No Angels, No Devils: A view on ‘localization’ from Cité Soleil

4/2020 | Louino Robillard and Sabina Carlson Robillard

A baz, a space where young men hang out, in Cite Soleil. Credit: Louino Robillard

If you head down to the small makeshift bar next called Marco’s in Cite Soleil, a marginalized neighborhood on the outskirts of the Haitian capital of Port au Prince, you may find young men (and sometimes women) sitting on the curb talking about NGOs over a beer. There will be endless stories of the incompetence of international NGOs – how they send out absurd needs assessment surveys, how they don’t know (or don’t care) that they are reinforcing the power of local gangs, how they build houses that are too small and drive cars that are too big. They may express anger at how internationals collaborated with the UN soldiers (who residents of Cite Soleil dislike even more than the local police) and discuss rumors about them functioning as spies for the American government. There may be laughter at the foreign missionaries and volunteers who arrive with useless projects and goods, and grim satisfaction at how those resources were diverted to meet actual local needs once the foreigners went home with their photos and good feelings.

But there would not likely be much praise for Haitian organizations, either. There is the impossible exercise of counting the number of ‘pocket NGOs’, fake schools, and orphanages who exist solely to siphon resources from international groups. A mix of resentment and pity for the elite Haitians who are more comfortable speaking French than Haitian Creole and navigating Boston, Massachusetts than Boston, Cite Soleil. Amused questioning over whether the motivation for that pastor to do those high-profile charitable projects was his love of Christ or his thinly concealed political ambitions. And, if people are feeling brave, a hushed debate over whether the charitable foundations the local gangs have established are good for Cite Soleil, or whether they are simply a money laundering front for hidden political and criminal interests.

This graffiti is of a defunct water tower that is one of the unofficial symbols of Cite Soleil. Credit: FestiGraffiti

If you were to bring up the localization agenda to the young men at Marco’s, they would likely be skeptical. It would be taken more or less as a given that internationals can’t be trusted. But it is also not a given that a person or a group can be trusted just because they are ‘local’. Aid, politics, and violence have long been intertwined in Haiti, and even more so in marginalized areas like Cite Soleil. If you took all of the money given to INGOs and gave it to Haitian NGOs, would the outcomes be better? That might get a shrug – some things would probably be better. Perhaps less waste, fewer irrelevant projects, fewer entitled foreigners who thought they were sent by God. More dignity, more dialogue, and more access. But there would be new problems as well. Perhaps more classism and colorism against the people in the slums. More competition between local organizations. More opportunities for the political and economic elite to capture those resources for their aims and agendas.

Of course, even these hypothetical analyses are based on impossibly large generalizations. There are non-Haitian NGOs who people in Cite Soleil would trust more in an emergency than the local authorities and most local organizations. There are Haitian NGOs who are more principled and independent than UN agencies. There are international groups who have been in certain communities longer than the modern form of Haitian government. And there are Haitian organizations whose technical and operational skills would put USAID contractors to shame.

From a volunteer day for the Konbit Bibliyotek Site Soley project, an initiative that is driven by and supported primarily by the people of Cite Soleil. Credit: Louino Robillard

If you weighed the potential problems of more resources in the hands of local organizations against the existing problems of international organizations, the men at Marco’s would probably prefer the former. The experience of the earthquake response and the daily assaults on their dignity, not to mention their experience being arrested and beaten by UN soldiers, would likely tip them in favor of change. Better the devil you know than the rotating group of devils you don’t. If you were to talk to young women in the neighborhood, they might be less enthusiastic about more resources being managed by local groups, as the vast majority of organizations in Cite Soleil are run by men, few with stellar reputations for advancing gender equity. On the other hand, many UN agencies and INGOs have a serious record of sexual exploitation and abuse that has, to put it mildly, not earned them the trust of Cite Soleil’s women. There are still other people in Cite Soleil that actually wouldn’t want local actors to become a greater part of an international aid system they have learned to distrust; they prefer locally driven alternatives, such as the Konbit Bibliyotek Site Soley initiative.

This discussion may become moot eventually. Aid is already local, and will become more local in the future, regardless of the declarations and commitments in Istanbul, Geneva, or New York. Climate change will increase the pace and severity of disasters until everyone’s focus will turn to constantly putting out fires in their own backyards, with fewer people able to travel to fight a blaze somewhere else. The experience of global lockdown in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic has given us a preview of a world where borders are shut down and the only aid that will be available is not only the national, but the hyper-local. In short: both international and local aid systems are flawed and subject to issues of power and privilege. It is both right and inevitable that local actors are going to play a bigger role in future.

The power dynamics, conflicts, and fault lines that come with that shift will be different in every crisis-affected area. It is not good enough to cut a check to a ‘local’ group without understanding those dynamics – you may end up doing more harm than good. It is also not good enough to throw up your hands and say: “it’s complicated” and carry on with business as usual. External organizations need to invest in deep context analysis and building relationships in crisis-affected countries to understand the best role they can play in supporting local responses without reinforcing problematic power imbalances. It will be different everywhere and there are no shortcuts.

Good luck everyone.

About this article

This blog was written as part of the “From where I stand: Unpacking ‘local’ in aid” series. Each week, CDA will create a space to help bring  these critical and fresh, though often neglected, voices – from local practitioners to those working alongside them (including those who work on the policy and programming agenda) – to the forefront. 

Our hope is to expand our collective thinking and understanding about what “localization” actually looks like in practice, no matter how messy it may be. In doing so perhaps we can begin to answer the question: What if the evidence-base for local leadership, aid policy, and INGO practice was instead based on the diverse experiences and ideas of those leading humanitarian, aid, and peacebuilding efforts in their contexts?

For more blogs in this series check-out:

And many more to come soon! If you are interested in contributing to the series please contact Becca Fogel at [email protected]. We would love to hear from you and include your perspective.  



Robillard, Sabina. Do No Harm Teaching Case Study: Cité Soleil. Reference for Workshop Facilitators. Cambridge, MA: CDA Collaborative Learning Projects, 2015.

About the author

Louino ‘Robi’ Robillard is an expert in community-driven social change across Haiti. He is the co-founder of the Konbit Soley Leve movement, which brings together the different blocks of Cite Soleil (Haiti’s largest ghetto) for positive social change. Robi has led many initiatives to document and support community-driven change efforts throughout Haiti, especially in the areas of peace-building and environmental empowerment, and has represented Haiti at a number of international conferences and exchanges in the areas of community conflict reduction, urban resilience, and youth empowerment. He co-founded the Cite Soleil Peace Prize and Pak Nan Ginen, a model reforestation initiative in northern Haiti. Robi serves as an adviser to many NGOs, social enterprises, and socially responsible businesses in terms of community engagement, and serves on the Board of Haiti Communitere, Konbit Mizik, and SAKALA. He has a Master’s in Community Change and Peacebuilding.

Sabina Carlson Robillard passed away on November 16, 2022. She was a beloved CDA Associate and a constant part of our community for 10 years.

Sabina specialized in the relationship between disaster affected communities and humanitarian organizations, and had previously collaborated with CDA on a variety of initiatives, including projects with the International Federation of the Red Cross and the International Rescue Committee. Her efforts include a Do No Harm Case Study focused on Cité Soleil in Haiti that was supported by a grant from DFID.

Sabina was one of the Tufts students responding with Ushahidi to the 2010 earthquake in Haiti where, in many ways, she discovered her life’s calling; she became a passionate advocate for affected people and local leadership in humanitarian disasters. She later helped found the Humanitarian Women’s Network and, with her husband, Louino Robillard, founded a number of community-driven organizations in Haiti.

In 2014, Sabina was called up to join the International Organization for Migration during the 2014 Ebola crisis in Guinea and wrote about the contribution of community engagement to the response on CDA’s blog.

Most recently, Sabina was involved in Risk III: From Evidence to Action, a partnership between CDA and InterAction to identify, understand, and address risk management “traps” that limit organizations’ abilities to meet humanitarian needs and adapt to complex contexts.

Sabina was also the lead researcher on a study for USAID by Tufts University’s Feinstein Center on the localization and decolonization of the humanitarian sector. In October 2022, USAID issued a new policy on their commitment to locally led humanitarian action.

Sabina will have a lasting impact on the people and systems she touched. We miss her deeply.