A Review of the U.S. Government’s Review of Its Haiti Quake Response

May 01, 2012

This guest post is cross-posted from the Center for Global Development.

By Vijaya Ramachandran and Julie Walz

Last week, USAID finally published an evaluation report on its activities in Haiti: “Independent Review of the U.S. Government Response to the Haiti Earthquake”.  The report is dated March 28, 2011. Yes, 2011. It took over a year to post the document on the USAID website.  The review was conducted by MacFadden and Associates – which operates an $80M Indefinite Quantity Contract from USAID.  There are some frank and enlightening assessments of USG response and coordination, but very little discussion of aid accountability.

Here are some impressions of the report:

Let’s start with the good.

Strengthen USAID. The report very clearly calls for a strengthening USAID: improved institutional structures, more staff and capacity, investments in new technology, and a reduction in reliance on outside contractors.  It is a call that has been made many times before, as USAID has evolved from a development implementer into an organization that manages contractors and grantees.  For example, USAID’s direct-hire workforce has decreased from around 8600 in 1962 to 2900 in 2009, despite an increase in foreign assistance. The report says that USAID’s weaknesses were especially apparent because the President appointed USAID as the lead agency in the USG Haiti response.

Nix the “whole of government” approach in disaster response. The report recommends that a “whole of government” approach should not be used in future international disaster response.  It is a concern that our colleague Todd Moss has previously discussed.  Although the idea of having all federal agencies at the table seems logical, it also creates parallel chains of command and further constrains the USG’s ability to get things done.  This is especially true in a disaster situation where rapid response is needed.  After the quake, more than 12 federal agencies sent staff to Haiti.  This created problems in terms of clear lines of authority, with specific reporting structures and delineated functions between agencies.

Reduce Washington micromanagement. The report includes interesting commentary about the micro-management of disaster response by policymakers in Washington.  The report describes how requests for information on an hourly basis about small, tactical management issues detracted from the overall response, as personnel spent time reporting back to DC, rather than focusing on the situation on the ground.  The response in donations from the American public was overwhelming, yet many ignored calls to donate cash, and sent in-kind goods instead.  Management of these in-kind donations was problematic as “elected officials pressured the USG and military personnel to have their constituents’ goods included in the limited transportation space.”

The not-so-good.

Where are the data? There is very little in the report on accountability with regard to aid flows.  A quote from the “Opening Note” sums it up well:

“We had hoped to invest greater efforts in measuring more accurately the quality of aid and its impact on beneficiaries. However, a disquieting lack of data on baselines against which to measure progress or even impact forced this task to the back burner. We realized that devoting more energy to this task could take up all the time and human resources we had available. Thus, some useful lessons in that direction remain unclear.”

It is hard to understand why there is a “disquieting lack of data.”  USAID and other U.S. agencies have been operating for several decades in Haiti, as have many of the large international NGOs.  Yet, almost nothing is known about how the money has been spent in Haiti, in the years leading up to the quake and in the twenty-seven months following, when several billion dollars were channeled through intermediaries for service delivery to the Haitian people.

Why is there no discussion of NGO accountability? The report makes passing references to the lack of beneficiary and local involvement, the large number of NGOs operating in the country, and the fact that many organizations came to Haiti with no previous experience in disaster management.  Yet it states that “due to time and resource constraints, we were unable to explore these topics in great detail.”  Also, the report says that “no clear baseline or reporting mechanism was established” for NGOs receiving USAID funding.  These are big issues for the USG – especially if NGOs and private contractors continue to be the main channels through which the money is being disbursed.  The USG must look at various options to increase accountability—from easily-accessible quarterly reports to the standard accounting framework offered by the International Aid Transparency Initiative.

Vijaya Ramachandran is a senior fellow and Julie Walz is a Research Assistant at the Center for Global Development.

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