Aid in Haiti: Walk, Don’t Run

The devastation of the earthquake in Haiti left millions homeless and hungry.  The world rallied behind the cause, pledging billions of dollars of assistance (mostly from the United States), with private donors like you and me giving money for charities that offered services to the country in the aftermath of the disaster.  But it turns out much of that aid money never got to its intended destination, not because it was stolen, but rather that the organizations in charge of utilizing it are slow and cumbersome.  In a recent report from an organization tracking transparency among aid organizations, many of the 200 NGOs investigated have had sub-par records when in comes to effectiveness and transparency:

Of 197 organizations that the group found had solicited money for activities in Haiti, it found (among other things):

• Many groups claim to provide details of their activities on their blogs. However, many organizations’ blogs are full of appeals to emotion, pictures of children, and purely anecdotal accounts about touching moments during a particular delivery of relief.

• Only 6 had publicly available, regularly updated, factual situation reports detailing their activities.

• The vast majority — 128 — did not have factual situation reports available on their websites, relying instead upon anecdotal descriptions of activities or emotional appeals.

Unfortunately, this is the reputation among aid organizations in general.  A lack of accountability, transparency, and effectiveness pervades the aid industry, particularly in post-conflict or disaster areas where coordination of efforts is difficult.  Bureaucracy and a lack of communication causes a duplication of efforts and a failure to allocate funds and services wisely.  The director of the organization sums up the problem:

After the quake, the public was eager to donate, but it had to know which groups already had the greatest capacity to deliver, which groups were already in Haiti, and which were planning trips for six months later. Looking back over the last six months, the lack of transparency by relief groups has caused much of the coordination problems that continue to plague the response.

The road to squandering aid money is paved with good intentions unfortunately.  In contrast, microfinance organizations like Fonkoze (which I wrote about a few months back) are able to distribute millions of dollars in currency and supplies in a matter of days.  Sometimes it pays to take the time to prepare and get organized in order to make sure that the efforts are maximized and, at the very least, not counterproductive.

In other Haiti news, David Rothkopf of Foreign Policy magazine asks a much bigger question: what if the idea of Haiti as a country simply won’t work?

Rather it is to say, how much longer can the world write checks for billions, undertake initiatives doomed to failure, deal with governments gutted either by circumstance (the earthquake) or incompetence (virtually every other Haitian government)? There is a cost to the Haitian experiment and of course, it is not just measured in the outlays of international institutions or NGOs. Its more painful toll is measured in the costs to the Haitian people — either during natural disasters (and hurricane season will soon come to a nation which currently has a million people homeless or housed in flimsy tent camps) or as a consequence of the year-in and year-out inability of the government to educate them, raise their standard of living, create new jobs, mine some sort of hope from the despair of the country’s shanty-towns and villages that are dirt poor but filled with vibrant, energetic people.

Should nations that can’t stand alone consolidate with neighbors? Should they break into different pieces? Should they develop different relationships with large countries with whom they share affinities? Should they be able to enter periods of protected restructuring like companies in bankruptcy? Should they, at the very least, start to question more seriously the underlying concepts that have, after decades or centuries, left them chronically poor, uncompetitive, unstable?

This is a topic for another post, but I thought I’d share it here.

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