On January 12, 2010, an earthquake measuring 7.0 on the Richter scale devastated the island of Haiti killing nearly 230,000 citizens and leaving almost 1.5 million homeless. As the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere before the earthquake, 76% of the Haitian population was living on less than $2.00 per day, with 56% earning less than $1.00 per day., Given this degree of poverty, it is unsurprising that the $8 billion USD accrued from damages and losses was equal to almost 120% of Haiti’s GDP in 2009. In the following months, close to $8.6 billion was donated to Haiti, of which roughly 60% was in the form of grants and 40% consisted of goods and services. Such titanic inflow of aid was unprecedented in Haitian history; the magnificence of such initial international effort magnifies the shame that this boatload sunk fast due to widespread inefficiency.
At first, the benevolence of the foreign community came at a contingency of trust. Haiti’s reputation for corruption convinced apprehensive donors to channel their funds into Haiti through various NGOs rather than through the government. This act of precaution wasn’t flawless; ironically, many of the NGOs that received funding because of their acclaimed transparency and presumed honesty actually failed to meet their expectations of execution.
It is twisted that the efforts provided by the foreign community have been acclaimed and lauded for not only their good-hearted intentions but also of their supposed success. This is witnessed by the public affairs relays between the donors and the public. In a testimony by USAID in October 2013, acting assistant administrator Elizabeth Hogan spoke of achievements made by the organization:
“Since the 2010 earthquake, 74 percent of the rubble has been removed….maize yields have increased by 341 percent, rice by 129 percent, beans by 100 percent, and plantains by 21 percent. USAID efforts in health have seen a 50 percent decrease in prevalence of underweight children under 5 years of age, childhood vaccinations have increased from 53 percent in 2006 to 62.5 percent, and mortality for children under 5 has also decreased from 112 deaths to 88 deaths per 1,000 live births. The number of internally displaced persons in camps has decreased by 80 percent as USAID has helped more than 328,000 people, or approximately 65,600 households (more than 20 percent of those displaced by the earthquake) find shelter solutions.”
Though Hogan makes these optimistic claims, an external review of USAID’s activities in Haiti disappointingly lacks fulsome data. Moreover, there exists very scarce notes in the provided report on accountability regarding the placement of aid. This transparency deficit isn’t only contained to USAID; of 196 organizations identified in Haiti, almost 65% had no specific accounts of spending available. These flimsy records of data bring into question the validity of aid granted in the past years to Haiti.
The optimistic fabrication provided by Hogan and USAID grows apparent through other outlets of data. Even though the documentation provided by specific NGOs is scant, there is data on total spending of aid in Haiti. Of the $7.5 billion dollars disbursed so far, more than 50% have gone to an area of categorized relief spending. Though this money was supposed to be spent on recovery aid, it went into funding expensive programs such as HIV prevention and new projects that are not even geographically or practically close to the problems created directly by the earthquake. Of the remaining lot of cash, a smaller portion went towards earthquake reconstruction. Finally, a mere $215 million was allocated to safe, permanent housing.
Furthermore, $1.2 billion has been used to fuel solely short-term solutions such as temporary shelters and “cash grants that pay a year’s rent.” This monetary break up of aid is equally shortsighted; much of the $7.5 billion that has been “disbursed” has not actually been used. Large sums of money have been shifted between bank accounts in a sadistic game of nonstop economic ping pong, causing the ongoing projects to suffer bureaucratic nightmares of funding and stalled progress. A lack of administrative planning is in part to blame. One such organization, Partners in Heath, constructed a new hospital in the poor city of Mirebalais yet failed to obtain funds for its first year operation budget. Partners in Health will have to maintain that building until they receive funding and if they cannot, then the building will be left unused. Either way, they are spending more than that which would have been needed had they acquired their operation budget ahead of time.
Tragically, the lessons of the past failures haven’t come to public fruition. Today, nearly four years after the earthquake, American companies and NGOs are still receiving most of USAID’s funding rather than local organizations. In 2013, USAID spend nearly $270 million on Haiti. Of that sum, nearly 50% went to American non-profits. Spending through American countries facilitates dependence of Haiti on the United States and is detrimental to local businesses, as these independent businesses can’t charge for products that the international organizations are giving out for free. There have been attempts to rework the current shortfall of practical benevolence; in 2011, USAID administrator Rajiv Shah offered to make a change in their donation policies stating that “his agency would no longer be satisfied with ‘writing big checks to big contractors and calling it development.’” Yet Mr. Shah’s promises are paper-thin. Ironically, in 2013, USAID navigated 47% of their total spending towards health and humanitarian assistance, and approximately 90% of that funding was received by US-based organizations.
To emerge from its devastated economy, Haiti needs access to inward investment and has to exert its productive capabilities by increasing its net exports. If the United States, as well as other countries participating in relief aid, would truly like Haiti to sustain itself in the near future, they must defy instinctive, protective decision-making and act solely for the purpose of improving the lives of the citizens of Haiti in the long term. Otherwise, corporate and national blind oversight will prove not just a hindrance to progress in Haiti. Rather, such efforts may end up hurting the country even more than inaction would have.
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