Humanitarian Aid in Haiti

by JAKE JOHNSTON

“Donors and aid organizations prefer to be the boss of their own money. And they want to be in charge of how to spend it, where to spend it, and if to spend it at all,” Linda Polman, author of The Crisis Caravan: What’s Wrong with Humanitarian Aid, recently told an interviewer.  The statement goes to the root of what many believe has been the greatest failure of the relief effort in Haiti: the exclusion of Haitian voices from the decision-making process.

As the two-year anniversary of the earthquake approaches, hundreds of thousands of earthquake survivors remain in camps with little or no basic services. Even though many aid organizations still have large pools of funds, some are pulling out of camps and discontinuing essential services such as the provision of water and sanitation. One hundred and twenty-five thousand transitional-shelters (T-shelters), small structures meant to last up to a few years, are expected to be built eventually, but this number is based on what NGOs pledged, and not the needs on the ground. The result is that, even after these shelters are completed, hundreds of thousands of people will still be left solely with “emergency” solutions, generally not much more than one or two tattered tarps, that were meant to last no longer than a few months.

With billions of dollars pledged and conditions in camps still deteriorating, the question remains: Where is the money, and has it met any of the real needs of the Haitian people? This is the subject of an upcoming documentary by Michele Mitchell and her team with Film@11 airingon PBS in January. Mitchell told me, “one thing I heard constantly, first from Haitians and then even from some aid workers, was that the Haitians in the camps, the people who the relief money was supposed to help, were almost entirely excluded from the planning process. If the NGOs weren’t asking questions, how did they know the right thing to do?” In Haiti: Where Did the Money Go? the viewer is taken from interviews with some of the largest NGOs operating in Haiti to interviews with those in the camps. The juxtaposition of the grandiose accomplishments listed by the NGOs (and the lifestyles which some aid workers have) with the squalid living conditions in the camps makes clear the severe disconnect between the Haitian people and those who are supposedly there to help.

The problem is not simply with NGOs, but with donors as well. And it is largely systemic. As an aid worker from one of the largest relief organizations in Haiti told me, “[t]he NGO pool in the last 10 years has turned from a pool of actors to a pool of contractors,” adding, “[p]eople fly from crisis to crisis at 10 cluster meetings and write proposals for funding… If they generate a contract they deliver a job, if they don’t then they piss off.” With all the scrambling around for money and proposal writing, one critical voice is left out: the beneficiary’s.

Nowhere is this clearer than in the provision of shelter, which remains the most glaring failure of relief efforts nearly two years after the quake. Anindependent evaluation of agencies providing shelter, commissioned by the International Federation of the Red Cross, illustrates this disconnect clearly.  The evaluation finds that shelter provision was based more on supply, i.e. what NGOs wanted to deliver, as opposed to demand, i.e. what Haitians actually needed. “Affected people were not consulted nor their capacities considered, the response was what those with the [foreign] money decided,” one Haitian interviewee told the evaluation team.

The construction of transitional shelter was constrained by the tremendous amount of rubble clogging the capital and while the evaluation found that “money was not an issue for the shelter response,” there was very little allocated to rubble removal. Why? In the words of the evaluating team, “donors… had already allocated their funds for T-Shelter construction,” while NGOs were “reluctant to spend their privately-raised funds.” Perhaps a new T-shelter makes for a better fundraising picture than a wheel-barrow of cement.

Meanwhile, as the construction of “T-shelters” was delayed further and further and conditions in the camps continued to worsen, NGOs either would not, or could not change tack. This was due to “commitments with donors” as well as an “unwillingness to work in other transitional shelter options,” according to the evaluation. It’s better PR to put your NGO logo on a new T-shelter than on a rental subsidy or repaired home.

As for the shelter that has been provided, family size was not considered and a two-tarps-per-family standard for “emergency” shelter was not based on families’ actual ability to create an adequate shelter. Unsurprisingly the result was that “emergency and interim shelter did not enhance protection or reduce the risks of gender-based violence, including sexual exploitation and abuse.” In fact, as the evaluation team explains, nearly “all the participants in the focus groups described the conditions of the emergency shelter solution as ‘infrahuman’, ‘unbearable’, or simply ‘very bad.’”

As the two-year commemoration of the earthquake approaches, there will be numerous reports on the billions of dollars raised by NGOs or pledged by donors, and how relatively little of it has been spent on the ground. Certainly anyone donating $10 dollars to a relief organization probably assumed it would be spent to alleviate the massive suffering caused by the earthquake. Two years later, the suffering continues and hundreds of millions of dollars are sitting in interest-bearing accounts. It’s an appalling situation that should be investigated by the U.S. Congress, but equally troubling is the growing evidence that much of the money that has been spent has failed to address the real needs of the Haitian people.

To this day, there is no meaningful plan to deal with the housing crisis and the hundreds of thousands who remain displaced. Despite the billions pledged and donated, the little that has reached the ground has failed to sustainably address the issue. If solutions are to be found, and Haitians’ rights are to be respected, foreign donors and NGOs should begin by listening to those they are in Haiti to help and start reacting to demand, not supply.

Jake Johnston is an international researcher at the Center for Economic and Policy Research. He writes on Haiti-related issues for the blog Relief and Reconstruction Watch.

This article originally appeared in the Caribbean Journal.

Like What You’ve Read? Support CounterPunch
August 05, 2015
John Eskow
The Fake Courage of Caitlyn Jenner
Mike Whitney
 The Brookings Institute Plan to Liquidate Syria 
John K. White
Life on the Layaway Plan: We’re All Greek Now
Ted Rall
14 Years Ago, a Woman Vindicated Me Now
Thomas Mountain
A Letter From Africa to #BlackLivesMatter
Roger Annis
Well-Known Canadian Journalist Visits Ukraine and Praises neo-Nazi
August 04, 2015
Vincent J. Roscigno
University Bureaucracy as Organized Crime
Paul Street
Bernie Sanders’ Top Five Race Problems: the Whiteness of Nominal Socialism
Herbert Dyer, Jr.
Is White Supremacy a Mental Disorder?
Ramzy Baroud
The Palestinian Bubble and the Burning of Toddler, Ali Dawabsha
Pepe Escobar
Reshuffling Eurasia’s Energy Deck — Iran, China and Pipelineistan
L. Michael Hager
The Battle Over BDS
Eric Draitser
Puerto Rico: Troubled Commonwealth or Debt Colony?
Colin Todhunter
Hypnotic Trance in Delhi: Monsanto, GMOs and the Looting of India’s Agriculture
Benjamin Willis
The New Cubanologos: What’s in a Word?
Matt Peppe
60 Minutes Provides Platform for US Military
Binoy Kampmark
The Turkish Mission: Reining in the Kurds
Eoin Higgins
Teaching Lessons of White Supremacy in Prime-Time: Blackrifice in the Post-Apocalyptic World of the CW’s The 100
Gary Corseri
Gaza: Our Child’s Shattered Face in the Mirror
Robert Dodge
The Nuclear World at 70
Paula Bach
Exit the Euro? Polemic with Greek Economist Costas Lapavitsas
August 03, 2015
Jack Dresser
The Case of Alison Weir: Two Palestinian Solidarity Organizations Borrow from Joe McCarthy’s Playbook
Joseph Mangano – Janette D. Sherman
The Atomic Era Turns 70, as Nuclear Hazards Endure
Nelson Valdes
An Internet Legend: the Pope, Fidel and the Black President
Robert Hunziker
The Perfectly Nasty Ocean Storm
Ahmad Moussa
Incinerating Palestinian Children
Greg Felton
Greece Succumbs to Imperialist Banksterism
Binoy Kampmark
Stalling the Trans-Pacific Partnership: the Failure of the Hawai’i Talks
Ted Rall
My Letter to Nick Goldberg of the LA Times
Mark Weisbrot
New Greek Bailout Increases the Possibility of Grexit
Jose Martinez
Black/Hispanic/Women: a Leadership Crisis
Victor Grossman
German Know-Nothings Today
Patrick Walker
We’re Not Sandernistas: Reinventing the Wheels of Bernie’s Bandwagon
Norman Pollack
Moral Consequences of War: America’s Hegemonic Thirst
Ralph Nader
Republicans Support Massive Tax Evasion by Starving IRS Budget
Alexander Reid Ross
Colonial Pride and the Killing of Cecil the Lion
Suhayb Ahmed
What’s Happening in Britain: Jeremy Corbyn and the Future of the Labour Party
Weekend Edition
July 31-33, 2015
Jeffrey St. Clair
Bernie and the Sandernistas: Into the Void
John Pilger
Julian Assange: the Untold Story of an Epic Struggle for Justice
Roberto J. González – David Price
Remaking the Human Terrain: The US Military’s Continuing Quest to Commandeer Culture
Lawrence Ware
Bernie Sanders’ Race Problem
Andrew Levine
The Logic of Illlogic: Narrow Self-Interest Keeps Israel’s “Existential Threats” Alive
ANDRE VLTCHEK
Kos, Bodrum, Desperate Refugees and a Dying Child
Paul Street
“That’s Politics”: the Sandernistas on the Master’s Schedule
Ted Rall
How the LAPD Conspired to Get Me Fired from the LA Times