In Haiti, already the poorest country in the western hemisphere, Hurricane Matthew’s devastation is still being calculated. We know that hundreds of people have died, and the damage to Haiti’s already-fragile infrastructure is immense. So what can people in rich countries do to help? Based on the latest research on humanitarian disaster relief and on the lessons learned in the wake of the 2010 earthquake in Haiti, here are some do’s and some don’ts for policymakers and individuals.
Give money, not stuff
If you are looking to help as an individual, give money, not stuff. Sorting, shipping and distributing donated items is expensive. That means your donations won’t do anywhere near as much good as it might seem. Money is also much faster to arrive, helping people sooner and more flexibly than a donation. The most needed staples in hurricane-hit areas are already available in Haiti. What’s needed is timely funds with which to purchase and distribute them. In the worst cases, donations can be highly damaging to the local economy, as was the case after the 2010 earthquake, when the huge amounts of food received depressed local prices and hurt farmers. Your donated t-shirt might not do so much damage, but a small part of your pay check would be much more valuable.
Support local organizations
Haiti’s ambassador to the US, Paul Altidor, has called for those who wish to help to engage with local organizations and municipalities in order ‘to avoid mistakes from the past’. After the earthquake in 2010, the hundreds of international organizations on the ground were not at all transparent to the Haitian administration or to each other, meaning that efforts were duplicated and people ended up getting in each other’s way.
There are a number of excellent Haiti-based organizations, like Zanmi Lasante and TiKay Haiti, who are best placed to understand and address local needs, but who struggle for funding. Just 0.6 per cent of the $6.43 billion donated in the wake of the 2010 earthquake found its way to local organizations. Unlike many international organizations, these Haitian charities are known by, and work closely with, local municipalities. This is important to the long-term development of Haiti. As Ambassador Altidor points out: ‘It is imperative that we take caution when offering assistance not to contribute to the destruction of local institutions by bypassing or undermining them.’
Don’t get on a plane
Unless you’re asked to come to Haiti by a reputable organization with a long-term presence on the ground, you will probably just be in the way. The cost of your plane ticket will do more good as a donation.
Policymakers: Be transparent
In the wake of the 2010 earthquake and its associated relief effort, it has been almost impossible to trace the final destination of humanitarian funds raised. We know, because we tried. A lack of transparency about how funds were used means that international NGOs and private contractors were not accountable to the people they were supposed to be helping, or to the Haitian government. How then can we learn any lessons about what was cost-effective? This time, we must do better. The International Aid Transparency Initiative (IATI) and UN OCHA’s Financial Tracking Service are mechanisms that facilitate transparency. Organizations receiving public funds should be obliged to publish adequate data to IATI.
Buy insurance for next time
Recent work from CGD shows that Catastrophe Insurance could radically improve the way that humanitarian relief is organized. Using insurance principles instead of the current ad hoc system would save lives, save money, and provide incentives to invest in disaster preparedness. Haiti doesn’t need to face a debacle like the response to the 2010 earthquake. Donor countries can fix this problem, if they decide they want to do so.