by Jonathan M Katz

On 12 January 2010, the deadliest earthquake in the history of the Western Hemisphere struck Haiti. In a country already struggling with huge developmental challenges, the disaster killed more than 300,000 people and left over one million homeless. Yet, despite an unprecedented outpouring of global generosity, the relief – and later reconstruction – effort has foundered. In this ‘Republic of NGOs,’ good intentions have often gone wrong, and those driven by a humanitarian impulse have inadvertently contributed to an international response that will be remembered most for promises unfulfilled.

Long before January 2010, when the sky above Port-au-Prince swarmed with foreign aircraft and aid caravans proliferated in the rubble dust, Haiti had been known for one of the world’s thickest concentrations of aid groups. The country’s ever-worsening poverty and proximity to the United States (US) and Europe’s island holdings, combined with an absence of major conflict, had for decades made it a place where aid workers felt needed and free to work. A persistent lack of local governance meanwhile meant that managers could experiment as they pleased. Many of the most successful projects, by their own criteria, had long since become essential providers of public services, further supplanting and weakening the state.

This weakening of sovereignty was a bitter pill for the second-oldest independent republic in the Western Hemisphere. Snide references to the Caribbean nation being governed as a de facto ‘Republic of NGOs’ date back to at least the 1990s. Moreover, experienced aid workers themselves knew that the cycle of dependency and despondency undermined their own goals. A persistent lack of coordination among NGOs ranging from offices of the world’s pre-eminent international actors to one-man shows seemingly improvised on the spot made an effective aid regime impossible. When in mid-2009, less than a year before the earthquake, former US President Bill Clinton was appointed the United Nations (UN) Special Envoy for Haiti, one of his primary missions was to improve NGO coordination, eliminate redundancies, and see to it that coverage gaps were filled. His attempts ended in exasperation.

When the earthquake struck, longtime Haiti hands and clear-eyed aid leaders thus faced a paradox. They knew that outmoded, uncoordinated assistance had not only failed to help in the past, but also helped create the fragility exposed by the disaster. On the other hand, there was now an unspeakably dire emergency, to be followed by long-term, resource-exhausting reconstruction. To add final fuel to the fire, even more NGOs – many with no experience in Haiti whatsoever – were rushing into the disaster zone, lured both by a genuine desire to help and a bonanza of donations pouring in from shocked observers around the world. In the US alone, private donations reached $1.4 billion by year’s end – equating to approximately $6 per American adult. Ultimately, more than $3 billion would be donated to international NGOs after the quake, part of a gargantuan pledged total of $16.3 billion in all. Coordination would be more crucial, yet harder to achieve, than ever.

The approach chosen after the catastrophe was to coordinate aid actors through a system of humanitarian ‘clusters,’ in which efforts would be organized by subject area, such as housing or sanitation. Representatives from aid groups of all sizes and provenances – from Médecins Sans Frontières to the newest aid-group leader of all, the movie star Sean Penn – gathered for regular meetings to share data, discuss results, and agree on new strategies. The system’s top‑level coordinators were in turn to liaise with deployed military and other government agencies in hopes of achieving a consistent response. Variations on this basic strategy had been employed after the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami and elsewhere, including at a smaller scale in Haiti after a series of deadly tropical storms in 2008.

As I trace in my new book, The Big Truck That Went By: How the World Came to Save Haiti and Left Behind a Disaster, the system failed. A critical moment came at the beginning of February 2010, toward the end of the first month after the quake. At that point, most people in the quake zone had moved out of the acute crisis stage. There were no longer bodies to be found in the rubble. Medical teams still working had moved on to treating car-crash victims and malaria. To most people in the streets – where nearly every quake survivor, including me, was sleeping – it was time to try and restart businesses, and cobble together some form of adequate if temporary housing. In humanitarian workers’ parlance, Haitians were moving from “relief” to “recovery.”

At this crucial juncture, the underpinnings of the reconstruction that was to follow were being laid. The places where Haitians were settling would be their homes for months at least. The way in which post-quake land use quickly evolved would become the new normal for years. But the UN system, foreign militaries and NGOs were largely oblivious to this reality, still stuck in the relief phase. Outside Haiti, images of the first terrible hours after the quake remained in high rotation on television and in other media. Fundraising and the gathering of immediate relief supplies continued unabated. Donors preferred organizations such as the American Red Cross – whose $486 million in funds raised far exceeded what an organization that, in the words of its spokeswoman Jana Sweeny, did not “do development,” could spend. “There’s only so much money that can be forced through the emergency phase,” she added.

The main problem, however, was a continuing lack of communication. As I recount in the book:

Though concerns about security had proved unwarranted, most cluster meetings were held inside the security perimeter at the UN Logistics Base on the airport road. That meant few Haitians could attend. And since nearly all the meetings were held in English, few Haitians could have understood anyway. (This was explained via an International Federation of the Red Cross report with a tautology: “The language of the national cluster remained English because only English speakers attended the early meetings.”)

The cluster participants rarely ventured into the city, to say nothing of the countryside, themselves. An early exception was Mike Godfrey, an aid worker with decades of experience who had spent the previous year and a half overseeing a USAID agriculture and watershed management program in the Haitian countryside. Both Godfrey and his rented apartment in Pétionville survived the earthquake, and unlike most participants, he continued to live outside the security perimeter, making the four‑hour round trip each day. At first he wasn’t quite sure what role he could play. “I’ve been here,” he remembered thinking. “I know what’s going on.”

What was going on – at the meetings and in the streets – disturbed him. The ‘LogBase’ [UN logistics base in Port-au-Prince] bull sessions were dominated by bureaucratic procedure. With aid workers constantly rotating in and out, many staying for only a few weeks, nearly every meeting had to burn time getting newcomers up to speed. The meetings about shelter issues rarely addressed the estimated 600,000 people who had spontaneously decongested the capital by moving to their ancestral homes in the countryside. Thousands more had moved to the relatively open land between the capital and the Dominican border.

Godfrey had overseen CARE USA’s operations after the 1998–1999 war in Kosovo, when at least 1.2 million refugees were driven from their homes. Responders in the Balkans made a point of delivering aid to individual families instead of squatter camps, for fear of encouraging people to stay in them, he recalled, and followed refugees’ lead when they returned to their homes on their own. If the aid effort in Haiti could similarly deliver resources to people outside of the capital, Godfrey and many others reasoned, this might incentivize them to remain where they were, solving one of the country’s biggest problems.

In Port-au-Prince, he was convinced, as water, medical care, food, and services were brought directly to the camps, the new settlements would become permanent. He tried to explain this to people working on camp handouts, but they were too busy to listen. As Godfrey watched thousands who’d fled seep back into the capital, he stopped going to meetings all together. At one of his last, the aid worker – whose stout jaw, wavy yellow hair, and groomed white beard could make him a convincing extra in Julius Caesar – stood up and asked, “how can you continue to function when there isn’t a person who’s been here for more than three weeks, and the chairman arrived yesterday?” Most participants agreed but could only shrug.

The Haitian government – undermanned, underfunded, and, in many ways equally out of touch – was also at a loss. For a while, its officials were in denial as well. But it did not take long for the new reality to become clear to everyone. In February, US officials and allied aid groups were still proposing a three-phase plan in which most of the estimated 1.5 million post-quake homeless would be relocated to new, managed camps, housed in 125,000 durable ‘T-shelters’ to be constructed from tarps, metal, and plywood. Yet by July, when fewer than 6,000 had been constructed, it was clear that this program had failed. By failing to take into account how Haitians would manage their own recovery, and unable to tackle larger issues such as land tenure, the resurgent ‘Republic of NGOs’ had nothing to add. And despite best intentions, high profile figures like Sean Penn were bestowed with a level of influence way beyond their expertise. Many intra-city camps are still where they were in early February 2010. Those individuals and families that have been evicted, sometimes violently, have either moved to buildings equally or more dangerous than those that collapsed during the earthquake, or have fallen off aid groups’ radars completely.

The cluster system did succeed in a few ways. At an organizational level, there was most likely more coordination amongst NGOs than in the past, and an unprecedentedly open relationship between military and civilian responders. But the nature of a top-down, highly centralized model, as opposed to a broader-based approach involving Haitians, meant that critical mistakes were made at the beginning. And the result of that early failure will be felt for years to come. Make no mistake: that Haiti was let down after the earthquake is not in dispute among those who live there. While, as always, there are some NGOs that can point to successful individual projects, the overall effort has not fulfilled its lofty promise. Poverty is as dire as ever. Hunger is worsening. At the three-year mark, post-quake homelessness remains a crisis, and new housing options are not addressing the critical need for future resilience and disaster preparedness. Cholera, a disease never before confirmed in Haiti, has claimed 7,500 lives since being introduced by foreigners – with all evidence pointing to a contingent of UN peacekeepers stationed beside a rural tributary.

The good news is that Haiti’s story isn’t over. The earthquake proved that a mere increase in attention and even a surge of new funds is not enough. But if there are real changes in attitude and action – if responders can find ways to not only truly work with Haitians themselves, but follow the public’s lead – the cycle can be broken. The real project of allowing Haiti to stand up on its own can succeed, and the NGOs can finally go home.

text copyright: Global_Geneva