A look back At The Haitian Earthquakes Legacy Of Aid

The magnitude 7.0 earthquake that shook Haiti in 2010 devastated the poor Caribbean nation already crippled by decades of political instability. The François and Jean-Claude Duvalier’s dictatorships, followed by a mixed bag of corrupt, inefficient government’s coup d’états and rising poverty, stripped any political stability that would have ensured continued international investment in the nation. Instead, the growth of the capital city ‘Port-au-Prince’ under Duvalier’s rule propagated systemic poverty across the small nation.

The mass poverty caused by massive political instability set the informal economy on a path that would destroy the city, with successive governments struggling to survive without international assistance. After the magnitude 7.0 earthquake that shook Haiti in 2010, the divide between the international community’s image-driven response to the crisis and the on the ground deliverance of that aid shoehorned Haitians away from much of the aid offered with most aid failing to reach Haitian shores when contributions were fulfilled at all.

This reliance on aid has created an important platform for lessons learned from Haiti to be transferred to the current environment where developing nations are facing a large economic decline combined with an increasing reliance on international fiscal monetary and aid support. Leaving Haiti as a road map on what not to do when the international community mobilizes in assistance of those most in need.

During the 2010 earthquake, Haiti lacked solid health infrastructure and  unstable hospital buildings (they were mostly built with the cheapest materials available) were the norm. The Associated Press reporter, Jonathan Katz, was living in Port-au-Prince at the time and recounts the chaos that followed the earthquake. Health infrastructure was unable to deal with the thousands of victims, lacking even bandages and painkillers to carry out basic care. These failings meant that official statistics on dead and injured Haitians are unreliable at best, with several sources claiming that the death toll was between 200,000 and 300,000.  

While the primary purpose of the first wave of this aid was to save lives, the international aid and assistance gained transactional and Blan (Haitian word for Foreigner) based tilt. While many nations sent SAR teams to the country, they were primarily focused on the wealthy international communities. Katz writes that General Keen, leader of the U.S. response, boasted about the positive outcomes achieved in a western hotel, while the places where ordinary Haitians lived and worked (many with equally ghastly numbers inside) got far less attention. Disaster experts say up to 95 per cent of rescues took place in the first 24 hours and were carried out by neighbours and passers-by.

There are many reasons for the theme of international lives and wallets being valued more highly than Haitians, yet in the beginning, Katz believes the cause of this was not systemic racism but confusion. He reports that the “Haitian government had no reporting mechanism in place for those in need, and there was no formal coordination of rescue efforts.” Officials knew the areas where their friends were buried, and few knew enough creole (the Haitian language) to venture into wider Port-au-Prince. The few who did were soon recalled based on “vague reports of civil unrest.” For decades, researchers have told us that the link between cataclysm and social disintegration is a myth perpetuated by movies, fiction, and misguided journalism, and neither Katz nor others could find evidence of any significant increase in rioting, looting or major civil unrest.

The transactional relationship between aid and the local Haitians is best defined by Gilles Carbonnier’s argument that humanitarian assistance has become a default ‘Band-Aid.’ A foreign-policy instrument to make up for the lack of political will to engage in more effective measures. The international community’s Band-Aid to Haiti’s open fracture became significantly clearer as the shock of the initial weeks dissipated, and the Haitians started to question the level of aid they were receiving. Katz wrote in his 2013 book on the disaster that little of the $1.1 billion in U.S. immediate post-quake emergency assistance left the United States. Half went to U.S. government agencies preparing to aid the response, the rest to UN agencies, contractors, and NGOs. The Haitian state also gained no immediate direct support from France, Canada, Norway, Brazil, or the European Commission, with these nations preferring to fund their own nations NGOs or simply following the all to the familiar habit of defaulting on their contributions altogether.  

The perseverance of Carbonnier’s argument was demonstrated again with the $16.3 billion pledged by the international community at the “Towards a New Future for Haiti” donor’s conference led by the UN in March 2010. Less than 10% of the 5.5 Billion earmarked for spending in the first 18 months after the disaster had been delivered. The same issue continued till March 2012 (2 years after the conference), with less than half the long-term money pledged at the donor’s conference for 2010 and 2011 being delivered. This, however, was of little worry to the donating nations, as the pledges had been purchasing political capital in their nations, not support for Haitians.

Haitians became increasingly frustrated when it was revealed that approximately 55.5% of the US Aid’s $2.3 billion went to organisations not in Haiti but in the Beltway of Washington DC, where organisations had to cover multiple overhead costs and several run for-profit organisations. These organisations included Chemonics International Inc that received $298.55 million in US AID funds, this was particularly egregious to the Haitians when Wiki leaks leaked internal documents stating that the “USG [United States Government] is reluctant to engage in direct budget support for non-MCC [Millennium Challenge Corporation] countries.” This reluctance meant that only 2.3% of contracts were awarded to Haitian firms at a value of 52.95 million, 17.73% of the total amount given to Chemonics and a paltry number compared to the total amount donated by the international community.

The issues of too many aid groups became so bad that the UN authority managing the crisis reported that “Haiti had the world’s largest number of NGOs per capita, with the possible exception to India, but they operated in a highly fractured way.” This aggravated Haitians as they saw increases in Blan presence but little change to the aid being provided to them. They could not have been expected to recognize the industry of aid that was responding to their crisis and required its logistics and overheads which was eating into the cash that reached those in the camp.

While it is understandable that many aid providers are concerned about the perceived loss of support back home in the west if they were to be seen granting large contracts to corrupt firms. Yet what governments and NGOs failed to take into consideration is the high logistical and overhead costs of international organisations that lacked any significant footprint in Haiti. Much of the “beltway” aid money was spent on establishing the means to provide aid through flights, accommodation, and high western salaries not supporting those most in need. Katz reported that the United States aid response teams spent a minimum of $368,000 on hotel rooms and meals… at four-star luxury hotels on Santo Domingo’s oceanfront esplanade, at a Tampa Bay Resort, and the five-star Mandarin Oriental in Washington.

The removal of the perceived corrupt local economic actors did not eliminate the graft and there has been a significant amount of misappropriation and mismanagement of funds by international and government agencies. While the USAID and other U.S. government response teams were far from the worst actors in the crisis, its open budgets make it significantly easier to track the spending in a market that is all too often opaque. The U.S. based watchdog Disaster Accountability Project in January 2011 asked approximately 196 aid groups working in Haiti to detail their spending, only 38 groups agreed to take part listing spending at only $731 million on the disaster from the $1.4 billion raised after the quake. This misspending is more accurately demonstrated by the $194,000 the US DOD spent on camera gear from Manhattan or the $18,000 on gym equipment that retailed for a third of the price online as examples. In the end, at least 93 per cent of the 2.43 billion in Humanitarian relief spending would stay within the UN or NGOs to pay for supplies and personnel, often never leaving the donor states.

Yet the harsh reality is that even if the 16.3 billion donated by well-meaning individuals and international governments had been used to fully assist Haitian’s, it would only provide a nominal amount of $1,600 per Haitian. While this is double Haiti’s GDP per Capita in 2018 ($868 USD) and just short of triple its GDP per capita in 2010 ($665 USD) it still would have required political stability and an immense logistical and managerial effort to fully repair the damage made, let alone rebuild the nation to be better than it was before.  

With Haiti ranking 6th among Focus Economics’ top ten poorest countries and holding a GDP growth rate of 2.7%, it is unlikely that the nation will recover from the endemic poverty caused by decades of failed governments. Historic overpopulation and a non-existent exports market continue to limit the nation’s economic growth.  The failure of the international community’s application of aid to stimulate the economy through supporting of Haitian firms does carry a significant level of blame for the nation’s situation, but it is far from the only cause. 


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