Evaluation of Donor Response to Haiti Earthquake Shows "Building Back Better" Nothing But a Slogan

March 02, 2012

For the previous five years an independent organization, DARA, has been publishing the Humanitarian Response Index (HRI). The DARA website explains the HRI as “the world’s only independent tool for measuring the individual performance and commitment of government donors to apply the principles of Good Humanitarian Donorship which they agreed to in 2003.” (To learn more about the HRI, see the DARA website).

Unlike other independent evaluations which have focused as much on NGO behavior as donors, the 2011 HRI Haiti report focuses almost exclusively on the donor side of the equation. The report finds a host of missed opportunities, skewed priorities, a lack of coordination and perhaps most importantly, a shortage of communication with both the Haitian government and Haitian people. The result, as the report concludes, is that:

The international community cannot claim that it has helped Haiti build back better, and missed an opportunity to redress years of neglect and inattention to the issue of building capacity, resilience and strengthening preparedness for future crises.

Coordination and Local Input

While the HRI report found that coordination among international actors was relatively good, this “came at the price of better engagement and ownership of local actors.” A problem that has been mentioned numerous times before was the holding of meetings at the UN Logistics base, which the report notes “excluded local NGOs: there was no mechanism by which the large number of Haitian NGOs could be identified or contacted, and their participation was physically limited by making their entry difficult to the logistics base and by convening cluster meetings in English.”

One interviewee told the report’s authors:

“Donors having meetings in a military base in a humanitarian crisis makes no sense and the fact that they still do it one year and a half later is even worse. It hampers participation. Haitians are totally excluded. Many people can’t enter because there are strict controls at the entrance. As Haitians it’s harder for them to get through.”

The report suggests that rather than housing UN operations on a military base, “UN agencies and clusters should have been physically based within government ministries, to expedite their re-building and support their efforts.”

Many organizations also criticized donors for being “inflexible in allowing Haitian NGOs to be subgrantees.” One exception to this was Spain, which required that NGOs partner with local organizations. Canada also set some money aside specifically to build capacity of local NGOs. The U.S. government on the other hand was “criticized…for being confusing, non-transparent and inward-looking, despite their large presence.”

As an interviewee explained:

USAID has had a complete bunker mentality. It’s impossible to have any continuity in conversations with them. OFDA had platoons of consultants rotating in and out.

Missed Opportunities

One of the primary criticisms the HRI has for donor countries was that they missed opportunities to actually “build back better”.  Although the report notes that many actors were inexperienced in large scale urban disasters, donors come in for criticism for not applying the lessons learned from previous disasters, such as integrating local organizations into the response.

Another critical missed opportunity concerns land tenure issues. While it is clear that Haiti faces an extreme housing crisis, there is very little land available for building new houses. NGOs and donors have consistently shifted blame to the Haitian government because of the lack of clarity around land tenure and their reluctance to use eminent domain. Although the report acknowledges these constraints, the authors find that it was “mostly poor planning and coordination” which caused the significant delays in building temporary and permanent shelters.  The authors continue:

The Haitian government had a short window of opportunity to declare eminent domain and squandered it, in large part because donors did not provide early and strong support for such a controversial and bold action despite similar problems occurring in past natural disasters.

Using the natural migration after the earthquake to support decentralization was another missed opportunity, according to the report. Some 700,000 residents left the capital after the earthquake, yet “the collective aid community sucked hundreds of thousands of people back into the already over-congested capital of Port-au-Prince, an unintended by-product of the many cash-for-work, other employment, and cash distributions that were focused on the area of destruction, not the areas where people had fled to.” The reason is simple. As the report states, “Most donors preferred to support the response in the capital, where their aid was more visible.”

The Cholera Response

Donors’ role in the cholera response stands as one of the biggest failures over the last two years. Introduced by MINUSTAH, the cholera epidemic has killed over 7,000 people and sickened over half-a-million. As CEPR argued in a research paper in the summer of 2011, funding for the cholera response was withdrawn right before the rainy season, resulting in an extreme spike in cases and mortality that could have been prevented. The HRI report echoes these concerns:

The cholera crisis demonstrated the typical strength of donors to provide funding while the crisis was in the news, but similarly demonstrated the weakness of donors to be transparent or communicative about their proposed solutions for the transitional phases. While cholera was killing an increasing number of Haitians in the second semester of 2011, donors individually and collectively pulled back without advice other than to encourage integrated health care.

The report concludes, while noting the difficult circumstances on the ground, that:

Much more could have been done to coordinate their own efforts, and to be more transparent and less political about their aid allocations and decision-making processes. The fact that many of the billions of aid promised has still not been delivered and is nearly impossible to track is scandalous. While many mistakes have been made, there are still opportunities to set a new course for longer-term recovery and development that will take these concerns into consideration, and focus on living up to the promises made to Haiti that the international community will not abandon them, but work with them to rebuild and renew.

To read the full report, click here.

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