Does Japan need your donation?

Many aid bloggers and journalists are doing a good job communicating a nuanced message about how to respond to the devastating earthquake and tsunami in Japan. From Stephanie Strom, writing in the New York Times:

The Japanese Red Cross…has said repeatedly since the day after the earthquake that it does not want or need outside assistance. But that has not stopped the American Red Cross from raising $34 million through Tuesday afternoon in the name of Japan’s disaster victims…

The Japanese government so far has accepted help from only 15 of the 102 countries that have volunteered aid, and from small teams with special expertise from a handful of nonprofit groups…

…[M]any of the groups raising money in Japan’s name are still uncertain to whom or to where the money will go…

Holden Karnofsky, a founder of GiveWell, a Web site that researches charities, said he was struck by how quickly many nonprofit groups had moved to create ads using keywords like “Japan,” “earthquake,” “disaster,” and “help” to improve the chances of their ads showing up on Google when the words were used in search queries.

“Charities are aggressively soliciting donations around this disaster, and I don’t believe these donations necessarily are going to be used for relief or recovery in Japan because they aren’t needed for that,” Mr. Karnofsky said. “The Japanese government has made it clear it has the resources it needs for this disaster.”

Robert Ottenhoff, president and chief executive of GuideStar, a Web site that provides charity tax forms and other resources for donors, said donors themselves were to blame for the fund-raising frenzy.

People who really want to support charitable organizations and good works, Mr. Ottenhoff said, should base it on a desire to support something they already understand and believe in.

The Japanese are world-renowned experts in disaster preparedness, relief and recovery, and Japan is the third largest economy in the world. There should be no mistake that the Japanese government and Japanese organizations are well-equipped to take the lead.

Our best advice for people who feel moved to give by the tragedy in Japan: Give generously, in cash, to an organization that you trust, and don’t restrict your donation. This way, your charity can use the funds for Japan if it turns out they are needed. If not, then it is free to use your donation for another purpose, like the dozens of under-reported, large-scale disasters that CNN isn’t featuring today.

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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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Can the story on US food aid get any worse?

Hundreds of thousands of malnourished children are receiving poor quality and even harmful food aid because of the slow introduction of more nutritious alternatives, a medical charity has warned. The US is continuing to donate directly to relief agencies fortified flour mixes of corn and wheat with soya that do not meet international standards agreed in the 1960s...

...older corn-soy blend (CSB) pre-mixed foods donated by the US contained insufficient micronutrients, anti-nutrients that interfered with child absorption, no dairy proteins that were important for growth, and were bulky, limiting intake by young children with small stomachs.

see the full story in the FT.

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This just in: there was a flood in Pakistan

We have chronicled here on Aid Watch how media coverage of disasters influences disasters, and how late the US media has been to the story of the disastrous flood in Pakistan, with apparently anemic donor response as a result. Puzzlement deepened this morning at 7:30 am when I picked up my NYT off my doorstep and saw the four column front-page headline: Much of Pakistan's Progress is Lost in Its Floodwaters.  The NYT devotes not only the huge front-page space to the flood, but also two prime pages inside of the first section. Could somebody please explain the mysterious alchemy by which a tragedy going on for a month already finally become a huge story?

In praise of the NYT, the story is great, and also has great pictures and maps like this one shown here. So please go back and read Laura's many posts on Pakistan flooding.

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Laura in NYT debate on Can Aid Buy Taliban's Love?

NYT DEBATE: Can Flood Aid Weaken the Taliban in Pakistan?

Or is it more likely that extremist groups will capitalize on the chaos created by the disaster?

Laura Freschi's answer: aid doesn't help with the Taliban, but give anyway.

The idea that flood aid will change Pakistani perceptions about the U.S. in a lasting and meaningful way is both unproven and based on simplistic, even condescending assumptions about the beneficiaries of America’s aid.


There may well be cases in which U.S. disaster aid could be used to promote security objectives, but we don’t know enough to say that it will now in Pakistan. And if ever there was a time for U.S. aid to demonstrate that it is not always and everywhere only about U.S. strategic interests, this would be a good time. As the floods continue to endanger lives and livelihoods in Pakistan, the U.S. should give quickly, fairly and generously. Not because we want something in exchange, but because it’s the right thing to do.

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Is it OK to neglect disaster in Pakistan because it’s not a tourist destination? If not, see below

The latest story on the catastrophic flooding in Pakistan is about how it hasn’t been a story. Compared to the response to the Haitian earthquake, media coverage of the Pakistan floods has been paltry. While news coverage isn’t correlated with need, it does have a major effect on the amount of disaster relief aid given. An article in the Chronicle of Philanthropy yesterday reported that eleven US charities had so far raised only $5 million for Pakistan flood relief, compared to $560 million raised by 39 US groups in the two and a half weeks after the Haiti earthquake.

The difference in initial death toll reports may be one obvious explanation. The early figures for Haiti were 200,000 lives taken, compared to the 1,600 people reported to have died so far in Pakistan. But less than ten percent of the variation in amount of TV news coverage given to foreign natural disasters can be explained by severity, according to one academic study.

The same study found that one third of the variation in how much TV attention a disaster gets is explained by how popular the affected country is with US tourists. Sadly for the flood survivors, Pakistan is nowhere on the list of top destinations for US travelers in Asia and the outlook’s not great: the World Economic Forum ranked Pakistan 113 out of 133 countries in its latest Travel and Tourism Competitiveness Report.

If you think that popularity with holiday-makers is a fair way to allocate disaster relief, no problem. For the rest of you, accepting the status quo may not be so attractive. In Pakistan, estimates of people affected by the floods—who may have already lost their homes, their belongings or their livelihoods, and who now lack basic services—are at 20 million. UN officials have recently been predicting a “second wave of deaths” from water-borne diseases as the flooding continues and people remain without clean water, food and medicine. Children and the very poor are among the most vulnerable.

For individual donors wanting to help, some advice:

  1. Give to an established organization already on the ground and with experience working locally.
  2. Give cash, not goods. Pakistan is far away and shipping items there is expensive. With cash, organizations can buy what they need closer to the disaster site.
  3. Don’t earmark your donation, but give to an organization that you trust to allocate your money wisely.

Also check out this more comprehensive set of guidelines from Good Intentions Are Not Enough.

Ideas on where and how to give:

  • One reader wrote in about perceptions that there are no Pakistani NGOs participating in the relief efforts, or that all of them are inherently corrupt. She countered that organizations such as the Edhi Foundation and Islamic Relief (which is an international NGO but has worked in Pakistan for many years) have solid reputations in Pakistan and abroad and have been effective in the past in getting aid to where it is most needed.
  • Hillary Clinton announced last week that Americans can text the word "SWAT" to the number 50555 to donate $10 to the UN High Commissioner for Refugees to provide tents, clothing, food, clean water and medicine to Pakistan.
  • The Global Giving website has a list and description of their partner organizations working on flood relief.
  • BRAC is the largest non-profit based in the developing world (it was launched in Bangladesh in 1972) and it is accepting donations through its US-based branch.
  • Tonic and Interaction both have lists of organizations accepting donations for flood relief.

Feel free to add others in the comments.

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Wishful thinking on Pakistan

From last weekend’s New York Times:

As the Obama administration continues to add to the aid package for flood-stricken Pakistan — already the largest humanitarian response from any single country — officials acknowledge that they are seeking to use the efforts to burnish the United States’ dismal image there.…

American officials say they are trying to rekindle the same good will generated five years ago when the United States military played a major role in responding to an earthquake in Kashmir in 2005 that killed 75,000 people.

…But American officials warn that the glow from the earthquake assistance faded quickly without more enduring development programs.

“LeFever [the senior US officer in Pakistan] clearly understands the P.R. value of flood assistance, but he also knows that absent other high-profile public diplomacy efforts, the half-life of any improvement to Pakistani impressions of the U.S. will be short,” said John K. Wood, a retired Army colonel….

This article raises several questions related to recent Aid Watch blog posts. First, has anyone quoted in the article examined the evidence for or against the hypothesis that giving disaster relief will improve the US’s image in Pakistan? As we blogged recently, there is startlingly little evidence at all on whether aid can “win hearts and minds,” but one of the few studies that exists looked specifically at the 2005 Kashmir earthquake. It found that even though US relief efforts were effective from a humanitarian perspective, they had no lasting impact on Pakistani perceptions.

Second, the Army official quoted above warns that flood assistance from the US may not be enough to create lasting change. Maybe he read the studies (or our blog)? But from which studies did he get his evidence that  “high-profile public diplomacy efforts” have a huge payoff for making Pakistanis love us?

Third, could the love affair between US aid and Pakistan be suffering because Pakistan remembers that US aid jilted them several previous times? (See great graph from CGD.) And because the aid to Pakistan was driven by our own strategic interests?

US assistance to Pakistan, 1948-2011

Now this may sound hopelessly naïve, but here are some reasons the American government should be providing humanitarian assistance to Pakistan: This is an unprecedented disaster causing tremendous suffering and disruption for millions of Pakistani people. The ongoing floods that have submerged one-fifth of Pakistan under water have killed 1,500 people, destroyed crops and livestock, and have put as many as 6 million people at risk of dying from water-borne diseases in “a second wave of deaths” now predicted by UN officials.

If ever there was a time for US aid to demonstrate that it is NOT always and everywhere ONLY about US strategic interests, this would be a good time. And because it’s the right thing to do.

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US food aid policies create 561 jobs in Kansas, risk millions of lives around the world

I read recently the First Law of Policy Economics: Every inefficiency is someone’s income. US food aid policy is definitely no exception, and it is riddled with inefficiencies.

Exhibit A: This invitation from a coalition of big US shipping interests to an event in Washington today. At this event, USA Maritime will have tried to convince lawmakers and their staff that ancient and outdated US food aid legislation, which requires virtually all US food aid to be bought in-kind from the US, processed and bagged in the US, and shipped on US-flag ships to even the most far-flung destinations, should not be altered.

Let us leave aside for a moment that the report recommending favorable policies for the US shipping industry was bought and paid for by the US shipping industry and may not be the most objective or trustworthy source on the subject.

The main thrust of the shipping industry’s argument is that handling, processing and shipping food aid creates US jobs—13,127 of them to be exact—and boosts US industry, leading to this actual headline: “Food For Peace Program Produces More Than 870 Iowa Jobs.” If these policies were removed, they argue, it would be less profitable to operate a ship under the US flag, the US-flag fleet would shrink, and American jobs would be lost.

“Did you know,” reads the invitation, “that these programs have positive economic consequences for our economy at home?” The report tries to quantify one benefit of current US food aid policies, but (obviously) does not discuss the considerable costs of these policies to US tax payers, to the US’s reputation and credibility abroad, and most importantly to programs’ intended recipients—the millions of hungry and malnourished people fed by the world’s largest food aid donor every year.

The shipping industry’s arguments don’t hold water for many reasons. Here are two of the big ones:

First, assuming that you did want to subsidize the US Maritime industry, US food aid policies that create an overpriced, uncompetitive oligopoly are NOT a good way to do it. There are much cleaner, simpler and more effective ways to support US Maritime, such as direct payments to vessel owners. There is no reason to bundle shipping subsidies in with humanitarian aid other than the deeply cynical logic that it’s easier to rally public and Congressional support around money for starving children than around padding to the bottom line of multinational shipping conglomerates.

Second, current US food aid policies are NOT an effective or efficient way for the US to achieve what should rightly be the primary objective for food aid. According to the government’s own accountability office, buying food locally in sub-Saharan Africa (which is where the majority of US food aid goes) costs 34 percent less than shipping it from the US, AND gets there on average more than 100 days more quickly, AND is more likely to be the kind of food people are used to eating. I am not arguing that cash aid is ALWAYS better than food aid, only that any reasonable food aid policy would allow aid agencies the flexibility to determine what kind of assistance works best in each situation.

Despite resistance from all three sides of the iron triangle holding this legislation in place, innovators have managed to break loose about $400 million for pilot and supplemental programs over the last two years to buy food locally or regionally. This is still a small sum compared to the roughly $2 billion that the US spends annually, but it is progress.

With today’s lame report, the big shipping companies behind USA Maritime are asking us to value a few thousand American jobs in a declining and uncompetitive industry over America's humanitarian reputation abroad AND the lives of the millions more people around the world who would benefit from reform to US food aid policy.

Do we even have to say it? This is NOT a fair trade.

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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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Yes, Cash is Best. Now when will USAID follow its own advice?

These two posters are finalists in a student contest to create public service announcements that tell Americans why giving cash in emergencies is better than giving goods like food, bottled water, or used clothes. (Hat tip to Saundra Schimmelpfennig).

The contest guidelines, provided by the Center for International Disaster Information (CIDI), are very clear on why they require entrants to focus on the simple message that giving money is the best way to help. They give three reasons, with which many Aid Watch readers are already familiar:

1) Financial contributions are easily convertible to meet the international disaster victims' specific and immediate needs;

2) Cash donations are more efficient, allowing purchases to be made at a bulk discount, at a lower transportation cost…

3) Cash donations go directly to the disaster site, allowing for exact purchases of what is needed most urgently and stimulating local economies. Other donations, such as products/goods, take time and money to transport, rarely meet victims' urgent needs, often interfere with professional relief efforts and frequently clash with cultural norms.

The videos and posters from the student finalists are here. The winners, announced tomorrow, get a cash prize and will have their work featured in CIDI’s national public education campaign. Now in its fifth year focusing on the very same message, the contest is funded by USAID, a fact which should also be obvious from the USAID logo on every entry.

The US is globally one of the worst offenders of aid tying, whereby US aid is “tied” to the purchase of American goods and services (a useful primer is here). While the percentage of aid that the US reports as tied is now falling thanks to improvements in reporting procedures as well as increases in implicitly untied programming through the Millennium Challenge Corporation and PEPFAR, the US still ranked a sad 19th out of 23 rich country donors in 2008, losing to even Italy, and edging out only Spain, Greece, Korea and Portugal.

In particular, American legislation requires that most US food aid be bought in the US, processed and packed by US firms, and shipped on US-registered vessels. As a result, only about 40 percent of the money that the US spends on food aid actually goes to buying food, and that food is often tragically slow to arrive. When proposals to change these archaic laws have come before the US Congress, they have largely been shouted down or diluted. Canada successfully shifted to a cash-only system in 2008; the US could and should do the same.

As the smart giving movement gains steam among individual donors, aren't we ready to end these wasteful practices institutionalized in US law and carried out by the world's largest bilateral aid agency? Only then would USAID finally be able to follow its own good advice: Cash is best.

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When Kenya saved Washington DC

In today's NYT :

... everyone-as-informant mapping is shaking up the world, bringing the Wikipedia revolution to the work of humanitarians and soldiers who parachute into places with little good information. And an important force behind this upheaval is a small Kenyan-born organization called Ushahidi, which has become a hero of the Haitian and Chilean earthquakes and which may have something larger to tell us about the future of humanitarianism, innovation...

{It helped} in Washington, D.C., where The Washington Post partnered to build a site to map road blockages and the location of available snowplows and blowers.Think about that. The capital of the sole superpower is deluged with snow, and to whom does its local newspaper turn to help dig out? Kenya.

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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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Links for Chile earthquake

@chrissiy: links for Chile mapping response including Google tools, @Ushahidi @saundra_s Latest Post: Chile may not need or want foreign assistance

@AidNews Chile earthquake: Emergency funds released

@AidNews PHOTOS: Massive quake hits Chile

@dfid_uk #Chile #earthquake : A #DFID assessment team is on standby. We remain ready to provide humanitarian support if needed

@dfid_uk RT @foreignoffice: British Ambassador to #Chile describes 'impressive' rescue effort after earthquake yesterday

GlobalGiving @GlobalGiving New Project! GlobalGiving Relief Fund for Earthquake in Chile

@Oxfam Oxfam sends staff to respond to #Chile #Earthquake #terremotochile

Oxfam International @Oxfam Oxfam emergency response team due in Santiago, Chile this pm (Mon) 3pm local time #earthquake

@sociolingo RT @caribnews: Amazing photo essay of the earthquake in #Chile. (high quality images from AP/Getty/AFP)

@carlosmontes1 @bill_easterly but please let's not use this natural disaster as yet another intellectual opportunity to make points about aid

@carlosmontes1 good point, can you explain more what would bother you?

carlos montes carlosmontes1 @bill_easterly thanks! it would b sad (but human) 4 "aid experts" 2 become disaster paparazzis, now is time 4 ushahidi etc not grand theories

@ithorpe"UNICEF and partners stand ready to help after massive earthquake strikes Chile"

@ithorpe: Relief web updates on Chile (incl. OCHA sitreps)

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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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