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Sunday, March 7

Haiti disaster relief: Despite massive donations, efforts of UN and other agencies fall disturbingly short

"Down with NGO thieves" -- Graffiti on a wall in Port au Prince

March 3, 2010 (IRIN)
PORT-AU-PRINCE. Thirteen dead. Submerged houses. Fields and banana plantations waterlogged. Drowned livestock. Impassable roads. Fresh trauma for quake-displaced thousands. This is the plight of Les Cayes, a city on Haiti’s south coast, after an unseasonal deluge. And hurricane season is not far off. [...]
The rainy season usually starts in Haiti around the beginning of April and peaks in May but on February 27 and 28 the heavens opened. On 2 March many homes still had standing water, an aid worker told IRIN: “Many, many people have told us they lost their crops [including banana trees and sugar cane] and their animals,” he said.

The misery and death brought by the early rains is as nothing, next to what awaits Haiti's homeless earthquake victims when the rains begin in earnest. On February 28 Lawrence Downes, an American journalist and member of The New York Times editorial board who's reported from post-earthquake Haiti, penned an editorial for The New York Times, in which he excoriated the poor planning by donor governments and international aid agencies. He wrote:
[...] The rainy season is the hard deadline against which Haiti’s government and relief agencies in Port-au-Prince are racing as they try to solve a paralyzing riddle: how to shelter more than a million displaced people in a densely crowded country that has no good place to put them.

The plan after the quake was to move people to camps outside the city. But in a sudden shift last week, officials unveiled a new idea. They would try to send as many people as possible, tens of thousands, back to the shattered streets of Port-au-Prince before the rains come. The prime minister approved it on Friday.

If it sounds insane, insanity is relative in Haiti now. Consider the choices:

  • Let people stay in filthy, fragile settlements where no one wants to live, and pray when the hurricanes hit.

  • Build sturdy transitional housing in places like Jérémie, in the southwest, that can absorb the capital’s overflow.

  • Encourage people to return to neighborhoods that are clogged with rubble and will be for years, where the smell of death persists. In areas like Bel Air and Fort National, near Champ de Mars, people whose homes still stand are sleeping outside, in fear of aftershocks. They were still pulling bodies out of Fort National over the weekend, burning them on the spot.

  • The first plan is intolerable. The second may come true only several years and hurricanes from now. The third is merely absurd.

    Officials believe that if they clear just enough rubble from certain areas of the city and improve drainage in flood-prone areas, they can ease the pressure on the camps and save lives. It makes some sense to keep people near their neighborhoods, holding on to what remains of their lives and livelihoods.

    But when what remains is nothing, it’s hard to make sense of that idea. Harder still when you realize that the Haitian government and aid agencies are still overwhelmed by the crisis. The government hasn’t even figured out where to put the rubble, and doesn’t seem to know who is living where.[...]
    William G. O’Neill, director of the Conflict Prevention and Peace Forum in New York, was a little more tactful in his condemnation after he also personally assessed the situation in Haiti. He told the Christian Science Monitor on March 2:
    "Some in the international community failed to understand just how crucial securing temporary shelter and sanitation systems would be, given the imminent arrival of the rainy season. Someone should take a hard look at what went wrong in the humanitarian planning system.”
    Someone did take a look. The head of UN relief efforts took his own people to task in an email that was leaked to the press:
    U.N. aid chief 'disappointed' with Haiti earthquake relief efforts

    By Colum Lynch
    Washington Post Staff Writer
    February 18, 2010

    UNITED NATIONS -- The United Nations' top humanitarian relief coordinator has scolded his lieutenants for failing to adequately manage the relief effort in Haiti, saying that an uneven response in the month after the devastating Jan. 12 earthquake has undercut confidence in the world body's ability to deliver vital assistance, according to a confidential e-mail.

    The e-mail, which provides a rare and highly critical internal assessment of the massive U.N.-led relief effort, portrays an organization that is straining to set up enough shelters, latrines and other vital services for Haiti's displaced population. It also warns that a failure of the U.N. system to improve relief assistance could result in political unrest and mass demonstrations.

    The criticism from John Holmes, the head of the U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, focuses on the United Nations' sluggish implementation of its humanitarian "cluster strategy," which assigns key U.N. relief agencies responsibility for coordinating the delivery of basic needs in 12 sectors, including water and shelter.

    The cluster strategy has been developed in recent years to head off traditional conflicts between competing aid agencies that provided overlapping services. But it has been showing signs of strain.

    A "lack of capacity has meant that several clusters have yet to establish a concise overview of needs and develop coherent response plans, strategies and gap analyses," Holmes, who described himself as "disappointed," wrote in the e-mail. "This is beginning to show and is leading others to doubt our ability to deliver."

    U.N. relief officials confirmed the authenticity of the e-mail, but Holmes's office declined to comment on it.

    Officials said that the U.N. World Food Program has fed 3.4 million Haitians and that more than 850,000 people get daily five-liter rations of water. More than 66,000 people have been employed under a U.N. cash-for-work program.

    Holmes acknowledged that the relief community has "achieved a great deal in Haiti."

    Still, Chris de Bono, a spokesman for UNICEF, said the logistics of procuring material have been difficult. "It's now in the pipeline, and it's certainly a priority for us," he added.

    Holmes noted that Haiti will face heavy storms in the upcoming hurricane season. "This is a major test for all of us," he wrote, "and we cannot afford to fail."
    Darn straight you can't afford to fail, not with all the money thrown at UN agencies for Haiti relief efforts by private, corporate, and government donors. On February 9 UNICEF reported that their portion of the take from the January 22 "Hope for Haiti Now" telethon was $6 million.

    Yet that's a drop in the bucket, next to what UNICEF and other UN agencies have been given for Haiti. The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia has given them a blank check by not attaching any stipulations, and so have many other donors the world over. Yet Lewis Lucke had the gall to rattle the tin cup in his tone-deaf reply to Lawrence Downes. Lucke, who's identified as "the United States response coordinator for Haiti" wrote in his March 2 letter to The New York Times:
    Lawrence Downes, in his March 1 Editorial Observer (“Haiti’s Futile Race Against the Rain”), called Haiti’s short-term housing plan “ludicrous.” We would call it a difficult, realistic and necessary step that will save lives.

    To meet the needs of the hundreds of thousands of displaced Haitians who wish to stay in Port-au-Prince, we continue to provide emergency food and water, expand available medical care, improve sanitary conditions and work to control the outbreak of disease. Debris removal and habitability assessments are also under way.

    By the start of the rainy season, enough emergency shelter materials will have been distributed through United States and international partners to meet the short-term needs of the estimated 1.3 million people affected by the earthquake.

    While this is a remarkable achievement, the Haitian people will not be out of danger when the rains come. That is a sad reality.

    The government of Haiti is already focused on long-term housing needs. But the Haitian government must summon the political will to build Haiti back better and under stronger building codes than it was before January. The international community, led by the United States, must do its part and provide sustained financing for many years. All of this can and should be done.
    Well, at least one of Haiti's earthquake survivors has a pithy editorial comment on the kind of hubris displayed by Mr Lucke, as Joanathan M. Katz reported on March 5 for the Associated Press:
    PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti — The world's bill for the Haitian earthquake is large and growing — now $2.2 billion — and so is the criticism about how the money is being spent.

    A half-million homeless received tarps and tents; far more are still waiting under soggy bed sheets in camps that reek of human waste. More than 4.3 million people got emergency food rations; few will be able to feed themselves anytime soon. Medical aid went to thousands, but long-term care isn't even on the horizon.

    International aid groups and officials readily acknowledge they are overwhelmed by the scale of the disaster. Haitian leaders — frustrated that billions are bypassing them in favor of U.N. agencies and American and other non-governmental organizations — are whipping up sentiment against foreign aid groups they say have gone out of control.

    In the past few days, someone scrawled graffiti declaring "Down with NGO thieves" along the cracked walls that line the road between Port-au-Prince's international airport, the temporary government headquarters, and a U.N. base.

    Ahead of a crucial March 31 post-quake donors conference in New York, many are taking a hard look at the money that's flowed in so far.

    First the good news: Assistance has indeed been pouring into Haiti, sometimes from unexpected places.

    Donations from Americans for earthquake relief in Haiti have surpassed $1 billion, with about one-third going to the American Red Cross, the Center on Philanthropy at Indiana University said Friday. Other major recipients include Catholic Relief Services, the U.S. Fund for UNICEF and the U.S. wing of Doctors Without Borders, according to a separate report by the Chronicle for Philanthropy.

    An analysis of U.N. data shows that private donations make up the bulk of the total, accounting for more than $980 million of what has already been delivered or that donors have promised.

    The United States leads all countries with its commitments of $713 million — with Canada, France, Spain, the United Kingdom, Japan and the European Union among other top donors. Saudi Arabia poured $50 million of its oil wealth into the U.N. Emergency Response Relief Fund. Even countries with their own troubles rushed to Haiti's aid: Afghanistan provided $200,000.

    A Nevada real estate developer agreed to send $5 million worth of circus tents formerly used by Cirque du Soleil. Leonardo DiCaprio and Coca-Cola are each sending $1 million. Dollar General is donating $100,000. Hanesbrands is shipping 2 million pairs of underwear.

    But leaders including Prime Minister Jean-Max Bellerive are not happy with the way the aid money is being delivered.

    "The NGOs don't tell us ... where the money's coming from or how they're spending it," he told The Associated Press. "Too many people are raising money without any controls, and don't explain what they're doing with it."

    Haiti wanted aid organizations to register with the government long before the quake, a goal identified as a priority by former U.S. President Bill Clinton when he was named U.N. special envoy in 2009. But it was never completed.

    U.N. and U.S. officials said there is close monitoring of NGOs who receive funds. The U.S. Agency for International Development requires recipient groups to file reports every two weeks on how their activities are lining up with their planned programs, said Julie Leonard, leader of the agency's Disaster Assistance Response Team.

    Governments tend to give funds to agencies from their own countries.

    USAID paid at least $160 million of its total Haiti-related expenditures to the Defense Department, the Federal Emergency Management Agency, two local U.S. search and rescue teams and, in at least two instances, itself.

    Tens of millions more went to U.S.-based aid groups. While much of that bought food and other necessities for Haitians, it often did so from U.S. companies — including highly subsidized rice growers whose products are undercutting local producers, driving them out of business.

    One cent of every dollar has gone to the Haitian government.

    Saudi Arabia's donation is essentially a blank check for the U.N. fund to spend on Haiti relief as it sees fit. So is Afghanistan's. DiCaprio's million is going through the Clinton Bush Haiti Fund, while Coca-Cola and Dollar General's donations are headed for the American Red Cross. The underwear is going through the Atlanta, Georgia-based aid group CARE.

    [DiCaprio is not the only Hollywood star who's donated $1 million, and Tiger Woods has donated $3 million. See Wikipedia's article and links for extensive information on donations from private, corporate, and government donors.]

    The circus tents are for the Haitian government.

    In the days immediately after the quake, this is exactly what many Haitians said they wanted. Distrustful of leaders they said were corrupt, some went so far as to say they hoped the U.S. would annex the country.

    But the top U.N. official in Haiti said the country's leaders are right: For half a century, the international community has kept Haiti's government weak and unable to deal with disaster by ignoring officials and working with outside organizations.

    "We complain because the government is not able to (lead), but we are partly responsible for that," said U.N. Assistant Secretary-General of Peacekeeping Operations Edmond Mulet.

    Worse, the patchwork of roughly 900 foreign and thousands more Haiti-based NGOs do not coordinate, take on too many roles and swarm well-known neighborhoods while leaving others untouched — doing what Mulet called "little things with little impact."

    He said the individual organizations should identify specific roles, such as road construction, and stick to them to make it easier for the Haitian government to coordinate the overall response.

    A French Foreign Ministry official said the solution is to take the Haitian government seriously.

    "It's a bit the image of a child: If you believe he will never become an adult, he will never become an adult," said Pierre Duquesne, who oversees foreign aid.

    Clinton has put out two statements in the past week noting that much has been left undone in the massive international relief effort. Refugees International published a report saying the "the humanitarian response has fallen short of meeting the Haitian people's immediate needs."

    Deputy U.N. emergency relief coordinator Catherine Bragg said the group was being unreasonably pessimistic.

    "The Haiti situation, as has been said many, many times since the first day, is the most complex humanitarian response we've ever had to deal with," she said.

    The government estimates the quake killed 230,000 people — though without a civil registry or accurate means of counting, nobody really knows how many died. More than 1.2 million lost their homes, about half of those fleeing the capital to the even harder-to-track-and-reach countryside.

    The Haitian government has gone through three prime ministers in two years, had a president overthrown in 2004 and was already helpless to rebuild from hurricanes and riots in 2008. It lost nearly all its major buildings and much of its staff in the quake.

    Mulet said a strong plan at the New York donors' conference could help organize the response, strengthen the government and provide help for the Haitian people. But doing so will mean changing the way things have been done in Haiti for decades.

    "If this shake-up was not enough to really change us nor them, then I don't know what will," he said.

    Associated Press Writers Michelle Faul in Port-au-Prince, Edie Lederer at the United Nations in New York and Angela Charlton in Paris contributed to this report.

    (This version CORRECTS that there were two U.S. studies on Haiti donations, adding the Chronicle for Philanthropy.)

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