Taking Stock Three Years Later: A Prelude

January 03, 2013

January 1 was the anniversary of Haiti’s independence, and another marker – the third year since the earthquake – is coming up at the end of next week. Media outlets are examining what has been achieved – and what hasn’t – over the past three years.

The New York Times’ Deborah Sontag had a major, must-read feature article based on her investigative look at the shortcomings of the aid and reconstruction efforts, examining the Interim Haiti Recovery Commission, the agency and NGO coordination “clusters” and the Caracol industrial park, among other aspects. She also reports on contractors such as Chemonics, one that has been scrutinized by this blog repeatedly:

One American taxpayer-financed program, scrutinized by the Agency for International Development’s inspector general, was intended to provide short-term jobs for Haitians and to remove significant rubble. But the program, and in particular the work carried out by two Beltway-based firms, was less than successful on both fronts, the inspector general said: It generated only a third of the jobs anticipated and it appeared to demonstrate that using manual labor to clear debris was so inefficient as to slow the rebuilding effort.

One of the firms, Chemonics International, which was awarded $150 million in post-earthquake contracts, built a $1.9 million temporary home for the Haitian Parliament. The American ambassador presented it as a gift to Haitian democracy, but many legislators were more irked than thankful because the building was delivered devoid of interior walls and furnishings, as The Global Post reported, and it took almost half a year to scrounge together the money to finish it.

The New York Times editorial board weighed in yesterday with a lengthy editorial decrying the failures of the reconstruction process, and also highlighting the ongoing cholera epidemic caused by the UN, concluding:

A recently announced 10-year and $2.2 billion effort to rid Haiti and the Dominican Republic of cholera by improving water and sanitation will require close coordination among the Haitian government, the United Nations, United States and other partners. Senator John Kerry, who has paid astute attention to Haitian issues in the Senate, will be well placed to do so if he becomes the next secretary of state. As long as the miseries continue, the need for the world to get this right remains.

Elsewhere, Ian Birrell sounds similar themes in The Guardian:

But, as the anniversary approaches, it is evident that many good intentions imploded at the expense of the people they were meant to help. Haiti stands as the latest sad example of how self-aggrandising assumptions of the global aid industry can backfire so badly. The humanitarian business should reflect hard on the failures.

After the disaster the international response was impressive. People watching horror play out in primetime donated nearly £2bn to charities; governments and official institutions pledged another £6bn. Although huge amounts still sit in bank accounts – the Red Cross alone has £310m, more than twice the total spent on permanent housing – £5.6bn has been disbursed.

But, as Sontag writes in her December 23 article, “disbursed does not necessarily meant spent. Sometimes, it simply means the money has been shifted from one bank account to another as projects have gotten bogged down. That is the case for nearly half the money for housing.”

Birrell writes:

Little wonder there is anger among local people, who were left so badly placed when hurricane Sandy struck two months ago. From the start of relief efforts in 2010 there was chaos, with hundreds of aid groups from all over the world flooding in. There had to be dozens of co-ordinating meetings each week, invariably held in English rather than French or Creole, underlining the exclusion of Haitians from the rebuilding of their own country.

The voices of local people were ignored by arrogant outsiders, undermining accountability and sustainable development. As the Centre for Global Development reported this month, only a shameful 0.6% of the money spent by bilateral and multilateral donors was given to Haitian charities and businesses. Meanwhile an estimated 40% went on supporting all the foreigners dispensing aid, with their inflated housing allowances, vehicles and drivers.

A response to Birrell’s op-ed from Jane Cocking of Oxfam UK takes issue with some of his assertions, noting that “Aid agencies are present because there is abject poverty. It does not follow that they have caused that poverty.” Unfortunately, Cocking’s letter does not recognize important points that Birrell makes – many of them also examined in Sontag’s article and in the Times editorial – that aid in Haiti has long been ill-coordinated, side-stepping the Haitian government, which it has weakened in the process — or that Haitians needed, and need, to be central to the relief and rebuilding process, from the government on down to the workers carrying out the projects.

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