Aid Watch Rerun: Nobody wants your old shoes: How not to help in Haiti

NOTE FROM THE EDITORS: Over the holidays, we'll be publishing reruns of some of our posts from the first 2 years of Aid Watch. This post originally ran a week after the Haiti earthquake, on January 16, 2010. The following post is by Alanna Shaikh. Alanna is a global health professional who blogs at UN Dispatch and Blood and Milk.

Don’t donate goods. Donating stuff instead of money is a serious problem in emergency relief. Only the people on the ground know what’s actually necessary; those of us in the rest of the world can only guess. Some things, like summer clothes and expired medicines are going to be worthless in Haiti. Other stuff, like warm clothes and bottled water may be helpful to some people in some specific ways. Separating the useful from the useless takes manpower that can be doing more important work. It’s far better to give money so that organizations can buy the things they know they need.

Some people like to donate goods instead of cash because they worry that cash won’t be used in a way that helps the needy. If that’s you, I have two points. 1) Why are you donating to an organization you don’t trust? 2) What’s to stop them from selling your donated item and using the money for whatever they want?

After Hurricane Mitch in 1998, Honduras was flooded with shipments of donated goods. They clogged ports, overwhelmed military transport, and made it nearly impossible for relief agencies to ship in the things they really needed. Those donations did harm, not good. Expired drugs had to be carefully disposed of. Inappropriate donations had to be transported away and discarded. All of this wasted time and money.

Don't go to Haiti. It’s close to the US, it’s a disaster area, and we all want to help. However, it’s dangerous right now and they don’t need “extra hands”. The people who are currently useful are people with training in medicine and emergency response. If all you can contribute is unskilled labor, stay home. There is no shortage of unskilled labor in Haiti, and Haitians will be a lot more committed than you are to the rebuilding process.

If you are a nurse or physician, especially with experience in trauma, and you want to volunteer, email Partners in Health – – and offer your services. Or submit your details to International Medical Corps. They’ll take you if they can use you. Do not go to Haiti on your own, even if you are doctor. You’ll just add to the confusion, and you’ll be a burden to whoever ends up taking responsibility for your safety.

Don’t ignore rebuilding. The physical damage done to Port au Prince is going to take a long, long time to repair. The human consequences will have a similar slow recovery. Haiti will still need our help next year, and the years after that. It is going to take more than just a short-term infusion of relief money. Give your money to organizations that will be in Haiti for the long haul, and don't forget about Haiti once the media attention moves on.

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The Haiti we don't see

Haiti is not always and all the time earthquakes, hurricanes, deforestation, misery, rape, corruption, kidnappings, poverty, garbage, violence, gangs, wasted aid, cholera, election fraud, dirty water, orphans and amputees.

These pictures, the result of an NGO-funded collaboration between a Canadian photojournalist and 22 Haitian teenagers living in Jacmel and Croix des Bouquets, are a beautiful reminder that Haiti is also babies with chickens, landscapes, going to school, solitude, hair-dos and cookouts. Via Linda Raftree, blogging at Wait...What?

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Wyclef Jean for Prez?

In a world where being an actor, a rock star, or sex video vixen is sufficient qualification for people to sit up and pay attention to your ideas about how to solve world poverty, it comes as no great shock that Wyclef Jean has decided to run for President of Haiti. Herewith, we attempt two arguments in favor of the former Fugees frontman’s candidacy, and two against. In Favor:

  1. Wyclef Jean demonstrated his impressive grasp of global political issues, including consequences of ethnic strife, with his song “A Million Voices.”
  2. His single “If I was president” shows his understanding of social issues. Plus, the song reveals deeper roots of his interest in the Haitian presidency: it was released in 2008.


  1. The scandal over Yéle Haiti, which forced Jean to defend himself tearfully on Oprah, hinted that (at worst) he is capable of misappropriating funds intended for charity, and (at best) he is an incompetent manager with a fuzzy concept of accountability. In either case, the Yéle affair may just hint that he lacks the expertise to run a small NGO, which is rather little compared to a country.
  2. The "open letter" in the Huffington Post announcing his candidacy explains why he wants to be president, but does not provide much (or, actually, any)  info as to why he is qualified to be president. (Even most of us  in our high school days applying for jobs like window washers had to say something about our qualifications and previous experience.)

If we are being too tough on you, Mr. Jean, TIME magazine gives you rather more serious consideration here. Also check out their interview with an image consultant on Lindsay Lohan's impending jail release.

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The lure of starting from scratch

It is an acknowledged national characteristic that Americans believe in self-reinvention. One of our founding myths—inspired by the once unexplored and sparsely populated expanse of the North American continent—is the idea that you can head out of town, leave the encumbrances of the past behind, and start over in a new, unspoiled place. What would happen if we brought this sensibility to development plans for poorer, more crowded nations? What if we already do?

The ingredients for Paul Romer’s solution to global poverty include an unoccupied tract of land, a charter to lay out a new set of just and commerce-promoting rules, and two or more sovereign governments. Just as Hong Kong was created as an island of prosperity by the British in China (only voluntarily this time), poor countries would lease a piece of their land to a richer, benevolent government or group of governments that would agree to administer the new city according to the rules of the agreed-upon charter.

From a new article in Atlantic Monthly by Sebastian Mallaby, we learn that Madagascar might have become the first testing ground for Romer’s charter cities idea—if not for a coup that ousted the Malagasy President in March 2009.

Madagascar’s government was anxious to attract foreign investment, and it understood that a credibility deficit held it back…Faced with this obstacle, the Malagasy authorities were open to unconventional arrangements. To boost investment in agriculture, they were ready to lease a Connecticut-size tract of land to Daewoo, a South Korean corporation, for 99 years…Romer’s proposal fit in with these adventurous ideas.…

Romer made his pitch for a charter city, and Ravalomanana responded that he wasn’t sure one was enough; if Romer could identify two rich countries willing to play the role of government trustee, it might be better to launch two parallel experiments. The president and the professor agreed that the new hubs should be open to migrants from nearby countries as well as to locals. They rose to examine a map of Madagascar on the study wall. Ravalomanana suggested building the first city on the island’s southwestern coast, which was largely uninhabited because of its dry heat. To Romer, the site sounded very much like the coastal locations that appeal most to the world’s affluent as vacation spots.

Ravalomanana’s government was toppled before any of these plans could go forward, in part as a result of violent protests over the perceived threat to national sovereignty represented by the Daewoo deal. As Mallaby points out, this failures suggests at least one flaw of the charter cities idea—that land ownership and sovereignty are explosive issues that may not be easily or peacefully negotiated away by leaders on behalf of their people. But Romer remains optimistic, and is talking to other African leaders, possibly ones with more staying power.

The charter cities idea appeals because it is bold. It promises a fresh start for people mired in the muck of old conflicts, inequality, and bad government. When Mallaby concludes “When African teenagers do their homework under streetlights, isn’t Romer right to think the unthinkable?,”  he is arguing that while there may be legitimate concerns about the ethics or feasibility of the charter cities, those concerns are made irrelevant by the overwhelming gravity and scale of global poverty and inequality.

In other words, big, desperate problems call out for big, radical solutions. Solutions that sweep away the detritus of past failure, promise to replace it wholesale with something new and better, and perhaps even alter the boundaries of the world as we know it.

The discussion about rebuilding Haiti has been full of ideas about the earthquake as an opportunity to ”start over,” “reboot,” “wipe the slate clean” and finally “get things right” (some stellar examples here). Two recent proposals brought the call for slate-cleaning back to Africa: We already blogged Professor Pierre Englebert’s suggestion in the NYT for the international community to “move swiftly to derecognize the worst-performing African states” like Chad, the DRC, Equatorial Guinea and Sudan, and in Foreign Policy, G. Pascal Zachary submitted that “no initiative would do more for happiness, stability, and economic growth in Africa today than an energetic and enlightened redrawing” of Africa’s colonial borders.

Call it the “let’s just scrap this mess and start over” approach to development.

Unfortunately, in earthquake-devastated Haiti as in troubled central Africa, the promise of starting from scratch is an illusion. It has always been true that no matter where you go, you take yourself with you—culture, history, habits, attachments and animosities come along like a skin you can’t shed. But these days there are fewer and fewer territories on our taxed and shrinking planet beyond the reach of someone’s determined claim.

These ideas share an overly-optimistic belief in a neutral, benevolent international community and its power to peacefully oversee imposed changes. All are tone-deaf to the very real degree of nationalism that does exist in basically all countries by now, regardless of whether they were misbegotten colonial creations or not. They also violate sovereignty as conventionally defined, which may be good or bad but is sure to provoke a nationalist reaction.

Early development economists working at the hopeful dawn of colonial independence believed that they really were starting from scratch. The last fifty years have shown us that they weren’t, and this has been—and remains—one of development’s biggest blind spots.

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Is it easier to start an NGO than a business in Haiti?

From today's NYT:

Alain Armand, 36, a Haitian-American lawyer from Fort Lauderdale, Fla., who is now trying to open several businesses here in Port-au-Prince, the capital, including a bed and breakfast.

Trying is the operative word, he said: “It costs $3,000, and it takes at least three months to get incorporated. There is no organized structure in which we, outsiders to NGO-land, can operate.”

Meanwhile, one list for Haiti lists 822 NGOs operating.

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Of mangos and plastic crates

Sometimes the things that keep people in poverty seem so small and so insignificant, and the remedies seem so simple, that it’s hard for people from rich countries to understand why they remain impoverished.

Jelen, a Haitian farmer living on about $2 a day, can’t get enough water to her mango trees, even though there is a river just beside her property. She needs a simple canal dug from the river to irrigate her trees. But this investment remains out of reach for her.

Many small Haitian mango farmers, including Jelen, could increase their income if their fruit didn’t get bruised and damaged on the way to market. If the farmers would just protect their fruit by storing and transporting it in basic plastic milk crates, then one of Haiti’s biggest mango exporters says he could sell twice as many mangoes to picky American consumers.

This is the story told in a segment of this week’s This American Life. I’ve always loved this National Public Radio program for the way it tackles big, complex issues by weaving together the stories of ordinary people, and I’d always hoped they would take on foreign aid.

In this particular segment, produced by Planet Money, we meet the mango exporter, named Jean-Maurice, who first tries simply driving out to the farmers and giving them the plastic crates. This fails completely, as the crates get broken, or used as chairs or in schools as bookshelves. The farmers probably don’t know where their fruit ends up, and can’t easily imagine the American consumers for whom it would be so important that their mangoes arrive unblemished.

The business man Jean-Maurice overcomes his distrust of NGOs to partner with an organization that will train farmers how to clean and store their fruit using the crates. The NGO’s job will be to explain why they should change the way they harvest and store their mangos, connect that to a future increase in profits, and distribute the crates.

But once the NGO is involved, Jean-Maurice—known to friends as “the Mango Man” – and the Haitian farmers are plunged into an unfamiliar world of paperwork and regulations. The USAID-funded NGO requires a piece of land from which to distribute the crates, and this piece of land has to be donated by agreement from the group of 60 farmers that owns it. They also need the deed, which was never transferred from its original owners, and resides in an expatriate Haitian’s New York basement. The partners finally complete these Herculean tasks and are ready to start…a few weeks before the earthquake hits.

After the devastation of the earthquake, of course, comes the international outpouring of concern, attention and money, and the arrival of development experts from all over the world. The correspondent asks:

But what if now there’s an opportunity to take all the attention, all the money, and work together like never before? What if this is the shot? Instead of solving one small problem at a time, to address all the country’s problems, all at once?

I won’t ruin the ending by divulging whether the correspondent’s optimism remains in place by the time the story is over. But don’t miss her conversation with USAID’s Deputy Director in Haiti, towards the end of the segment.

The whole episode is a fascinating look into the aid world and Haiti. You can listen or download it here.

(photo credit)

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Are aid donors now running Haiti?

This post is written by Daniel Altman Who will determine Haiti’s future?  Probably not the Haitians.  With aid groups enlarging their presence on the ground and foreign governments exercising control through their wallets, Haiti’s future may be out of the hands of the Haitians for years to come.

Nowhere is this clearer than in the recently convened Interim Committee for the Reconstruction of Haiti (CIRH), which will set the nation’s priorities during an 18-month state of emergency.  The committee has more seats for foreigners than for Haitians, and voting power is determined in part by amounts of aid money committed.  Donors offering more than $100 million have their own votes; those offering less must share one vote.  Non-governmental organizations operating in Haiti share one seat on the committee but don't have any voting power.

The World Bank will dole out the donors’ money at the instruction of the CIRH, but it is not alone in holding the purse strings.  Haiti has also accepted a loan of over $100 million from the International Monetary Fund, which includes lengthy conditions and benchmarks for Haiti’s economic policy.  Meanwhile, the United Nations Development Program is poised to become the country’s biggest employer through its Cash-for-Work project, and UNICEF is moving forward with a long-term plan to build a national education system.

How did this happen?  After the earthquake, with its people in desperate need, Haiti’s government was ripe for coercion.  Donors could set their own terms, and the government was not in a position to negotiate, even if it wanted to.  Three months later, this continues to be true.  Haiti’s president, René Preval, can in theory veto the CIRH’s decisions, but doing so might mean the freezing or loss of hundreds of millions of dollars.  And now his backers in the Haitian senate want to extend the 18-month state of emergency – and thus the CIRH’s mandate – to solidify their own grip on what’s left of political power.

“I believe everybody agrees this conference is a unique occasion to try to rebuild the Haitian economy,” said Dominique Strauss-Kahn, managing director of the International Monetary Fund, at the international donors conference for Haiti last month.  You could be forgiven for thinking that Strauss-Kahn considered the earthquake a blessing.  Yet he may have been echoing the views of many people in the aid community; finally, he seemed to say, we can go into this country with a free hand and do the things that we've wanted to do for a long, long time.

Daniel Altman is president of North Yard Economics, a not-for-profit consulting firm serving developing countries.  He is the author of three books, most recently Power in Numbers: UNITAID, Innovative Financing, and the Quest for Massive Good (with Philippe Douste-Blazy), and teaches as an adjunct at the Stern School of Business.

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Who is best qualified to help Haiti? Why not the Haitian diaspora?

Toronto Globe and Mail columist Margaret Wente:

Who can offer the most help to the desperate children of Haiti? Is it Bill Clinton, Jeffrey Sachs, the World Bank or the UN? Is it the many experts who are calling for a Marshall Plan to “fix” Haiti once and for all, or the donor nations that have pledged billions for the task?

Personally, I would choose people like Eric and Nicole Pauyo. The Haitian-Canadian couple, who live in a prosperous suburb of Montreal, have taken in eight nieces and nephews left orphaned by the Jan. 12 earthquake. “I didn't think twice,” said Nicole, who's 62. The Pauyos have already raised three kids of their own. One of them is at Harvard.

For Haitians, the best way to improve their lives is to leave Haiti. More than a million Haitians now live abroad, including 100,000 in Canada. Life in Haiti, meantime, has become worse. Children go hungry, and barely a third finish primary school. About a 10th are restaveks (from the French reste avec , or stay with) – virtual child slaves who are sent to work as unpaid servants in the city by their impoverished parents....

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Analyzing We are the World for Haiti as a Music Critic and Aid Critic

Even aid critics have their sentimental side. I confess I was genuinely moved watching this video, which has been viewed more than 13 million times on YouTube. The video is very inspiring and well done. It made me let myself go and be carried along by the idealism and hope.

Unfortunately, my kids would like to point out that I also get sentimental listening to Scorpions' "There's No One Like You" , so  I may not be the best qualified music critic available.

So going back to my comparative advantage of being an aid critic, a couple of questions on the lyrics of We are the World at 25 for Haiti :

[Adam Levine] We are the ones who make a brighter day so lets start giving.

Dear Mr. Levine,  it touches me as a wee bit hubristic to restrict "brighter day" making abilities to "we" who are "the ones." Are you saying you are one of "the ones"? By the way, who are you?

[Will-I-Am] "Like Katrina, Africa, Indonesia and now Haiti needs us, they need us, they need us"

Dear Will-I-Am, Did you choose Indonesia to receive aid because it rhymes with "they need us"?

Aside from these quibbles, more power to all you artists who participated in this ! Can you let us know who to contact to make the "We aid agencies are accountable to the Haitians for results" music video?

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TWOFER: Here’s how Haitians can rescue the US from its budget crisis and save themselves

In 2001, I published an obscure paper that concluded “Econometric tests and fiscal solvency accounting confirm the important role of growth in debt crises.” Based on this, I can now say that Haitians can rescue the US from an impending budget crisis. The crisis is already severe, with previously unthinkable warnings that US government bonds might lose their AAA rating. What does this have to do with Haitians? Here’s the longer, more technical version (if you’re impatient, skip to next paragraph): budget solvency is about the future, not just about the present. Our ability to service our government debt is greater the higher is expected growth of the economy, because that means higher expected growth of tax revenues. If you expect tax revenue to be a lot higher tomorrow because of high growth, then you don’t have to worry as much about where you find the tax money tomorrow to pay interest and amortize principal on the debt. Economic growth equals (Growth of GDP per person) PLUS (Growth of Population). So one overlooked aspect of Population Growth is that it is GOOD for preventing budget and debt crises. And population growth is driven in large part these days in the US by immigration from places like … Haiti. Of course it will take more than Haiti alone to supply enough immigrants, but letting in more immigrants to the US from poor countries is desirable already for both us and the immigrants.

Here’s the short version. If you are worried about having enough tax revenue to pay interest on the government debt, find more taxpayers! And look, here are some people volunteering to become new taxpayers: Haitian immigrants fleeing quakes and poverty! So let’s open the door to our Haitian fiscal rescuers, who will also lift themselves out of poverty as dramatized by a previous post. It’s a TWOFER!

NOTES: my attempt to make an exam question out of this did not attract a large response (OK I was mostly just trying to get out of writing the blog post last night). It did produce one very funny satire, and one good two-part answer, the second part of which was the “right” answer (a special virtual Rolex (Aid) Watch prize for Kevin!)


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Dropping Haiti’s debt = sending old shoes

The following post is by David Roodman, a research fellow at the Center for Global Development (CGD) in Washington, DC. Last week my colleague Michael Clemens blogged in this space about the “The best way nobody’s talking about to help Haitians.” So as a complement, here’s what I think is the worst way that everybody’s talking about to help Haitians: cancelling Haiti’s debt.

I am not suggesting that Haiti’s foreign creditors should stick to their guns in order to teach the country a lesson about the sanctity of international debt contracts. Canceling or reimbursing Haiti’s debt payments over the next, say, five years, just as was done after the Asian tsunami, would make eminent sense. That would constitute debt relief but would not require debt cancellation.

Why not just cancel the debt outright, as the One Campaign, the Jubilee Debt Campaign, and Oxfam have demanded?

  • The benefit would be low. Most outstanding loans to Haiti are repayable over 25–40 years and charge 2%/year or less in interest. So while the face value of Haiti’s debt is impressive—some $1.25 billion, not counting the $114 million in new IMF credits—the debt service over the next few years will be tiny. The IMF projects (table 7) the cost at $18 million for fiscal year 2009/10, rising to $34 million in 2011/12. Even those figures are high since the U.S. government is paying the $9 million/year interest on Haiti’s loans from the Inter-American Development Bank. Perhaps half the rest is owed to Taiwan and Venezuela, whose susceptibility to press releases from western NGOs is uncertain. So as little as $25 million in debt service may be in play over the next 3 years.
  • Lobbying for debt cancellation crowds out other more important issues. Activist groups and politicians have limited time, staff, and political capital. Instead of fixating on dropping the debt, why don’t activists and politicians campaign to hold public and private donors accountable for avoiding the mistakes of past disaster relief efforts? Why don’t they take on textile interests in order to open our borders to “Made in Haiti”? Why not, as Michael argued, push for a Golden Door visa that would allow at least a few tens of thousands more Haitians into rich countries to work?

Reforming trade and migration policies, even getting donors to respond more effectively to disasters, requires confronting entrenched interests. But activists are at their best when they take on the tough fights. We owe it to Haitians to strive for what is best for them, not easiest for us.

A couple of weeks ago here on Aid Watch, Alanna Shaikh blogged under the title, Nobody wants your old shoes: How not to help in Haiti. Beyond the specific advice, she was voicing a big idea close to Aid Watch’s heart: so many aid efforts go awry because the giver decides what the receiver needs.

I fear that calls to cancel Haiti’s debt are the old shoes of political activism. Debt relief will hardly help Haiti recover from the quake. And in a crisis, if you’re not helping, you’re in the way. Let us do the equivalent in the policy realm of sending cash, by advocating reforms that will do far more to alleviate the suffering.

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Quake an opportunity for foreigners to "get Haiti right"? Aid "shock doctrine"?

NEIL MacFARQUHAR in a good NYT story this morning  (self-promotion alert: I am quoted in the story) notes all the discussion that the quake is an opportunity to sort out all the problems of long-run Haitian development. But an opportunity for whom? Apparently for foreigners. The story mentions some of the proposals for foreign intervention:

Haiti should be temporarily taken over by an international organization

{Bill Clinton as} Haiti reconstruction czar.

“Is it too wild a suggestion to be talking about at least temporarily some sort of receivership?” Senator Christopher J. Dodd, ....Senator Bob Corker, Republican of Tennessee, echoed that thought, adding, “I think something far more draconian than just us working behind the scenes to prod reforms and those kinds of things is going to be necessary.”

This current debate is an ironic echo of Naomi Klein's Shock Doctrine, which is an excessively hysterical rant on how conservative foreigners impose free market doctrine on poor countries when they are reeling from things such as...natural disasters. Beneath Klein's purple rhetoric is the germ of a good idea, however: foreigners should not exploit disasters to bypass local, homegrown choices. The liberal version of the "Shock doctrine" is that disasters are an opportunity to impose their own statist solutions to development.

Even if the recipient of "shock therapy" does not have a democratic government, foreign intervention is also non-democratic. You can't trust foreigners to have the right incentives and the right knowledge -- all they will wind up doing is delaying further the homegrown efforts of the locals to solve their own problems, with domestic politics distorted futher by xenophobic reactions against foreign intervention.

Foreign intervention is just another variety of the perpetual fantasy: the benevolent autocrat who will "get development right." We have already seen how this movie ends in Haiti, which has been the recipient of multiple military interventions and grand aid plans over more than a century -- with the unhappy results that were on display before the earthquake.

Haitians certainly could benefit from some foreigners providing relief and aid to individual , but only if the foreign providers are humble searchers  like Paul Farmer, and not grandiose and coercive foreign planners like those quoted above.

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The vacuous top and the resourceful bottom in the Haiti crisis

Meeting about Haiti in Montreal on Monday, representatives from 14 donor countries and the European Union came together and committed to a detailed, specific, well-coordinated plan … to come up with a plan. Chairman of the Conference, Canada's Foreign Minister Lawrence Cannon:

We have a shared vision on the way forward, one plan that ties us all together. ... Clear vision, co-ordination and adherence to principles of aid effectiveness will be essential.

Stay tuned for the follow-up meeting to be held at the UN in March.

In the meantime, though, stories are filtering through from aid workers on the ground confronting practical constraints of bottlenecks and distributions…not waiting around for plans.

A team of US doctors who were among the first medical responders in Port-au-Prince described their experience in a scathing WSJ op-ed:

…Our operation received virtually no support from any branch of the U.S. government, including the State Department. As we ran out of various supplies we had no means to acquire more. There was no way to transfer patients we were poorly equipped to manage (such as a critically ill newborn with respiratory distress) to a facility where they would get better care. We were heartbroken having to tell patients suffering incredible pain we could not perform their surgery for at least a day….

Later, as we were leaving Haiti, we were appalled to see warehouse-size quantities of unused medicines, food and other supplies at the airport, surrounded by hundreds of U.S. and international soldiers standing around aimlessly.

The international relief and development blogger Tales from the Hood is now blogging from Port-au-Prince:

Wyclef Jean complained on Oprah about air-drops during week one: “My people are not animals…” And I would, of course, completely agree. They’re not animals. And I’d agree that air-drops are or should be a last-resort means, and are not standard relief distribution procedure. But then this is hardly a standard situation…. Back-of-the-cocktail-napkin estimates say that better than half of distribution events in Haiti since the earthquake turn violent, that violence ranging from beneficiaries beating each other up over bags of rice, to full-on looting of the truck, to shots fired and people killed. And his suggestion that perhaps he should coordinate distribution in Haiti is straight up the dumbest thing that I’ve heard in a very long time. … Maybe I should produce his next album?

A letter from the co-founder of the NGO SOIL, Sasha Kramer, provides a somewhat different perspective:

For centuries Haiti has been portrayed as a dangerous country filled with volatile and threatening people, unsafe for foreigners.

…this wall of fear … has had very serious implications for the distribution of the millions of dollars of aid that have been flowing into the country for the past 10 days. … much of the aid coming through the larger organizations is still blocked in storage, waiting for the required UN and US military escorts that are seen as essential for distribution, meanwhile people in the camps are suffering …

And then Kramer notes the contrast among the Haitians themselves.

The most striking thing I have noticed … is the level of organization and ingenuity among the displaced communities.  Community members stand ready to distribute food and water to their neighbors, they are prepared to provide first aid and assist with clean up efforts, all that they are lacking is the financial means to do so.

If you know of good first person accounts being written by aid workers in Haiti, please add them in the comments.

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The best way nobody’s talking about to help Haitians

The following post is by Michael Clemens, a research fellow at the Center for Global Development in Washington, DC, and an affiliated associate professor of public policy at Georgetown University.

The earthquake two weeks ago hit Haiti hard because Haiti is poor. The rich U.S. had similar earthquakes with far less carnage. So, what would do the most to lift Haitians out of poverty?

Start here: What has done the most, to date, to lift Haitians out of poverty? That answer is easy. Leaving Haiti brought more Haitians out of poverty than anything else that has ever been tried: any aid project in Haiti, or any trade preference for Haiti. See my note and video posted the day before Haiti’s catastrophe.

Of all the Haitians who live either in the United States or Haiti, and who live on more than $10 per day—at U.S. prices, adjusted for the fact that things are cheaper in Haiti—how many live in the U.S.? (That’s a barebones poverty standard, just one third of the U.S. “poverty line” for a single adult.)

82 Percent of Haitians above this poverty line are here in the United States. (I calculate this with Lant Pritchett here, ungated version here.) Only the top 1.4 percent of people in Haiti had that living standard even before the quake, and there is no evidence that Haitian emigrants come primarily from the extreme tip-top of the income distribution. So for most of Haitians who left, leaving Haiti was the cause of leaving poverty.

The Obama administration decided that for the next 18 months it will not deport any Haitian. But the U.S. has only been deporting about 1,000 Haitians per year recently. More importantly, the U.S. has forcibly stopped and repatriated about 5,000 Haitians per year for the past 20 years—people who never made it to the U.S. And this policy surely deterred thousands more each year from even trying. When Gallup asked people in Haiti last year if they would leave permanently if given the opportunity, 52 percent said yes. The U.S. is actively blocking the most effective poverty reduction strategy for Haitians.

When I talk about leaving Haiti as a development strategy for Haitians, some thoughtful people argue that this “can’t be the solution for Haiti.” Compared to what we all wish for in Haiti—rapid emergence from poverty for everyone there, in their homeland—leaving Haiti is a terrible solution. But compared to what is actually likely to happen in Haiti, continued poverty for decades at least, leaving Haiti is the principal solution to poverty. This is the right comparison, not the comparison to a prosperous Haiti that must remain a fantasy for now.

The best thing the United States could do for Haitians would be to let them in, either temporarily or permanently. We are now accepting about 21,000 permanent Haitian immigrants per year, and just a few hundred temporary workers per year. If we really wanted to raise Haitians out of destitution, we could absorb many times more than this. To say that we shouldn’t because it wouldn’t be the end-all solution is like saying that a lifeboat shouldn’t fill its ten empty seats just because there are 100 people in the water.

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Bill Clinton for President...of Haiti?

The Economist leader on Haiti:

investment {should}  be targeted on infrastructure, basic services and combating soil erosion to make farmers more productive and the country less vulnerable to hurricanes.

The pressing question is who should do it and how. Haiti’s government is in no position to take charge, yet the country needs a strong government to put it to rights. Paul Collier, a development economist who worked on the plan, reckons that the answer is to set up a temporary development authority with wide powers to act.

Given the local vacuum of power, this is the best idea around. The authority should be set up under the auspices of the UN or of an ad hoc group (the United States, Canada, the European Union and Brazil, for example). It should be led by a suitable outsider (Bill Clinton, who is the UN’s special envoy for Haiti, would be ideal...

If this doesn't strike you as misguided on too many levels to count, then ... I give up.

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Dr. Lancet discovers hitherto unsuspected need for aid criticism

The Lancet has issued a severe editorial blast against the aid agencies (both official and NGO) for Haiti aid efforts. (Link requires free registration.) Alanna Shaikh points out where the Lancet is off base.

The Lancet knowledge universe has the perception "the aid sector" has "largely escaped public scrutiny." Who ever heard of any those obscure *&^%$#@ criticisms of foreign aid? That "coming age of accountability" crap? Sigh.

But, forget all that, here's a belated welcome to the concept of aid criticism, Dr. Lancet! Here's what you have already accomplished.

First, you analyze the political economy incentives of aid agencies:

large aid agencies can be obsessed with raising money through their own appeal efforts. Media coverage as an end in itself is too often an aim of their activities. Marketing and branding have too high a profile.

Second, you note these political incentives could cause some needs to be neglected and others not, with the unhappy result:

when viewed through the distorted lens of politics, economics, religion, and history, some lives are judged more important than others

Third, no matter what  aid can do and/or cannot do, you note coordination between agencies is (actually will always be) a disaster:

relief efforts in the field are sometimes competitive with little collaboration between agencies, including smaller, grass-roots charities that may have have better networks in affected counties and so are well placed to immediately implement emergency relief.

You're off to a promising start in so far having shown an impressive grasp of the obvious, Dr. Lancet! Welcome to the aid accountability movement!

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Telethon: "We've seen the earth quake but the soul of the Haitian people it will never break."

You might expect a certain critic of celebrity-aid to make fun of the Haitian telethon last night. And there were indeed some cringe-inducing moments in this 4-minute video summary I just watched.

But it's a little-known dark secret that crotchety skeptics often have a sentimental streak.  So what's really wrong about some well-meaning gushy-anthem-belting megastars raising money for some currently very needy people?

I just hope that some day we will get to the point where there will also be an anthem about accountability. Here's some lyrics by an anonymous contributor, for which I take no responsibility:

So clear the fogs/Listen to the blogs/Don't just throw dollars out the door/Make sure them reaches the poor.

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A multiple choice post on Haiti disaster

Which best describes Port-au-Prince? A) A hotbed of looting, machete-wielding gangs and violence.

“Downtown Port-au-Prince now feels like a war zone. Gangs with machetes rule the streets here.” – CBS News 1/14/2010

“Hundreds of people desperate for food and supplies swarmed downtown Haiti yesterday, climbing atop piles of broken rubble and shards of glass to get to canned goods, powdered milk, and batteries buried underneath. On the main boulevard, the Grand Rue, their desperation flared into violence at times as teenage boys and men scuffled over goods, and some sparred with sticks. Police fired warning shots into the air but were powerless to halt them.” – Boston Globe, 1/19/2010

B) Currently being saved by American and international rescue teams (with heroic assists from Anderson Cooper and Sanjay Gupta).

“On Tuesday, the White House press office emailed out the YouTube clip below with a subject line, ‘AMAZING VIDEO: Crowd starts chanting USA, USA during L.A. County USAR rescue.’” – Huffington Post 1/19/2010

C) Full of relatively calm people trying to get by amidst overwhelming destruction.

“The mood managed to stay mostly calm, as residents carried leather-bound Bibles to pray outside their ruined churches.” – New York Times 1/18/2010

“One saving grace is that in spite of reports of violence and outbreaks of looting, the overriding atmosphere across the capital is of patient resignation rather than a society on the brink of collapsing into anarchy. – Financial Times, 1/19/2010

D) ALL or NONE of the above.

This is not to diminish the extent of the devastation in Port-au-Prince, the poor state of governance and infrastructure even before the quake, or the degree to which many survivors must be thirsty, hungry, tired, weak and in shock. But I wonder if some media coverage of the earthquake’s aftermath leads to a distorted picture of Haitians as either crazed and violent on one hand, or completely helpless and awaiting our rescue on the other.

Earlier this week on his blog, Chris Blattman asked whether robbery was as widespread as some news reports and photographs seemed to imply. This perception mattered, he said, because “an aid and security policy designed for thieving, ungovernable, progress-resistant Haitians looks very different from one that views civil society institutions as shaken but fundamentally strong.”

How would an overblown perception of violence and insecurity in Port-au-Prince affect the delivery of disaster-relief aid?

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Too much of a good thing? Making the most of your disaster donations

The global outpouring of support for people affected by the South Asia earthquake and tsunamis of 2004 added up to more than $14 billion. One notable fact about this $14 billion is that it represents the most generous international response to a natural disaster on record. Another is that it exceeded the total estimated cost of damages from the storm by some $4 billion, or about 30 percent.

What drove these record-breaking sums in the aftermath of the tsunami was not aid from governments, although that too was large. It was private individuals and companies who reached into their pockets and gave generously, to the Red Cross, to UNICEF and other UN agencies, and above all to what is estimated to be the largest proliferation of NGOs that had ever implemented relief efforts in a single disaster.

We don’t yet know how the Haiti response will compare. We do know that donor pledges to help those affected by last Tuesday’s earthquake in Port-au-Prince, pushed along by texting and twitter campaigns, have also been fast and plentiful (while no list seems totally comprehensive, there are tallies of pledges here , here and here).

And we know that some of the same conditions that made the response to the tsunami so generous are at play in Haiti as well. For one, the proximity to the Christmas season, when many Western donors are predisposed to be thinking about giving, and have holiday charity solicitations fresh in their minds. For another, the barrage of media coverage, especially (from Haiti) television stories featuring dramatic rescues that underscore the heroism of American-funded rescue teams.

Relief agencies having a lot of money to draw upon had many real, positive consequences for the survivors of the tsunami in South Asia. Quick-response relief efforts received praise from evaluators and local populations. But the unprecedented pledges in answer to post-tsunami fundraising appeals didn’t solve all problems, and in fact amplified some existing ones—like competition among NGOs, funding decisions based on media and political pressure rather than actual needs or capacities of affected countries, and weakening humanitarian impartiality.

The authors of one report by the Tsunami Evaluation Coalition* found that generous funding “exceeded the absorption capacity of an overstretched humanitarian industry” and actually served as a disincentive for NGOs to work together and pool resources and information. It also caused inexperienced NGOs to proliferate, and encouraged even experienced actors to work outside their realm of expertise.

Some NGOs that found themselves with unexpected amounts of money to spend responded by extending the time horizons or scope of their programs. Only Médecins sans Frontières was quick to admit that they had enough donations for the tsunami and request that additional funds help people elsewhere, a move which initially drew criticism from other NGOs. (MSF posted a similar statement for Haiti last week).

Humanitarian aid is supposed to be allocated according to the principle of impartiality -- the idea that assistance should be offered according to need, not nationality, or political belief, or even how compelling a particular disaster may be to donors. This may be an impossible ideal, but consider that the $14 billion for survivors of the tsunami works out to about $7,000 per person, and compare that to the roughly $150 per person for Somalis affected by civil strife in 2005, or $3 per person for the 2004 floods in Bangladesh.

It may seem callous to suggest even by analogy that the flow of funds going immediately to Haiti be in any way stemmed or diverted. But the effects of big fundraising appeals are complex, and not as temporary we might assume: “The scale of the resources to be spent will distort agency programmes in favour of tsunami-affected areas for years to come,” found another report.

The solution is not to stop donations to organizations doing good work in Haiti. Haitians need international help to rebuild now. The point is rather to give money in such a way that mitigates the negative effects of this compassionate onslaught of giving, and encourages the international system to allocate funds effectively and fairly. Other, good blogs have already discussed some strategies; I give you three of them:

  1. Don’t restrict (or earmark) your donations to be used only in Haiti, but rather allow your chosen NGO to spend the money you donate as they see fit. If you don’t trust them to allocate your funds effectively to where they are most needed, then why are you giving them money in the first place?
  2. Take up the Philanthrocapitalism blog's advice to give an equal amount to "someone suffering just as much, but less dramatically, elsewhere in the world."
  3. Space out your giving. Organizations with a history of working closely with Haitian communities will still be there in six months. They will probably be there in a year, and probably in five years too. They will need your money then as well, when the spotlight has shifted to the next disaster.


*ALNAP (Active Learning Network for Accountability and Performance), is the repository of many useful documents from the Tsunami Evaluation Coalition. ALNAP has also produced lessons learned reports on Responding to Urban Disasters and Responding to Earthquakes 2008, among others.

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