Can Haiti count on us? Seriously?

To cut a long story short: yes, you should donate to Haiti. How and to whom is a secondary question.

Haiti has touched a raw nerve with the professional aid cynics. A case in point is William Easterly, the champion for more accountability in aid, who is now going out of his way to praise the current wave of solidarity for Haiti.
When a catastrophe strikes the poorest and most vulnerable people in the hemisphere, you just have to help. Whether you help or not tells you who are. Somebody who knows to act on compassion or not? In the face of disaster, other questions are secondary. My main concern is whether Haiti will be able to count on us beyond the first 3-4 weeks or even 5-10 years to get out of the hole they are in.

I’m just a soul who’s intentions are good/ Oh Lord, please don’t let me be misunderstood

I don’t know a lot about Haiti itself, and will refrain from an opinion on specific local organizations. In my profession, I help international Non-Governmental Organizations (NGOs) with certain projects and have overseen international agencies. I have visited and worked with local aid groups in Africa and Latin America. Most of them have a very strong internal moral culture. They take their mission seriously. Money is accounted for internally, although they might externally obscure accounts so that they can use it in ways that they perceive to better serve their mission and organisation. They are also human. Some people do become corrupt, build empires, play games of power, and slack off. Most don’t. Common as they are, any case of corruption in an NGO is a double disgrace, because it’s like stealing from the poor.
If you fund one of the UN-agencies or major NGOs for its core competency, your money will be rather well spent. These organisations are without any doubt more frugal, better focused and more motivated for their work than a lot of private sector and government services. Professionally, I am convinced that for development, only the highest standard of results for money is  acceptable. This means that improvements are always necessary. But we were talking about Haiti.

The first weeks: effective delivery of food, health and other basic services

In the first couple of days, you need search and rescue, first aid and emergency surgery. You need it quickly and professionally. You need everyone who is in the area to rush to the scene and start working. Of course this is not perfectly coordinated. You don’t have time to wait for the results of meetings on all levels. Rush in and don’t waste time. Starting from the moment when there is an appointed coordinator, the teams must just go where this coordinator tells them to go. If this wild rush for to help didn’t happen, lives would be lost. Indeed, most people die in the first day. And after three days, savings become rare. International teams are welcome, but nearly all the people who get saved are saved from the rubble by their neighbors during the first few days. Apparently the all-hands-on-deck cooperation and mutual help is the norm in emergencies, rather than asocial behavior. A joint-relief effort can be a good start to nation-building.
Next priorities are water, food and shelter, while medical attention continues to be important.1 For this kind of “bulk delivery” of aid, small is wasteful, and only clogs up the coordination mechanisms. The big professionals for this kind of aid are known: the Red Cross movement, the multilateral agencies like UNICEF and the World Food Program, and on the NGO side there are humanitarian giants like MSF and Oxfam.
Already after a few days people start rebuilding their life. Rubble removal is a first sign. The ministry of Health, supported by the international agencies, gets more control over the process.
In the case of Haiti, I am amazed that all these different countries,UN agencies, and International NGOs have managed to produce a document within a few days with all their planned activities for the first months: the Haiti Flash Appeal. Now the donors have a good overview on who does what. As most of these actors are accepted by the humanitarian community as decent organisations that can deliver what they promise, nothing stops the individual to pick his beneficiary from that list.
Are these not the moments that make you proud to be human?

Who’s country is it anyway?

The average Haitian has been a victim of his country rather than an actor in it. In other articles this sad history is highlighted. It is a story of dashed hopes and hope-turned disaster, of popular heroes staying on too long as a president and turning into dictators, of families with no other option to survive and exploit the land beyond restoration. The once-lush country is now barren. With lots of poor in it.
What was worrying me in the first week was the lack of even token respect most people talking about Haiti have for the local institutions, the civil society, the elected government and the churches. It is true that the earthquake has destroyed the very heart of the country, but still, every long-term solution will have to be one where the Haitians can take responsibility for their own future. We heard stories of heroic international rescue workers, saving lives. But the thousands of heroic stories of Haitians were left untold.
While the rushed declarations in the first week had more than a whiff of paternalism, the Ministerial Preparatory Conference in Montreal (25th of January, only 2 weeks after the catastrophe) is a document of unexpected lucidity. The government of Haiti gets the leadership role it needs to take. A long-term commitment is pledged by the main donors, based on the needs.

An election is an event, democracy is an institution: of duty bearers and rights holders

However, I still fear for the future. High-level declarations are usually just that, and my view of empowerment is not that it is something that is given by the powerful, but wrestled by powerless.
In his excellent blog, Duncan Greene from Oxfam writes the following:
There is no apolitical option: A disaster of this magnitude is also a political shock. New actors will emerge, old ones will decline, politics will shift. The spontaneous self-help groups that sprang up after the 1985 Mexican earthquake boosted independent social movements and ultimately led to the decline of Mexico’s one-party state. In Nicaragua, the Sandinista revolution traced its rise back to the mishandling of 1972 earthquake aid by the Somoza dictatorship.
Disaster response is not a substitute for politics. Donors won’t solve Haiti’s problems (which of course predate the earthquake), Haitians will. But the way reconstruction is designed could help or hinder efforts to tackle poor governance, mass unemployment, inequality and crime.
The government currently appears largely absent, but power, like nature, abhors a vacuum. New forces will emerge, which may strengthen or radically alter the social contract between citizen and state.
Re-building the country will be a massive effort. A lot of the physical infrastructure can theoretically be built by international enterprises and delivered key-in-the-door. However, the Haitians will still be in the same dire situation, without a dream of a decent life, even with a new hospital without working health services. With Duncan Greene I would plead to keep an eye on the institutions that lead to a better society and with every intervention to take the impact on these institutions into account.
An option nobody mentioned yet, is to tap into the successful institution-building experience of the European Union for prospect member states. Indeed, up to now the success of the EU in building stable economies and democracies from countries for all kind of stripes is remarkable. From Poland to Portugal, From Greece to Macedonia, success was not guaranteed. It is telling that the EU reserves the institution-building treatment for the “near abroad” while for countries far away, elections event management with international election monitoring tourism will do.
Interventions in the third world tend to be just that: interventions. The world intervenes and organizes an event, with massive press coverage and superstars. They call it elections. Preferably presidential elections with winners and losers. While democracy has been a story of creating stronger institutions to restrain abusive individuals, elections and even constitutions are organised to create “strong leadership”. And this is exactly what happens. Strong leaders are seeking a third term, and weak institutions cannot stop them.
Duty bearers and rights holders is UN jargon for very important principles. Poor people have human rights such as education, basic health services and protection against abuse. They will only get these rights if the civil society, the organised “we the people” are empowered to ask for it. The poor are the rights holders. And who are the duty bearers? It is the local government. Indeed, the local government should guarantee the basic rights, and be accountable for it. The same happens with the civil society: the local union or chamber of commerce is the duty bearer for the type of services they give their members. They organize the people to help them demand their rights from the powerful state or private sector boss. The government is the duty bearer, but can outsource the services if need be, e.g. to the church for education, or to NGOs.
Indeed, our aid-giving governments are duty bearers towards their own electorate, not towards the Haitians. This means that in the long run, our governments will push what their own electorate wants, and the feedback from the Haitian whether this is appropriate, will not be taken into account (otherwise our leaders would act against their mandate). International NGOs that don’t respect this dynamic will be more part of the problem than part of the solution. Local paternalistic NGOs, who only deliver services, wouldn’t be helpful in the building of an accountable Haiti. They aren’t duty bearers, and health care becomes a donation from the NGO instead of a right that can be asked from the elected government. This way universal health care is difficult to attain, as a lot of people who could fight for it, already get it. Those falling through the cracks just stay there.

With great power comes great responsibility, what are you going to do?

How fast will we forget? We should mark the date of January the 12th 2011, and every year after to ask for accounts from everybody who promised to help. How much has been spent? on what, who were the intermediaries? was empowerment of the rights holders mainstreamed in all activities? Where did every penny go? Do we get access to the reports and accounts? Is there a systematic evaluation and are there lessons learned? An institution that complies should get more money. Incompetent ones should be exposed. All too often funding decisions come from the heart while the content of reports go to the brain. We must hold our governments and NGOs accountable for the money spent and the promised results.
As an individual, you should feel good about the needs you want to address and the organisation you are going to support. The needs are plenty and most of them are vital. When the normal protection of family and society crumbles, you need shelter, health care, protection against all kinds of abuse, education, work, income…. If you browse the Flash Appeal, you’ll be amazed by the rainbow of needs and the organizations that reflect them. In March there will be an updated version, that doesn’t only focus on saving lives but also emphasizes reconstruction with the government in the drivers’ seat and with the international community as peers, and with more attention paid to local contributers. It is more a structured and coordinated inventory than a top-down plan.
So choose your cause, your quest, and research your partner.
A good place to start this research is here. Different websites (or this and this) track the behavior of organizations. Other websites focus on transparency. I don’t  know the internal workings of these self-appointed watchdogs, but I use them as a web-source, just an element in my research. What bothers me in the lists the US sites have is that they give very little attention to empowerment of the local civil society or elected officials. Do they support well-respected local communities or are they just paternalistic do-gooders? It is a complaint equally heard about official Aid from the US: when all the US-partners and consultants are paid, what is left? How can you be sensitive to the real needs if you have no local partners? I know the Haitian Red Cross supported by the red cross movement has always been there. I know Oxfam has been working for years in Haiti, just like Doctors Without Borders, UNICEF, Catholic relief Services, and some others.
There is a lot of support now, and if you give to an organisation you trust, they might gather more means that they can use efficiently for Haiti. Are victims of other catastrophes less worthy? If you trust the organisation, let them reassign the money to the needs they see as the most urgent. This is what Doctors Without Borders did already a few days after the earthquake: they announced they had enough for Haiti already. Most humanitarian agencies have a “reserve fund” they can use in case of need. These funds can be mobilized within 24 hours after the impact. The juggernaut of all these funds is the Central Emergency Relief Fund of the UN, and money from it can be assigned flexibly. Most UN-agencies and even most NGOs can recieve money from this fund. To donors and the public, most of them offer their own fund you can contribute to without earmarking your contribution to a specific crisis. But don’t let anybody distract you from demanding the results you paid for.
Moreover, if you have any skills, you might consider to contact a decent organization and offer your services. For Haiti or elsewhere. Probably money is more efficient, but as I said before, it tells more about who you are if you give more than just money. For the moment the place is swarmed, and if you don’t have any specialised skills they urgently need, stay away. The rebuilding may take 10 years, so what about 2018? By then you are a certified engineer they will need.  As I said before: can they count on us? seriously?
By Sam Gardner


1 Epidemics rarely happen immediately after an earthquake. Contrary to conventional wisdom, dead bodies don’t cause epidemics, although they do stink. However, mass burials can traumatize the grieving family. Bad hygienic circumstances afterwards, e.g. by the lack of water and sanitation can cause epidemics though.

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