the NGO so that the project couldn’t be closed down on a whim. Yet the end result was a bureaucratic red-tape nightmare.

Now if Jean Maurice and his local NGO friend– who are both Haitian– are having such a hard time getting some mango crates to farmers and getting them to use them appropriately, then can you imagine the challenges of say, trying to halve a country’s maternal mortality rate? Or keeping Africa’s girls in school?

* * *

For more on Haiti’s mango industry, see Jacqueline Charles’ article in The Miami Herald.

On how international development assistance (in the form of food aid) has messed up the incentives for local farmer to grow rice: see NPR’s Planet Money, How Foreign Aid Hurts Haitian farmers.

Here are some interesting posts from other bloggers:

Laura Freschi provides her take on the episode at William Easterly’s Aid Watch site. Be sure to read the comments that follow.

Biodork provides a detailed plot summary in her post.

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4 Comments leave one →
  1. June 22, 2010 2:03 pm

    This story was one big facepalm. It hard to believe so many “little” problems could be so show-stopping. But on the other hand, it puts “little” contributions in perspective – little things (good or bad) can make a huge difference (beneficial or detrimental).

    • June 22, 2010 6:54 pm

      I hear you. The problem is that these types of stories are all too common. When it comes to development aid, the optimist in me is an ongoing battle with the cynic.

  2. Renee Jean permalink
    February 17, 2011 6:24 pm

    This is an interesting story. I followed a mission team around in Haiti for one week in July and saw firsthand that helping in Haiti is very difficult, and for a variety of reasons. The group I am writing about was wanting to build a community of 25 houses for displaced earthquake victims who are the most vulnerable, ie amputees and pregnant nursing mothers. Their struggle just to buy the land for the project was an epic in and of itself. Ultimately, with just five houses begun, they decided to discontinue their project. It turns out the same mayor’s office that had sold them the land was reselling parcels of it right out from under them.

    Here’s a link to the series I wrote … http://www.dailyjournalonline.com/news/local/article_e7f01958-0862-11e0-874c-001cc4c002e0.html

    Today I’m working on writing a story about why they are leaving and went to look for stories about other projects that failed in Haiti, because I know they are actually quite common. Thanks for writing this thought-provoking article, Christine.

    • February 22, 2011 8:38 pm

      Thanks for your comment Renee. I can sympathize with what you must have seen and experienced. Your articles reflect some of the heartbreak that anyone who has ever visited a place like Haiti or Liberia or Afghanistan or the Congo must have felt.

      I’m pulling a quote from your article to use in my international relations lecture on fragile and failed states tomorrow. I think it will give my students a more intimate feel for why these situations are so intractable.

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