Whatever Happened in Haiti?

The Haitian National Palace (Presidential Pala...
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Have you been wondering what's been happening in Haiti since the earthquake? I certainly have. It seems like a century has passed, yet it was only some six months ago, on 12 January 2010. Recently the press has been mum on the subject and focusses on the latest,  the floods in Pakistan - serious stuff, with 4 million displaced and 1500 killed - and the fires in Russia...

Well, almost mum except for an excellent comment in the International Herald Tribune (August 6) made by Joel Brinkley, a journalism professor at Stanford University with a long experience as foreign correspondent for the New York Times. The title is arresting: "Don't let Haitians help themselves" ! He argues rather convincingly that the Haitian authorities are hopeless and that nothing will ever be done if one waits for them to take things in hand. Not to mention endemic corruption. So he calls for donors to forge ahead without waiting for President Préval to make decisions. Otherwise nothing will change and Haiti will never be lifted out of poverty. Probably good advice considering that Mr. Préval's major concern seems to be to clear the presidential palace from the sea of ragged tents that surround it.

There is little doubt the problems were all there before the earthquake hit.  Haiti has been the basket case of America since its independence from the French in 1804. And the US occupation from 1919 to 1934 has solved none of the problems and never installed the basis for a democracy.  It's hard to bring help to a country that is suffering from everything in the book.  A continuously weak and corrupt government, often degenerating in dictatorship, like the Duvaliers', with Papa Doc and Baby Doc and their bands of Tonton Macoutes who terrorized the population. Extreme poverty with over seventy percent of the people surviving on less than US$ 2 a day. And land erosion, deforestation, pollution, poor health, lack of education and jobs,overcrowded and ill-serviced towns, buildings collapsing with the slightest tremor.Cité Soleil, with some 400,000 people squatting in it, is one of the largest and most dangerous slums in the Western hemisphere. Haiti has suffered more from HIV/AIDS than any other island in the Caribbean, with 6 percent of the population affected in 2001and had just managed to bring that down to 2 percent when the earthquake hit. Bad luck!

Haiti has been hit by bad luck continuously over the last 200 years. If it's not an earthquake, it's a hurricane. There's always something going wrong every year, the last major emergency (caused by hurricanes) dates back to 2008.

But there's a silver lining to every black cloud. In Haiti's case, it is the huge diaspora, proportionately one of the largest in the world. Some 9.7 million live - eke a living - on the island and another 3 million have fled abroad and send annual remittances that come close to 20% of GDP, a hefty sum. Without the Haitians living in the United States and elsewhere, the plight of the poor Haitians would be much, much worse.

The January earthquake was no picnic. Just a reminder of the stark numbers: 200,000 dead, 300,000 wounded and one million displaced. Since then, we've been treated, at least in the first three months, to the gratifying spectacle of the international community generously mobilizing all the help it could muster. Within days, the 20,000 troops dispatched by President Obama had restored operations at Port-au-Prince Airport , allowing in 150 flights daily, a key measure considering that the main port in Port-au-Prince had collapsed. There was just a small hitch when a cargo filled with medical supplies from Médecins Sans Frontières was turned back and had to land next door in Santo Domingo. But that was quickly righted, some say thanks to a Twitter avalanche of protest messages, and the US Air Force let the plane land an hour or two later. The explanation given was that security rather than aid was the priority, which I suppose is to be expected from the military.

In short, the aid channels were opened and functioned. More or less. One Red Cross official noted that the volume of goods imported was so large that "they cannot be used for months; meanwhile critical goods have no space to be imported". Celebrities vied with each other to get in and bring help that was or was not wanted - we all heard of the problems scientologists ran into when John Travolta led a mission in February.

So now, six months later, can we tell what really happened in Haiti? Have the flows of aid done any good? It's still too early to say , but an interesting report has just come out from ALNAP, an organization bringing together the best evaluation specialists from major aid organizations, such as the British DFID, Irish Aid, the Netherlands etc. as well as United Nations Agencies involved in emergency aid (the World Food Programme, UNICEF, FAO, UNHCR etc) and the International Red Cross. ALNAP stands for Active Learning Network for Accountability and Performance in Humanitarian Action. You get the idea, these are serious people. The report is not a final evaluation, it's too soon for that. It's daintily labeled "a context analysis". What they've done is try to figure out what are the constraints to delivering aid and what data is important to keep track of in order to produce a definitive study on the results of aid. On the way, they've picked out some interesting tidbits of info that give some idea of where Haiti might be going.

To synthesize. First the good things. There was a generous rush to cancel Haiti's debt among the G-7 countries (Canada, US, UK, France, Italy, Germany, Japan), the Inter-American Development Bank and Venezuela. And the response to financial appeals has been unprecedented, generally reported to have reached US$ 10 billion, a huge sum for Haiti.

Yes and no. Not that simple. It's true that the first call for funds was enormously successful. The original "flash appeal" of US$ 575 million within 3 days of the earthquake was entirely funded within a month.  Private donations have been remarkable, especially American charities that by March 16 had raised US$ 1 billion, with reportedly half of American households having donated something. On 31 March, at the International Donor Conference in New York, a total of US$ 9.9 billion was pledged in support of the Haitian Government's Action Plan for National Recovery, and following the conference, a multi-donor trust fund was established, co-chaired by Bill Clinton (as UN Special Envoy to Haiti) and the Haitian Prime Minister and administered by the World Bank.

But - there's always a but - much of the funds are simply PLEDGES, and they may never materialize. Just to give you an idea of what it means. So far, according to the OCHA Financial Tracking Service, as of June 20, a total of US$ 1.4 billion had been received by aid organizations, another 1.8 billion was in process and 1.2 billion pledged. That 1.2 billion might never turn up. Why? All that's needed is for another emergency to hit somewhere else and political attention on Haiti will evaporate like morning mist...

Now, how about the actual aid, how efficiently was it delivered? Mmmm, probably par for the course. The United Nations relied on its so-called "cluster" approach to ensure coordination between the various agencies and partner NGOs. This was the second time the cluster approach was used in Haiti, with specific domains of intervention entrusted to the most appropriate technical agency designated as "leader". For example, the logistics cluster is led by the World Food Programme, Agriculture by FAO and so on.

Did the cluster approach work? More or less. There was, according to the ALNAP report, a tendency to have lots and lots of coordination meetings - fine and good if everyone can come but apparently the smaller NGOs don't have the staff or logistics to attend and therefore find themselves excluded. This means coordination is confined to the UN system of technical agencies and the larger NGOs such as CARE and OXFAM. And, still according to ALNAP, not all clusters were able to respond at the same level of efficiency. Some were found to "lack capacity" to assess needs and develop coherent response strategies. Coordination was further impeded by "flag-raising among humanitarian organizations and donors wanting to highlight their individual contributions" (p.21). That, of course, is a classic scourge in the humanitarian aid community. For NGOs it's a matter of survival: they always raise a flag to keep donations coming in.

However, the most serious shortcoming in the cluster approach is the lack of accountability. Sure, a cluster "leader" is appointed - that's a nice title - but no mechanism has been set up to enable said leader to ensure his/her decisions are actually implemented. In the end, there's no one in charge and responsible for what's done in the field...and everyone works according to their own ideas, independently from each other. The only good thing is that, thanks to the cluster, each one is more aware than before of what the others are doing. Coordination meetings are actually no more than information meetings. 

Information and communication seem to have been a big success in the Haitian response. A new communication cluster was set up, termed "One Response" and for the first time every available Internet function was used: Twitter, Facebook, YouTube and Skype, i.e. used to inform and to raise funds. However, the good old-fashioned radio still covered half the communication needs and there were difficulties raised in connection with language: too much in English and French, not enough in Creole.

All this doesn't tell us whether anything useful was achieved on the ground. It is clear that the response was immensely successful in preventing the spread of major diseases, like cholera and diarrhea. But what about economic recovery and return to normalcy? Immediate major issues are managing debris, clearing canals and settlements. Some strategies seem to be particularly effective, for example the cash-for-work initiatives launched by UNDP, the Haitian Ministry for Water and Sanitation and a couple of muncipalities (Jacmel and Leogane). They have succeded in putting thousands of Haitians to work to clear the debris and, as noted by ALNAP, injected "much needed cash in the economy" (p.32). Also claims of violence and looting in the aftermath of the earthquake seem to have been exaggerated in the media, and the national police quickly reported back to work, benefitting from UN support. However, all is not well and concerns about child protection and trafficking are now emerging: more than 100,000 children are recorded "without protection" according to UNICEF.

Does the future look glum? It rather does. The response effort has been constrained by the lack of coordination and communication with the local authorities. Haiti is a notorious "failed state", and has always been. Consequently, there is a tendency among humanitarian agents to replace government authorities rather than try to rebuild and restore the government's authority - replacing local authorities is always what one does in so-called "complex emergencies" when a disaster has swept away the affected country's government. It is completely justified when it means saving human lives. Here, in Haiti, that first stage is over. So there ought to be a real concern for strengthening Haiti's system of government, and nudge it away from corruption and banditry into something more democratically responsible. To install a real democracy can't be done overnight, but helping to choose an effective Haitian political leader might be possible.

But I don't get the impression that anyone is worried about that or ready to do something constructive...Politics in Haiti? They stink...

And as long as they do, Haiti will never climb out of the hole it has fallen in. You do realize what I'm saying, don't you?  I'm not suggesting that we should introduce democratic reforms in Haiti - that would be ingenuous. Democracy the way we understand it doesn't work in that kind of country. What's needed is what the 18th century French called a "despote éclairé" - a strongman with enlightened ideas, someone able to change over the country and modernize it. Just like Kemal Atatürk did for Turkey.

What Haiti needs is its own Ataturk!


Here is the link to the report I mentioned:
ALNAP, Haiti Earthquake Response, July 2010
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