What we learn from Haiti, the Republic of NGOs


“The problem is I don’t know who is receiving aid, what they are doing with it and where it goes.” That was a statement made by Haitian Prime Minister Jean Max Bellerive, according to reports from the BBC. Three years on from Haiti’s devastating earthquake, the country’s UN deputy special envoy, Dr. Paul Farmer, has revealed that little official aid money has gone to the country’s government and organizations.

The devastating earthquake in Haiti left 200,000 dead and more than two million without homes.  The world dug deep into its pockets resulting in some $9 billion of aid for earthquake relief, $3 billion from private individuals and corporations and $6 billion from bilateral and multilateral donors. But Dr. Farmer and others have been asking why less than 10 percent of the $6 billion has gone to the Haitian government and why less than one percent was given to local governments. “Our experience in Haiti has reminded us that when it comes to aid dollars, how and where we spend them is often as important as how much we spend,” said Dr. Farmer. Three years after the earthquake, 80 percent of the Haitian population still subsists below the poverty line with an unemployment rate of 40 percent. Moreover, almost 400,000 Haitians still live in the 496 tent camps that were established throughout the country.

Cognizant of systemic corruption in Haiti, international donors were reluctant to channel their funds through Haiti’s NGOs and government. According to the US Institute of Peace, funneling aid through NGOs has perpetuated a cycle of low capacity, corruption and a lack of accountability among Haitian government institutions.

Haiti has been labeled the Republic of NGOs. It is estimated that there are 3,000 to 10,000 NGOs operating in Haiti. According to Former US President Bill Clinton, Haiti has the second highest number of NGOs per capita in the world.  The New York Times revealed that the operating costs of international aid organizations were enormously high compared to operating costs for domestic aid organizations. Furthermore, a review of relief operations and development projects overseen by NGOs and private contractors found that many were over-funded, financially mismanaged and poorly executed.  As reported by JT Larrimore and Brielle Sharkey(research associates at the Council on Hemispheric Affairs), the  2012 USAID report revealed that the US private contractor, Chemonics International, received $173.7 million in aid, but it had spent only $1.9 million  to construct a building  for the Haitian Parliament. The Haitian government remarked that the building was nothing more than a shell.

Ian Birell (former deputy editor of The Guardian newspaper) reported in the Mail Online that Mark Schuller, a US anthropologist who teaches in Haiti, told him: “Aid did some good and saved some lives early on in this catastrophe, but ultimately led to more division and more cynicism and made the mercantile class even richer.” Schuller is reported by Birell to have also stated: “In the end the way the aid was delivered, the lack of coordination and the lack of respect for the Haitian people did more harm than good. It would have been better if they had not come.” Schuller, who spends $375 per month renting his three-bedroom flat, was also critical of humanitarian staff earning up to 10 times local salaries, with big cars, drivers and $2,500-a-month housing allowances. Rents have soared since the quake  resulting in a significant increase in the cost of living for all Haitians.

Haiti’s prime minister has pointed out that 40 percent of aid money supports the foreigners handing it out. Undoubtedly, huge sums of aid funds have been wasted: for example, humanitarian groups paid double local rates for lorry loads of water. One car dealer sold more than 250 Toyota Land Cruisers a month to donor groups at £40,000 each. ‘You see traffic jams at Friday lunchtime because of all the white NGO and UN four-wheel drive cars heading off early to the beaches for the weekend,’ said one Irish aid worker. ‘It makes me sick.’

Indeed, much has been written about NGOs, both positive and negative, as I discovered by researching this issue on the internet.

Recommendations in the aftermath of the earthquake clearly indicated that governments must take the lead in any relief operations. If projects implemented by NGOs do not match up with the government’s priorities, the long-term success of recovery efforts will be undermined.

The US Institute of Peace has recommended the following actions to improve disaster relief in Haiti:

1. Greater accountability needed. All NGOs should sign the internationally recognized NGO Code of Conduct.  The international donor community should reinforce the Haitian government’s capacity to regulate and coordinate NGOs in the areas of education, health and infrastructure (roads, building and reforestation.

2. The Haitian government should increase its ability to track NGO activities by creating a database of NGO projects.

3. International NGOs must engage Haitian NGOs and assist them in implementing projects.  This will ensure a sustainable build-up of local expertise and strengthen civil society.

4. NGO projects and donor funding must be aligned with government priorities.

Relevance to Philippines

Our Yolanda experience cannot be compared to the Haitian experience, but there are lessons to be learned regarding the role of NGOs in relief efforts. Clearly, there must be a government- appointed agency to coordinate NGO efforts to ensure synchronization with national priorities. The same agency should also coordinate bilateral and multilateral aid. There have been instances when foreign governments insist on fitting a square peg into a round hole in addition to demanding onerous terms and conditions linked to their aid contributions. I recommend that the Banda Aceh tsunami tragedy should also be studied as we look at global best-practices in disaster relief. The Indonesian Government assigned the National Development Planning Agency to coordinate the development of rehabilitation and reconstruction plan. The US Institute of Peace recommendations should also be reviewed to determine applicability for our situation.

There have been multiple stories alleging that relief goods to support the Yolanda victims have been found in commercial establishments. Also there have been allegations of partisanship in determining which areas get relief and support.  I would strongly recommend a consortium of auditors from the private sector (SGV, KPMG, PWC, and others) be asked to volunteer to audit operations of funds expended by the government including appropriateness of projects.  The ultimate objective should be transparency and accountability.

Three years from now, we must make sure we do not repeat the Haitian experience or, like Haiti, we will be cursing the aid efforts and saying they have made a bad situation even worse.


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