How Haitian Earthquake Relief Efforts Pulled Off a Huge Con Job, With the Help of Mainstream Media
Money that was promised to provide “tens of thousands of people with permanent homes” reportedly only made it to a total of six.
PORT-AU-PRINCE – AUGUST 22: The collapsed Presidential Building in Port-Au-Prince, Haiti on August 22, 2010.
Photo Credit: arindambanerjee / Shutterstock.com
The Greatest Financial Outpouring of Sympathy in History
The 2010 Haiti earthquake was followed by one of the greatest financial outpourings of sympathy in human history. The money given was nothing short of spectacular. All totaled, corporations and individuals would donate $3.1 billion to help Haiti earthquake victims. Foreign governments pledged another $10 billion in aid. To put it into global perspective, all global disaster aid from private sources and from developed world governments amounted to $19 billion in 2010. That’s all the aid given for international disasters by every country on earth, from China to the U.S. to Sweden; and $13.1 billion of it went to Haiti. And it was donated in the midst of the worst recession since the Great Depression.
Had it been handed over to the Haitian government it would have paid for thirteen years of the country’s national budget ($965 million in 2009). But it was not handed over to the Haitian government. Or rather, in that first year after the earthquake, the Haitian government got one percent of it. The other 99 percent of the money went to NGOs, among them Save the Children, the Red Cross, CARE International, Catholic Relief Services, Concern Worldwide, Mercy Corps, Food for the Poor, and Feed the Hungry; it went to UN agencies such as UNICEF and the World Food Program; and it went to private humanitarian aid contractors, such as United States’ Chemonics and Development Alternatives Inc. (DAI).
The expectation was that these organizations were the entities best equipped to deal with the crisis in Haiti. They had vast experience in dealing with poverty throughout the world. Most were founded in the 1950s or earlier. And many of them had been in Haiti for half a century or more. They had unrivaled worldwide administrations, professionals, volunteers and consultants. The expectation was that not only were they the most able to put Haiti back together, but with the avalanche of donations they could create a new Haiti. They could set the country on the path to prosperity that had so miserably eluded her for the two centuries since Haiti gloriously became the second country in the Western hemisphere to win its independence. As Bill Clinton said, “This is the best chance, even in spite of this horrible earthquake, the best chance Haiti ever had to escape the darker chapters of the past and build a brighter future.” He then sent up the rallying cry, “Build Back Better.”
The squandering and waste began almost immediately. The United Nations World Food Program (WFP) rented two luxury cruise ships, complete with maids and waiters. It was, at a cost $16.6 million for 90 days, a fee that Fox News investigators later discovered to be three times greater than its market value.
Disaster clean up companies from the U.S. partnered with the Haitian born Israeli Consulate and the Haitian president’s wife to win hundreds of millions of dollars in contracts to clean up rubble. They charged $68 per square meter, three times the scandalous $23 per cubic meter of debris they charged the U.S. government for clean-up after Hurricane Katarina and five times the $14 per cubic meter that Sean Penn’s team was, at that very moment, charging for cleaning up rubble in Haiti.
The U.S. government would get billed an average cost of $5,265 per temporary shelter built for earthquake victims, a figure more expensive than any other humanitarian shelter in the world. Much more expensive. It was almost twice the cost of its nearest competitor, the developed country of Georgia where the UN paid $3,000 in 2009 for winterized cottages; it was five times the $910 cost that humanitarian organizations charged to provide a winterized temporary shelter to Afghanistan war refugees; and it was 18 times the $300 local cost in Haiti for materials to build a 12×10 foot shack with a concrete floor, plywood walls and corrugated metal roof.
Meanwhile, the Clinton Bush Haiti Fund, which had raised $47 million for victims of the Haiti earthquake, would take $2 million of that money and give it in the form of a low interest loan to one of Haiti’s richest families—the Madsens—so they could complete the construction of a luxury hotel. And the Clinton Foundation, which had collected $34 million, would provide over 1,000 children with classroom-trailers that had levels of formaldehyde wood preservative so high they caused the children and teachers who occupied them to fall ill. The manufacturer of the trailer-classrooms turned out to be Clayton Homes, a U.S. company that had also sold formaldehyde-drenched mobile homes to FEMA in 2004 and that, at the very moment the Clinton Foundation had purchased the classrooms for Haiti, was being sued by Hurricane Katrina survivors.
The stories go on and on. The NGO Food for the Poor was building permanent houses in Haiti before the earthquake for $2,000 per home. After the earthquake, the U.S. government partnered with Food for the Poor to build 750 of what were essentially the same houses, but at a cost of $38,000 per house, 19 times the pre-earthquake costs. Red Cross CEO Gail McGovern said that $100 million of the $500 million given to the Red Cross would go to “provide tens of thousands of people with permanent homes.” Five years later NPR would report that the charity had built six permanent homes.
Don’t misunderstand me. Not all the aid was squandered. Cost-effective short-term relief efforts did exist. Surgical teams from Doctors Without Borders, Partners in Health and hundreds of other medical relief organizations from all over the world came to Haiti and without them post-earthquake Haiti would have been a much greater hell. Sean Penn turned out to be an exception as well. Penn showed up nine days after the earthquake. He brought with him his charisma and a seemingly indefatigable disposition to say anything he pleased and curse out anyone who crossed him. Yet, he also turned out to have a talent for crisis management that embarrassed most NGO directors. In the first year, Penn spent $14 million of mostly celebrity-donated money. It was a tiny fraction of the $1.4 billion that was spent that year. Yet, his group cleaned up 20 percent of all the rubble in Port-au-Prince while attending to 5 percent of the camp refugees.
Unfortunately, Sean Penn, Doctors Without Borders, and Partners in Health were exceptions that proved the rule. It is much easier to find examples of waste and absurd claims. And just as disturbing were the cover-ups and refusal to account for the money.
Disaster Accountability Project (DAP) examined the 196 organizations that got donations for earthquake relief and found that:
1. Only six had publicly available, regularly updated, factual situation reports detailing their activities.
2. Only one provided what DAP considered “complete and factual information.”
3. The majority—128—did not have factual situation reports available on their websites, relying instead upon anecdotal descriptions of activities or emotional appeals.
4. Many claimed to provide details of their activities on their blogs, but the blogs were almost entirely “appeals to emotion, pictures of children, and purely anecdotal accounts about touching moments during a particular delivery of relief.”
When DAP wrote to the NGOs and asked them to complete a short survey, 90 percent did not respond. DAP followed up with four more e-mail requests explaining the value and moral obligation donors had to be transparent and account for donations. That changed nothing. DAP director Ben Smilowitz concluded that, “most of them don’t care about coordination. They do their own thing on their own. They don’t share what they do. We don’t know what they do. And probably they don’t want us to know what they do.”
So, humanitarian agencies collected a mountain of donations in the name of Haiti earthquake victims, they largely squandered it, and they then refused to account for it. But… what this… is really about is how they got us to give the money. It’s about the exaggerations, truth-twisting and outright lies that humanitarian agencies used to get donors to give. And it’s about the international press’s role in spreading those lies and giving them credibility. For despite all the widely known waste and inefficiency that we saw after the Haiti earthquake, despite the humanitarian agencies appalling lack of capacity and competence to get the money to the people for whom it was intended, and despite the astonishing surfeit of money that had already poured in, the aid agencies kept asking for more. And the overseas public kept giving it.
The International Federation of the Red Cross made an initial “emergency flash appeal” for $10 million to provide emergency assistance to 100,000 people. By January 30, three weeks after the quake, they were asking for $103 million to “assist up to 600,000 beneficiaries for a total of 3 years.” They would receive a total of $1.2 billion. That’s ten times what they had originally asked for. Save the Children originally called for $9.8 million in donations. When they reached that figure in a matter of weeks they raised their need to $20 million. By the end of the year they had collected $87 million, almost ten times their original request. World Vision asked for $3.8 million. But they then kept asking for more, and more, and more, until they had collected a total of $191 million. UNICEF originally called for $120 million. When they brought in $229 million in six months—almost double what they requested—they decided they needed another $127 million. Those are just a couple of examples. The NGOs and UN agencies were as a rule insatiable. In all post-earthquake Haiti, only Doctors Without Borders told donors they had enough money, and that was after bringing in a whopping $138 million. And it wasn’t just the big NGOs. Six months after the earthquake, musicians and performers were still coming out of retirement to do benefit concerts and school children were still setting up lemonade stands to help Haiti earthquake survivors.
It was this giving, this seemingly endless inclination of the overseas public to be charitable, that is the greatest marvel of the Haiti earthquake. “The real question,” stammered Blake Elis of CNN Money nine days after the quake, “is whether this surge of giving will continue.” Philanthropic fundraising consultant Lucy Bernholz worried too, “The outpouring of support is great, but people lose interest [in disasters] really quickly.” The editor of the Chronicle of Philanthropy, Stacy Palmer, also worried: “Something has to happen to keep it on top of people’s minds, or they turn back to their own world.”
Something did indeed happen. What happened was a plethora of lies, exaggerations and truth-twisting, all targeted to elicit shock and sympathy from overseas donors and artfully disseminated by international media outlets that thrive on sensationalism and are, at least in the case of Haiti, incapable—if not totally disinterested—in sorting fact from fiction. And the reason I’ve written the book [The Great Haiti Humanitarian Aid Swindle] is not only to reveal the extremes the humanitarian aid agencies go to lie, pat themselves on the back, and ask for more money after squandering what we’ve already given them, and how the press unabashedly repeats those lies, but also because something has to be done to bring them to account. Forcing the humanitarian aid organizations to accurately and honestly identify the problems that afflict the poor and that they claim to be resolving is the first and necessary step to stopping the waste and outright embezzlement of money meant for the neediest people on earth. And the only way that’s going to happen is if people first learn just how bad it is.
Changing the Narrative
When it was all said and done, in the anarchic hell that was ‘reportedly’ post-earthquake Port-au-Prince, with 2.3 million people homeless (so we were told), 316,000 dead (another exaggeration I’ll get to shortly), 4,000 of the country’s “most dangerous prisoners” escaped (most had never been tried and many were not criminals but political prisoners), 80 percent of buildings destroyed (wrong again), and unbridled hunger, hopelessness, and looting, the violence for the week following the earthquake was spectacularly low. The official tally:
Two Dominicans wounded—clearly intentional (what we don’t know is if they were trying to sell aid, as some Dominican truck drivers were doing).
• One girl killed—apparently by a police man’s bullet but ruled unintentional.
• Two men that the police allegedly bound and executed (foreign journalists reported them as ‘looters’ but since in most cases the police were not only permitting looting but partaking in it, we can assume there is more to the story, such as the government order to shoot to kill escaped prisoners).
• A looter shot by a security guard—intentional (but we don’t know what happened prior to the shooting, if the man had threatened the guard, if he had returned several times, if there had been some kind of fight, if he was one of the higher profile escaped prisoners).
• One cop shot by his partner—another accident, or so we think (the press reported that his partner mistook him for a looter).
• At least two people beaten to death by vigilantes (in Haiti, vigilante justice is common, arguably one reason that crime isn’t as high as other countries, meaning—as a Haitian might say—that there are no police to protect the criminals from the population).
We are talking about a metropolitan area of 3 million people and in the wake of one of the worst disasters in the history of the Western hemisphere. It was considerably less violent than the Dominican Republic next door, where an average 55 people were being killed every week. No newspaper or television journalists reported that.
It’s not at all clear who went first, the press or the military, but on the 19th of January both abruptly changed the tone of their reports. Indeed, it was an about-face. General Keen, who only two days before had been getting ready to send the troops into the streets of Port-au-Prince, was suddenly acting like he had never been worried. “The level of violence that we see right now,” Keen declared, “is below the pre-earthquake levels.” U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates repeated the point. “There has been a lot less violence in Port-au-Prince,” he told reporters, “than there was before the earthquake.”
On the 17th of January, the U.S. military commander was planning to send several battalions of the most elite armed forces on the planet into the streets of Port-au-Prince and put an end to the violence and mayhem that had engulfed the city. On the 18th the situation had worsened, all hell was breaking loose, martial law was imminent. But the very next day, the 19th, the marauding Haitian masses melted from the pages of newspapers and televisions screens and from the cross-hairs of the U.S. Southern Command’s automatic rifles and it was as if insecurity in post-earthquake Port-au-Prince had never been an issue at all.
UN peacekeepers, who spent much of the week sealed off inside fortified compounds, only venturing into the streets in tanks or armed details and insisting that no one else go out without an armed security escort, suddenly changed their tune as well. Acting as if they too had never been worried about anything, UN spokesman John Holmes told the press, “It’s very easy to convey the impression by focusing on a particular incident that there’s a major security law and order problem arising. But in our view, that is not the case.”
The press and military would change their rhetoric but the fear and restrictions would linger. The 20,000 troops and the thousands of aid workers who had come to provide emergency relief were now effectively scared shitless and under security restrictions. The UN had carved the city into color-coded zones. In red zones aid workers could not enter at all. In orange zones they had to have their windows rolled up and they could not get out of the vehicle. In yellow zones they could enter but only at certain times of the day. The least secure zones were, of course, the poorest. The aid that would subsequently go out to the impoverished areas that most needed it would be delivered in tightly controlled sites, drawing crowds that sometimes reached into the tens of thousands. There was massive frustration and resentment and in these areas a real security threat emerged, one surrounding the aid distribution itself. Then there were the green zones.
The green zones were safe. They were the wealthy areas where little to no aid was needed at all. Yet, they would soon be the sites of massive aid distribution. And not least of all, with their upscale bars and restaurants they would become economically thriving reprieves with skyrocketing inflation, where the cost of beer and nutritionally varied meals and comfortable hotel rooms soon rivaled or exceeded prices in Miami, Paris and Geneva. The green zones were aptly named: they were places where the people the poor call the boujwa (bourgeoisie) made new fortunes, or added to old ones.
In trying to understand what happened, I’m not sure if we can blame the military. Officers and soldiers are trained for war. That’s why we pay them. More at fault are the politicians and bureaucrats who sent them. The U.S. sent combat troops. After the fact, the U.S. government tried to rewrite history and tell us it was all for humanitarian work, something so transparently bogus it would be laughable if it were not for the tragic consequences. The fact is that U.S. government really did fear a break down in society. Almost everyone did. The real culprits, in my way of thinking, were the ones responsible for creating the fear. It was the members of the press who we rely on for the truth.
The mainstream media did what it always does to Haiti: in the name of selling newspapers and increasing television viewership it re-affirmed the image of Haiti that it created, an image of the macabre, the mad, and the malevolent; indeed, the ‘island of the damned’ where in the best of times ‘murder, rape and voodoo’ prevailed. In what has to be considered one of their most dishonorable moments, what should have been their opportunity to help, to quell the fear and smooth the way for rescuers and medical workers and the deliverers of aid, a moment when newspaper editors could have stepped in and made sure that responsible reporting ruled, much of the press corps failed. Indeed, they did worse. Television networks and newspapers unleashed a massive deployment of news professionals. But rather than telling us what was happening and responsibly reporting on the needs of the survivors, the press tried, in the name of readers and viewership, to entertain and scare the hell out of us. In the process, they set the ground work for a second disaster: the medical disaster and failed delivery of emergency….
But to finish here, on January 19, the U.S. State Department, U.S. military and the mainstream press suddenly backed off. And they didn’t really have a choice. The overwhelming evidence from the streets was that the mainstream press, the U.S. military and the State Department had it all wrong: Haiti was not an Armageddon of murder and mayhem. Independent journalists, such as Ansel Herz and overseas news outlets such as Canada’s CBC, were starting a media frenzy of their own criticizing the exaggerations and sensationalism. A chorus of criticism was also coming from medical NGOs such as the French Doctors Without Borders that had five planes carrying medical supplies which were diverted by the U.S. military. In the meantime, Hillary Clinton had flown into Port-au-Prince on January 16. The U.S. military shut the airport for three hours.
The entire U.S.-led relief effort was on the verge of becoming a massive embarrassment. It was becoming Obama’s Hurricane Katrina. Worse because Haiti was not on U.S. soil and yet the U.S. had taken upon itself the role of controlling the relief effort. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton would put an interesting twist on the entire affair when she accompanied the U.S. about-face with a cable sent to U.S. Embassies around the world saying,
“I am deeply concerned by instances of inaccurate and unfavorable international media coverage of America’s role and intentions in Haiti. It is imperative to get the narrative right over the long term.”
Yes, get the narrative right. Clinton was talking, not to the mainstream U.S. press, which had been bolstering the case for military intervention and even blaming the U.S. for not taking firmer control of the streets of Port-au-Prince, but to the foreign press who were now blaming the U.S. for the loss of thousands of lives.
But whoever’s fault it was, the game was over. Suddenly Port-au-Prince was “safer than it had been before the earthquake.” And despite forthcoming sensationalism about rapes and sexually deviant child slave hunters, it would stay that way. The fear of violence suddenly gone, the news industry had lost a hot-selling story, and had to find a new one. They didn’t have to look far. By the middle of the first week after the quake rescue crews began to make a series of dramatic rescues. The rescues served on prime-time news shows as happy endings in the midst of so much trauma and despair. They sent television viewership skyrocketing. They made the U.S. government who funded most of it seem like heroes. And just like almost everything else to do with the press, the international aid industry, and politicians, there was a thick vein of bullshit running through the middle of it all….