Haiti: where did all the money go?

The Haitian earthquake prompted an outpouring of generosity – international donations totalled more than $10 billion. But, two years on, have those funds been well spent? Nick Harvey investigates.

A street vendor in Port-au- Prince. Most Haitians are still waiting for reconstruction to begin.

Julio Etchart/Panos

The thousands of Haitians who took to the streets in December, waving banners and chanting the unequivocal message ‘UN, go home!’ could be accused of biting the hand that feeds them. After all, Haiti currently relies on the UN and non-governmental organizations (NGOs) to provide 80 per cent of its basic services. But the outpouring of anger, though partly in response to the cholera epidemic that was likely brought into Haiti by UN troops from Nepal, was also a result of wider frustrations with the painfully slow relief effort and the general state of the country. For despite billions having been pledged in aid since the 2010 earthquake, the lives of the majority of Haitians remain woefully threadbare.

‘Two years on and you have nearly half a million people still in tents or tarps, some 7,000 dead from cholera and hundreds of thousands more infected,’ says Ben Smilowitz, head of the Disaster Accountability Project, a non-partisan aid organization watchdog. ‘They’ve had to live through two hurricane seasons like this, which is simply unacceptable given the amount of money that was donated.’

Immediately after the quake, NGO fundraisers got to work and the money surged in. Ordinary people around the world dug deep and, along with pledges from foreign governments and other international donors, around $10 billion was raised. The thousands of NGOs already embedded in the country – more per capita than anywhere else in the world – began a massive relief effort, loosely co-ordinated by the UN. It was a daunting task, due both to the enormity of the disaster and the weakness of local institutions. But two years later, with only a fraction of the estimated million internally displaced people (IDPs) rehoused and few signs of any real reconstruction, many are wondering where, exactly, all that money went.

Only 40 per cent of the $5.6 billion pledged by foreign governments to be used in the first 18 months had been dispersed by September 2011

‘The NGOs frittered most of the money away because they had to,’ says Haiti expert Tim Schwartz, author of Travesty in Haiti. ‘None of them were in the position to spend that kind of cash but there was an awful lot of pressure for them to use it. Much of it went on salaries, accommodation and transport for the NGO workers themselves.’

One of the biggest problems was that much of the money failed to reach Haiti. Only 40 per cent of the $5.6 billion pledged by foreign governments to be used in the first 18 months had been dispersed by September 2011.

‘Aid organizations see disasters as a huge fundraising opportunity and they will raise money whether they can deliver it or not,’ says Ben Smilowitz. ‘If they can’t deliver the services then they will take a nine or ten per cent cut and pass the money to another organization. This can happen numerous times before it gets to where it should be, so the amount they end up with is a fraction of what was actually raised.’

Brand recognition

One of the most notorious examples of this disparity in the delivery of funds came from the American Red Cross. Despite collecting $255 million in private donations, only $106 million made it to its Haiti relief project. When the earthquake struck, the organization had just 15 staff members working there. Compare this with Partners in Health, another NGO which, despite having 5,000 (mostly Haitian) staff, received less than $40 million. NGOs come in all shapes and sizes – and can have very different approaches.

‘Simply put, the wrong groups raised the most money in Haiti,’ explains Ben Smilowitz. ‘Groups that may not even be in Haiti and have very little capacity to deliver get the cash because of their incredible brand recognition.’

And while billions of dollars have undoubtedly managed to filter through, a lack of interaction between NGOs and locals means very little of it ends up in Haitian hands. Studies have shown that only 2.3 per cent of reconstruction aid went to Haitian firms. Haitians have, in many ways, simply been excluded from the rebuilding of their own country.

‘The structure of the humanitarian system works against the actual participation of local people,’ says Mark Schuller, an anthropologist working in Haiti and co-editor of Tectonic Shifts: Haiti since the Earthquake. ‘Decisions are made in Brussels, London, Washington and Ottawa. The UN Logistics Base was a place where Haitians were simply not invited, even government members, and within NGOs you have decisions made in English that often can’t be communicated to the creole speakers on the ground.’

‘Youn ede lòt’

While Haitians remain frozen out from the reconstruction process, it shouldn’t be forgotten that the first response to the emergency came from the Haitian people themselves. Demonstrating the country’s longstanding tradition of youn ede lòt (‘helping each other’), it was Haitians who leapt into action after those devastating 35 seconds that tore down their country on 12 January 2010.

‘When the earthquake first happened there was a lot of solidarity among Haitians,’ says Prospery Raymond, head of Christian Aid in Haiti. ‘I was under the rubble for two hours and it was the local youth who risked their lives to get me out. Thousands of people were saved by fellow Haitians that day.’

‘Now is the time for the international community to help Haitians do what they really want to do, rather than carry on with these pre-prepared projects from abroad’

Prospery argues that the most successful aid initiatives have been those that forwarded funds straight to Haitians. ‘After the earthquake we distributed cash directly to those who needed it,’ he says. ‘It was crucial that they got this money because there was food available at the markets, so people could eat and it helped keep the local economy afloat.’ Christian Aid aims to work with local partners rather than, as many other agencies do, sending in teams of foreign ‘experts’.

The absence of a functioning government prevented Haitians from taking more of a lead in their own affairs after the earthquake. A lengthy and disputed presidential election – followed by a five-month delay in forming a new government – had a huge impact on the first year of the reconstruction process. The lack of government structure, combined with a US policy stretching back to the 1980s that favoured putting aid into the hands of NGOs rather than Haitian presidents, meant that only one per cent of the aid went to the Haitian government. Now that a new government is in place, there is hope that Haiti can begin to take control of its own future.

‘Now is the time for the international community to help Haitians do what they really want to do, rather than carry on with these preprepared projects from abroad,’ says Prospery Raymond. ‘They need to work closely with the government to help strengthen its capacity, because NGOs are not the long-term solution.’ Others agree that this should have been the approach from the start.

‘Donors such as the European Union and USAID, and their contracting NGOs, could have changed the rules of the game so that they rewarded local participation,’ says Mark Schuller. ‘They could have imposed a tax on their own aid – say, three per cent – and used that money to support government ministries that are performing well but are understaffed.’

As well as political instability, other reasons for lack of progress in reconstruction and resettlement commonly cited by NGOs are long customs delays for materials at the airport and the diversion of funds to deal with the cholera epidemic. Delays clearing the rubble and problems determining who owns land (which makes it difficult to find places to build houses) are also regularly blamed for reconstruction inactivity. But others argue that these excuses do not stand up to interrogation.

‘Most of these problems could have been resolved with collective public solutions,’ says Mark Schuller. ‘Take the land tenure issue, one of the so-called biggest barriers. The government and the donors could have arranged local hearings to see who really owns the land, but these things have simply not been made a priority.’

Time bomb

Many working within the NGO sector argue that the criticism directed towards them is unfair. They say that talk of a lack of progress is misdirected due to both the sheer enormity of the task and the unique history and circumstances surrounding the disaster.

‘If you’re going to accuse people of being slow, then you have to have some real-life comparisons to back this up,’ says Philippe Verstraeten, head of the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs in Haiti. ‘If you compare it to either Ground Zero in New York or the Asian tsunami two years on, then progress in Haiti hasn’t been that slow. We’ve cleared half the rubble, we’ve reduced the number of people in camps from 1.5 million to around half a million, and we’ve provided shelter for 125,000 families, which is significant progress.’

Facing off. This clash happened in the wake of elections but there is also popular dissatisfaction with the behaviour of UN troops, including numerous allegations of sexual assault.

Allison Shelley / Reuters

But of the families that have been provided with shelter, only 25,000 are in permanent housing; the remaining 100,000 are still living in short-term transitional shelters. And some argue that the reason the number of people in the camps has significantly reduced is that they have become fed up of waiting to be rehoused and have returned to their damaged homes.

‘Most people are back in their houses, even the ones that are marked as ‘red’ [so damaged that they require demolition],’ says Tim Schwartz. ‘It’s a little late to talk about fixing houses now, because the big opportunity to do this properly has passed.’

With families forced to return to their battered homes and others choosing to rebuild their own homes rather than wait any longer, many remain severely vulnerable. With funding running dry, aid agencies are beginning to leave, yet there is a real sense that Haiti is in no better position should another disaster strike.

‘It’s like a time bomb,’ says Schwartz. ‘As well as the houses being unable to face another earthquake, all the exact same social problems are still there. It’s like they’ve just put a Band-Aid on it until the next disaster, when the same thing will happen all over again, like a nightmare déjà vu.’