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A Skills Mismatch in Post-Earthquake Haiti: How International Aid Organizations and Beneficiaries Value Competencies

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By Christa Remington and Nazife Emel Ganapati
July 22, 2016

On Jan. 12, 2010, a 7.0 earthquake shook Haiti, leaving more than 200,000 people dead and 1 million people homeless. Within hours, international aid organizations spanning the globe arrived to assist with needs ranging from search and rescue to medical care and shelter. Organizations of all sizes found themselves woefully understaffed, advertising to fill positions at every level. Following the immediate response period, more than 10,000 aid workers stayed, helping with long-term recovery and developmental needs. Even before the earthquake, Haiti was no stranger to foreign aid. Often referred to as the “Republic of NGOs” (non-governmental organizations), it has one of the highest numbers of per capita aid organizations in the world.

What skills do international aid organizations value among employees involved in recovery in such post-disaster contexts as Haiti? Do they match the recovery worker skills that the beneficiaries of these organizations value? If not, which ones do beneficiaries value in post-disaster contexts? Since the earthquake, we have conducted research in Haiti to find answers.

We conducted five focus groups with beneficiaries in the displaced persons’ camps, temporary shelter and permanent housing areas. The results reveal that Haitians most value social literacies, the soft skills—such as pragmatic trust and urgent listening—that help people communicate in a respectful manner and facilitate collaboration. The beneficiaries particularly view the ability to cultivate trust as a prerequisite to acquiring their cooperation. They add that aid workers can gain their trust by spending more time in the communities, seeing their needs firsthand and actively seeking the input of those impacted by the programs.

Cultural literacies, including a command of the language and explicit cultural knowledge, are the second set of skills Haitians value. Due to widespread distrust of Haitian translators, beneficiaries highly value the ability of aid workers to communicate in Haitian Creole, considering it as a mark of respect. Beyond language, the beneficiaries regard a thorough knowledge of the Haitian culture as vital to understanding social structures, humor, power relations and body language.

The third set of skills valued are technical: the knowledge and abilities needed to accomplish such specific duties as a doctor’s medical knowledge. And while Haitians acknowledge the importance of technical expertise, they believe it is useless if aid workers fail to employ their skills properly in a specific cultural context, cultivate their trust or gain their cooperation.

To understand the other side of the story—the skills aid organizations value—we identified and reviewed more than 100 job announcements for recovery workers using NVivo, a qualitative data analysis software. Our analysis showed that international aid organizations place undue emphasis on technical job skills. More often than not, they place less emphasis on or turn a blind eye to social and cultural competencies—skills that enable individuals to work effectively in cross-cultural situations—by listing them as “preferred skills” or excluding them completely.

Our interviews with representatives of international aid agencies further revealed a lack of attention paid to social and cultural competencies in training programs both before deployment and during service in the field. Some organizational policies like curfews and restricted zones, put in place to keep aid workers safe, isolate them from or limit their interactions with Haitians. These policies prevent the aid workers from being fully immersed in the Haitian culture, hindering their acquisition of social and cultural competencies necessary to undertake their jobs.

There is a profound disconnect between the skills valued by the Haitian beneficiaries and those recognized as important by international aid organizations. It is time for aid organizations to rethink their organizational policies and place more emphasis on non-technical skills, especially social and cultural literacies. These literacies are not superfluous; they are necessary for the efficacy of post-disaster recovery programs, and for cultivating trust and cooperation between aid workers and the beneficiaries they are to help.

Authors: Christa L. Remington is a Ph.D. candidate in public affairs at Florida International University. Her research interests include emotional labor and cultural competence in the post-disaster context. Remington has conducted fieldwork at international NGO headquarters, IDP camps and prisons in Haiti where she primarily studied the NGO response to the 2010 Haitian earthquake. She can be reached at [email protected]

Nazife Emel Ganapati is associate professor in Public Administration at Florida International University. Her research interests relate to disaster management, citizen participation and international development administration. Ganapati served as principal investigator of several NSF-funded research projects. She can be reached at [email protected].

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