Eighteen months ago, the Port-au-Prince earthquake claimed nearly ten thousand lives for each second of its half-minute apocalypse. A further 500 thousand Haitians were left homeless. Faced with such destruction many felt that Haiti – already poor, underdeveloped and riddled with political conflict and corruption – would be overwhelmed. However, despite formidable odds, scores of NGOs, charities, relief organizations and celebrities mounted an unprecedented campaign to raise awareness and solicit donations. An appeal by the American Red Cross raised almost half a billion dollars; US households contributed nearly three times as much in relief aid; two former US Presidents, Bill Clinton and George W Bush, even set up a fund devoted to post-earthquake relief. Donor countries and financial institutions promised more US$11 billion more for reconstruction. And so, despite the near-paralysis of the Haitian government and the ineptitude of early regional responses to the crisis, gloom gave way to a cautious optimism.
In the current issue of Rolling Stone magazine, Janet Reitman surveys the disappointments which have extinguished this hard-won hope, and she reports on the mismanagement and bureaucratic naiveté which have squandered vast sums of relief aid in the interim. Reitman recounts instances of amateurism that will be familiar to anyone who has seen the disbursement of international aid in a developing country. For example, one New York firm, Dalberg Global Development Advisors, was paid US$1.5M to provide the US State Department with advice that would help bring its expenditures into line with a “results“ oriented development strategy instead of the usual un-businesslike handouts. One Haiti specialist who briefed the Dalberg team recalled meeting a group of decent and intelligent people (several were “summer associates from Harvard Business School“) but also worrying that “they had never lived overseas, didn’t have any disaster experience or any background in urban planning, [had] never carried out any program activities on the ground [and only] one of them spoke any French.” Among other things, the Dalberg team was asked to recommend which pieces of land near a relief camp at Corail that could be used for resettlement. They identified a site that one USAID expert subsequently noted “was actually a small mountain … [with an] open-mined pit on one side of it, a severe 100-foot vertical cliff, and ravines.” After examining the photographs of the sites included in the team’s report, the expert observed said “it became clear that these people may not even have gotten out of their SUVs.” After months of further revaluation of the team’s initial advice – an exercise that undoubtedly consumed considerable amounts of further aid – “only one of the six sites approved by Dalberg was deemed viable for relocation.”
Another fundamental error seems to have been the relief agencies’ inflated idea of how much aid could be delivered to a small and politically complicated country like Haiti. One year after the quake, for example, the American Red Cross had “spent or signed agreements to spend” little more than half of US$479M raised by its appeal. According to Reitman, “The rest remains in an interest-bearing account, awaiting the commencement of ‘building back better’ [an international aid term that came into vogue after relief efforts for the Asian tsunami].” In May the US Government Accountability Office reported that to date just $184 million of Congress’ $1.14 billion aid allocation has been committed to relief and redevelopment projects.
Undaunted by their failure to produce credible results, some aid agencies have doubled-down on unrealistic schemes. Reitman reports that at one UN meeting in Haiti, “everything from earthen huts to vinyl-sided igloos were proposed as part of a grand project to reimagine Port-au-Prince. With the streets still buried in mountains of rubble, some planners even floated ideas for ‘model communities’ that would include high-rise apartment towers, walking paths, ample green spaces and tennis courts. It was as unrealistic as it was predictable.” Fanciful proposals for economic innovations – familiar from other ‘disaster capitalism’ experiments such as the US-led coalition’s attempts to restructure Iraq – have also bedevilled the relief effort. Small wonder then that so little of lasting value has come out of the hundreds of millions of aid dollars that have been spent so unwisely. Within Port-au-Prince, Reitman estimates that “some 3 million people languish in permanent misery . . . [m]ountains of rubble remain in the streets, hundreds of thousands of people continue to live in weather-beaten tents, and cholera, a disease that hadn’t been seen in Haiti for 60 years, has swept over the land, infecting more than a quarter million people.”
Although only a small portion of the available aid has been used to address these problems, blame for the failure of international relief efforts must ultimately be placed elsewhere. For the chaos and underdevelopment which persist in Haiti, a year and a half after the earthquake, are as much the outcome of a lack of political imagination in the international response to the crisis as they are a result of the country’s troubled recent history, or indeed the terrible devastation of the earthquake itself.