Where Did All the Haiti Money Go?

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By Nicole C. Lee, Esq.

When a 7.0 magnitude earthquake hit Haiti on January 12, 2010 the world community came to its aid. Millions of private citizens in this country and around the world reached into their household budgets and gave generously to the Haitian people who were grappling with the devastation.

We sat in front of our televisions and watched men digging for their families. We gave more. We heard doctors lament the lack of supplies. We gave more. In March, the United Nations member states and international partners met in New York and passionately pledged more than $5 billion over the next 18 months to help Haiti recover.

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Despite the billions of dollars pledged from private citizens and world governments, a serious health scare has arisen. With poor sanitation, malnutrition, little safe drinking water and no sewage systems, the over-crowded temporary housing tent communities provide an ideal breeding ground for cholera.

One independent report has conservatively estimated that there is one toilet for every 273 people in the Port-au-Prince metropolitan area. Throughout Haiti, a year after we opened our hearts and wallets, the latrines are not cleaned on a regular basis and human waste spreads into the streams by the frequent rains. Now, a year later, limited water distribution continues, with little development of sustainable, municipal water-filtration systems.

In the face of these conditions, Haiti remains the non-governmental organization (NGO) capital of the world. Before the earthquake, there were more than 5,000 organizations on the ground in Haiti. From the International Red Cross to Save The Children to any number of church and civic organizations, Haiti is replete with people of good will who are there to make it a better place to live. Each of these organizations conducted their own fundraising campaigns after the earthquake and collected millions of dollars.

With millions of dollars at our disposal do we really lack the ability to support basic sanitation and clean water? Do we lack the ability to stop a preventable, deadly water-borne disease right off our coast? What happened to all of the money?

Many of the charities on the ground have reported they are setting aside a portion of their donations (sometimes up to 70 percent) for the “reconstruction” period. It’s clear from the outpouring of support many of those who donated from their own scarce family budgets believed they were giving to save lives immediately. In the face of a preventable public health emergency, like cholera, many will be surprised that more than half of their donations continue to sit in U.S. banks.

My organization has attempted for nearly a year to get the Red Cross to account for the money they collected for Haiti. In a recent meeting, I was told that 70 percent of their donations remain in “reserve” to be used for longer-term reconstruction.

Long-term development to secure transitional and permanent housing, build infrastructure outside of Port-au-Prince and promote public health campaigns are all extremely important issues. But if the Red Cross, whose mandate and expertise lie in emergency and crises management, is not responding to continued immediate emergencies on the ground, then who is? Who is responsible for the deteriorating quality of life and preventable suffering faced by those most affected by the earthquake?

We have asked the House oversight Committee, to hold a hearing on large private NGOs and USAID partner organizations to ask one simple question: “What happened to all of the money?” Though significant promises of donations have been made, many communities of earthquake survivors continue to face challenges in accessing even the most basic of services. Our repeated requests to determine where the money went have fallen on deaf ears.

We need to know who is responsible for coordinating the money donated to Haiti? Who is holding the thousands of NGO’s on the ground accountable for the money they collected from U.S. families and families around the world? Moreover, who is pressuring the international donor nations to make good on their promises to help to Haiti?

Indeed, there is very little coordination of the aid to Haiti. The Interim Commission tasked to coordinate and assure transparency of donations has been nearly silent. There is no central NGO leadership to create a coordinated effort that will assure that there is at least clean water, decent sanitation and proper housing. We all have hope for Haiti’s future. And yet, Haiti’s present is still at risk.

Lee is the President of TransAfrica Forum and a human rights attorney who lived and worked in Haiti.

Copyright (C) 2011 by the American Forum. 1/11


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  • Jonathan Chan

    Full Disclosure: I work for an NGO that operates in Haiti.

    I appreciate the attention paid by people like Nicole Lee to the current situation. We need this kind of dialogue and debate to continue advancing the work in Haiti and around the world. But while I agree with a number of points in this article, I think its tone could create misconceptions that are very damaging to that work.

    Many believe that private citizens and international donors have given an unprecedented amount to Haiti, and that’s simply not true. In the 12 months since the earthquake, Americans have given over $1.4 billion towards Haiti. This is slightly less money than was raised in the 12 months after the South Asian Tsunami ($1.6 billion), and considerably less money than raised in the 12 months after Katrina ($3.3 billion dollars).

    The international community has spent $2.2 billion dollars on humanitarian aid, disbursed over $1 billion towards reconstruction, and pledged another $9 billion for the next 4 years. Sounds like a lot, right? But in the last 5 years, the US government has spent over $142 billion on post-Katrina reconstruction, and there are still people living in temporary housing. If that’s the outcome in the most developed nation on earth, what exactly do we hope to accomplish with less than 10% of the money in one of the least-developed countries on earth?

    Was the cholera epidemic preventable? Probably. Every death is a tragedy, compounded by the fact that many of them might have been prevented. But when compared to similar situations, this outbreak has been better managed than many. In 1994, the cholera outbreak in Goma, DRC amongst Rwandan refugees had a case-fatality rate approaching 33%, and the ongoing outbreak in Zimbabwe has had a CFR of around 4.5%. Haiti’s cholera CFR remains close to 2.1%, less than half that of Zimbabwe’s. The relevant question isn’t “How many people died from cholera despite the aid presence?”, it’s “How many people would have died if aid organizations hadn’t been there to help?”

    Do we (rather, you, since I work for one) need to hold NGO’s and governments accountable? Absolutely, yes. Is coordination still a huge problem? Absolutely, yes. Are there NGOs and companies in Haiti simply profiting off the disaster? Absolutely, yes. The aid response to Haiti has been far from perfect. Mismanagement abounds.

    But to say that the international community and private citizens have given more than enough money to solve these issues is simply false, as the above figures show. And as someone who used to work in the aid transparency movement, believe me when I tell you that detailed reporting in any development context is more difficult than the average person thinks it is. The obstacles are multiplied 10-fold in a post-disaster situation. That’s not an excuse for secrecy or obfuscation, but we all need to be patient with the continuing process of transparency.

    At the end of the day, I hope that concerned citizens around the world remain engaged with the work of helping Haiti rebuild for a better future. And again, I applaud Nicole Lee for being passionate about making sure the money that generous people have given is spent wisely. We need that kind of passion. I just want to be sure that the facts aren’t lost in this passionate debate.