On January 12, 2010, an earthquake of magnitude 7.0 struck close to the densely populated city of Port-au-Prince, Haiti, killing over 200,000 people and reducing the city to rubble. Several million people lost their homes and their livelihoods. The response from the international community was overwhelming—at least $6 billion was disbursed in official aid and an estimated $3 billion was donated via the large international NGOs in private contributions. The United States alone pledged more than $3 billion for relief and reconstruction.
In Haiti, US Rectifies Missed Opportunity to Help Michael Clemens
“[The United States] missed a big chance to do much more [for Haiti], at little cost. The US could have leveraged the power of international labor mobility to help Haiti in ways that happen to help America as well. In the immediate aftermath of the quake, the US made no adjustment at all to the barriers against exit from the disaster-hobbled country.”
Five years later, I still cannot figure out where all the money has gone. From websites such as usaspending.gov and the UN Office of the Special Envoy for Haiti (now closed), we know that non-governmental organizations and private contractors have been the intermediate recipients of most of these funds. Many are based in the United States. Despite the fact that these organizations are beneficiaries of taxpayer dollars, there are very few publicly-available evaluations of services delivered, lives saved, or mistakes made.
For example, USAID has disbursed at least $150 million to Chemonics, a private contractor, but there is no public record of how that money was spent, what projects were implemented, or how many people were served. This lack of accountability has made it nearly impossible for the Haitian authorities to know who is doing what in their country. It also means that five years after the quake, we really don’t know what worked, what didn’t and how we can do better next time.
The failure to publicly report how funding has been used has broader implications. The world is currently coping with the Ebola crisis. Hundreds of millions of dollars have been committed to countries where health spending is typically a few million dollars per year. We do not yet know whether these funds will be tracked adequately. And already, there is a lack of coordination—for example, in December, 60 out of 80 beds at a newly-constructed clinic in Sierra Leone were not being used because of a lack of staff.
Five years after the quake in Haiti, we really don’t know what worked, what didn’t, or how to do better next time.
There are a variety of technologies available that can improve disaster response, including tools from the crisis-mapping community. But what is really needed, is for all humanitarian and aid organizations to publish details of their planned and actual spending and activities, in real time, in an open, easy-to-access format. Reporting data to platforms such as the International Aid Transparency Initiative and UN OCHA’s Financial Tracking Service would enable donors and beneficiaries to identify where activities overlap and where gaps remain. USAID, which has released some data in the past year through its Foreign Assistance Dashboard, needs to do more—it should publish detailed information about the delivery of services by its major sub-contractors.
In Haiti, the band plays on. Several thousand people still live in tents that were supposed to be temporary housing for families displaced in January 2010. Haiti remains the “Republic of NGOs.” Five years and $9 billion later, Port-au-Prince does not have decent roads, clean water, or a reliable supply of electricity. And, sadly, when I mentioned to a colleague in CGD’s Europe office (where I am currently based), that I was writing about the earthquake in Haiti, she asked, “Everyone’s forgotten about that, right?”