Postcard from Haiti: Life after the 2010 Quake

June 19, 2012
This is a joint post with Julie Walz. On January 12, 2010, at 16:53 hours, a magnitude 7.0 earthquake struck the city of Port-au-Prince, killing over 200,000 people and leaving several million homeless.  Foreign aid poured into Haiti, at the rate of almost a thousand dollars per Haitian.  For the past two years, we have been putting together the various pieces of data we could find on aid flows and foreign involvement after the quake. We found that the big international NGOs and private contractors have been the primary recipients of billions of dollars in U.S. assistance have been not been required to report systematically on how they use the funds. There has been a lack of accountability to both the funders and recipients.  Our preliminary impressions based on our visit to Haiti are that this lack of accountability is if anything worse on the ground: the NGOs are frequently not accountable to the Haitian government or to the people they aim to serve.  We even learned something about earthquakes--for example, did you know that Haiti’s two major faults (the northern Sententrional fault and the southern Enriquillo-Plantain Garden fault) are called slip-strike faults, and are similar to the San Andreas Fault in California? It was the southern fault that triggered the quake two and a half years ago.
Thunderstorm over Port-au-PrinceCredit: Vijaya Ramachandran
In June, we finally got a chance to visit Haiti.  It was hot and dusty when we arrived at the Port-au-Prince airport.  While most of the rubble has been cleared, many roads and buildings still had scars from the quake.  As we left the airport and headed to the hills above Port-au-Prince, we began to notice the walls.  Walls that were 25 to 50 feet high; some even higher, accompanied by security guards and entry gates.  These walls surround the offices of various NGOs, foreign government missions, and diplomatic residences.  During our brief visit to Haiti, they became symbolic of the enormous divide between the foreign assistance community who live fairly comfortably in the hill towns of Petion-ville and surrounding areas, and ordinary Haitians in Port-au-Prince who suffer from extreme poverty, limited services, and increasing levels of violence.Our visit to Haiti was facilitated in part by Kent Annan of Haiti Partners, who has deep ties in the country because of his long-term presence there.  Our guide and interpreter, Cara Kennedy, who has family ties in Haiti and speaks Creole fluently, also helped us to meet locals.  We are enormously grateful to Kent and Cara; through them, we met with professors at the university, a writer, and several Haitians running small NGOs, who have a deep understanding of local culture and norms.  The conversations we had with these individuals were invaluable to our understanding of what has happened in Haiti since the quake.  Some of the repeated themes and key takeaways are:1. The $9 billion that was disbursed to NGOs and other intermediaries in a period of twenty-seven months has been spent largely without consultation of local Haitians.  Almost no one we interviewed had been contacted by members of the foreign assistance community to discuss local needs.  Due to a fears about security, a strongly-held perception of lack of local capacity, and the need to disburse money quickly, international NGOs have set up programs and carried out construction projects that are often at odds with local needs, and sometimes harmful in the longer-term.  The United Nations Logistics Center, near the airport, was virtually inaccessible to Haitians in the period immediately following the quake.  The brand new U.S. embassy, housing the largest USAID mission in the world, is like a fortress, complete with a perimeter of sandbags and armed guards.  A lack of communication often means mistakes are made, for instance we learned of a housing project constructed by an NGO over a watershed for Port-au-Prince, in violation of environmental guidelines and the Government of Haiti’s own rules.
Building damaged by the 2010 quakeCredit: Julie Walz
2. International NGOs have frequent staff turnover and very high costs.  In the aftermath of the quake, we learned that senior staff came and went, some staying as little as a few weeks.  A new arrival meant starting all over again, often with an individual who had little knowledge of Haiti and no knowledge of Creole (or even French).   The cost of maintaining expatriate staff in Haiti is very high.  According to the Miami Herald, it can cost upwards of $200,000 annually in housing and other benefits to keep a senior-level manager in Haiti. Some of our interviewees explained how NGOs and foreign workers are exempt from Haitian taxes and often do not follow Haitian registration requirements.  Donors have spent billions of dollars trying to repair Haiti's broken infrastructure, largely with their own goods and labor.  In the meantime, most Haitians in Port-au-Prince spend their day trying to sell a few vegetables or fruit or other goods on the sidewalk, which in most cases, does not generate enough money to feed themselves or their families.3. We repeatedly heard stories about the unintended economic and social consequences of the influx of foreign workers.  Housing costs in certain areas have skyrocketed – rentals easily go for over $30,000 per year, with some houses being rented for a lot more. Restaurants and supermarkets in certain areas of Petion-ville cater exclusively to foreign tastes, and prices of basic goods have been driven up to a level that even middle-class Haitians cannot afford.  Social norms and practices have been impacted as well.  We heard stories about how houses built by NGOs after the quake were not appropriate for most Haitian families--tradition dictates a partition in the house, no matter how small, but the new homes did not have these.  Rumors that access to temporary tents meant access to permanent housing in the long term caused families to split up, sometimes with disastrous social consequences.  The leader of a small, grassroots NGO explained to us that he now has difficulty drawing people to meetings and outreach unless he provides food or compensation for participants, like the foreign NGOs do.  The Haitian concept of “konbit” (working the land of other farmers as part of the community) has been challenged as foreign NGOs have started to pay farmers on an individual basis for soil-conservation and community farming.  One of our interviewees pointed out to us, gently, that some NGOs are "slowly destroying the fabric of Haitian society."
.  Roadside shops in Port-au-PrinceCredit: Julie Walz
Almost three years after the quake, we need to ask ourselves what we could have done differently.  Many people asked that the United States make significant investments in training, thereby giving Haitians the opportunity to study in American universities and training centers.  We also heard about the need to form networks of local and international NGOs to ensure that projects are guided by local knowledge.  Our interviewees requested the foreign assistance community rethink their assumptions about corruption that have led to almost complete circumvention of the Haitian government, and instead to examine how interventions can serve to reinforce the fledgling efforts of the Government of Haiti.  They were less enthusiastic about the used clothing, furniture, and other goods that have poured into Haiti since the quake.  One interviewee put it bluntly: “we need sustainable projects, not temporary solutions.”  Our colleague Michael Clemens has made the case that the US needs to open up to more Haitian workers, which will provide much-needed employment and remittances.  And while the United States government has signed on to the International Aid Transparency Initiative (IATI), little has been done to improve the transparency of aid flows.  Almost three years after quake, we do not know where the money has gone – a point that became even more evident after this trip.  We have argued that the lack of accountability of NGO expenditure in Haiti is unacceptable, and that better monitoring, evaluation, and reporting by international NGOs and the United States government is critical to the effectiveness of U.S. foreign assistance programs, in Haiti and elsewhere.


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