‘Fatal Assistance’: NGOs Gone Wild

February 26, 2014 Updated: February 26, 2014

When the 2011 earthquake and tsunami hit Japan, many of us worried that our close Japanese friends and allies were not getting the same high-level attention in Washington and international diplomatic circles as when the 2010 earthquake rocked Haiti. 

Ironically, Japan might be more fortunate in that respect. Leftist filmmaker Raoul Peck argues that international aid efforts in Haiti have largely done more harm than good in “Fatal Assistance,” which opens this Friday in New York.

With mostly good intentions, the world rushed to aid quake-devastated Haiti. The Interim Haiti Reconstruction Commission (IHRC) was instituted with Bill Clinton and Haitian PM Jean-Max Bellerive installed as co-chairs. Right from the start, it acted like any other hydra-headed multinational quasi-governmental body.

Peck irrefutably establishes some of the charges in his wide-ranging indictment. Without question, the various competing NGOs woefully underperformed in the debris removal process. They were so focused on grand rebuilding schemes that they had neither the expertise nor the donor interest in doing the very work necessary to make the rebuilding stage possible. 

It is also pretty hard to defend the flood-prone temporary housing constructed (at considerable cost) in the temporary camps that became permanent new slums. Also, Peck gives rather short shrift to the effect of the United Nations’ pointless arms embargo, which left Bellerive unable to arm his new police recruits.

However, Peck does not connect the international conspiracy dots nearly as well as he thinks he does. Often, he shows various IHRC proceedings as if they were “ah-hah” moments, but only he can see the smoking gun. 

In fact, he does his best to ignore the widespread corruption that made the NGO sector legitimately leery of the Haitian government. It might be disappointing that Peck lets Haitian politicians off the hook so easy, but it is understandable, considering he happened to be one himself, having served as Minister of Culture under PM Rosny Smarth’s short-lived administration.

As much as Peck wants to focus on the international relief “industry,” questions regarding domestic corruption are highly pertinent. Recently, the Filipino expat community largely shunned government agencies in favor of organizations like the International Red Cross precisely because of similar concerns. Still, it is hard to have much confidence in the IHRC, the OAS, or any of the rest of the do-gooding alphabet soup based on the results Peck documents.

In fact, if anyone emerges as a genuine bad guy in the film, it is Bill Clinton, whom Peck explicitly accuses of using the tragedy as a disgusting ego-stroke. According to Peck and frustrated aid workers, the Hot Springs native is far more concerned with preening at ribbon-cutting ceremonies than actually resolving the IHRC’s internal divisions or doing any sort of work in general.

Peck will convince just about every viewer of his general thesis: International aid is often misallocated and counterproductive. However, his assorted subpoints do not always convince. 

Frankly, “Fatal” just as easily supports the sort of public choice theory analysis developed by the late Nobel Laureate James Buchanan, who argued that government (and presumably extra-governmental NGO) bureaucrats are just as influenced by self-interest as anyone operating in the private sector. 

“Fatal Assistance” will engender pity for Haiti and contempt for Clinton, but Landon Van Soest’s “Good Fortune” remains a more thoughtful exploration of unintended consequences of first- to third-world aid programs. 

Sometimes quite revealing, but rather scattershot in its insight, “Fatal Assistance” is narrowly recommended for those interested in the politics of disaster relief when it opens this Friday, Feb. 28, at the Elinor Bunin Munroe Film Center.

Joe Bendel writes about independent film and lives in New York. To read his most recent articles, please visit www.jbspins.blogspot.com


‘Fatal Assistance’
Director: Raoul Peck
Run Time: 1 hour, 39 minutes
Release Date: Feb. 28
Not rated 

3 stars out of 5