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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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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Getting humanitarian relief right

The extent of the devastation in Port-au-Prince, the incapacity of the already weak Haitian government, and the degraded state of infrastructure throughout the country resist comparison to any disaster before this one. But post-recovery evaluations from the Asian tsunami, the Bam earthquake and other disasters suggest which practices allow relief efforts to work effectively and which result in waste and delays. My piece on puts the response to Haiti's earthquake in the context of previous disaster relief efforts. Read it here.

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Crazy academic research on disaster relief

Sigh, do U.S. strategic interests influence even disaster relief aid? (Ungated version.) Could humanitarian aid cause governments to under-invest in disaster prevention, causing natural disasters to have worse effects? If so, then past disaster relief could induce worst disaster outcomes now (And I thought MY ideas were unpopular)

The amount of news coverage of disasters is heavily influenced by the country's popularity with US tourists.

News coverage is also higher when there are no other big competing news stories. This variation in news coverage is unrelated to need, of course, but has a major effect on the amount of disaster relief aid.

How does this likely affect aid to Haiti for the earthquake? News coverage has been high from major media, and aid flows seem likely to be high.  (Although Haiti doesn't pass the much more severe test of making ongoing headlines in my hometown newspaper, the Bowling Green (OH) Sentinel-Tribune, where today's headline is about a new stoplight.) Still aid could have been even higher if Haiti were very central to US strategic interests (imagine an earthquake destroying Kabul) or a major US tourist destination (a Cancun earthquake that killed US tourists might even get covered in Bowling Green, triggering even larger relief aid).

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

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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Haiti's recent troubled past

Everyone knows that Haiti is the poorest country in the western hemisphere.And everyone knows that it’s an hour and thirty minutes from Miami, Florida. Or most people know that. So, how in the world can we let this happen?...

I do not think that foreign aid is the solution to the world’s problems. I think it can only do a limited amount, and it doesn’t do that very well. A lot of foreign aid goes into relief. They wait for the disaster, and then they put the money in...

Why did these hurricanes have this impact this time? It’s not like we don’t have a history of it, it’s not like we didn’t know it was going to happen again, some time. God forbid the day we get one that hits Port-au-Prince head-on, because it’s going to be really disastrous.

This is Anne Hasting, director of Fonkoze, alternative bank of the poor, in fall of 2008, speaking to reporter Ruxandra Guidi about the damage from the latest hurricanes to hit Haiti. That year, four hurricanes and tropical storms hit Haiti in quick succession, causing mudslides and floods that wiped out the coastal town of Gonaives, killing some 800 people and displacing millions.

Take a moment to watch the narrated slide show, produced by journalist Ruxandra Guidi with photographs by Roberto Guerra and a haunting soundtrack by Luis Guerra.

In these next few days, we turn from our initial horror at Haiti’s new catastrophe to the dizzying, widening view of a human disaster that will take years to recover from. This eerily prescient video is now an artifact of Haiti’s immediate past, when Port-au-Prince, with its houses and markets, slums and palaces, churches and hospitals, was still standing.

Thanks go to reader Luke Seidl for the tip.

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Haiti earthquake: Help navigating complex terrain of disaster relief

Today our thoughts go out to those who are suffering from the devastating earthquake that hit Haiti yesterday, and to all those contributing to relief efforts there. An email we received this morning from Saundra Schimmelpfennig, who has experience coordinating tsunami relief in Thailand and writes the blog Good Intentions Are Not Enough, highlights some of the problems that arise in responding to a large scale disaster such as this one:

Immediately after a disaster is prime fundraising time for NGOs. So they all rush in and put out immediate appeals before there's any clear idea of what or how much they can actually help. Only fund those that already have an office established in country because of the amount of time and money it takes to get anything more than just search and rescue up and running. If you want to move into anything such as temporary shelters, food distribution, those with an already established presence will know the people and systems better and be able to work more quickly and less expensively.

I prefer for people to try to support small, local CBOs [Community-based organizations] as they are already on the ground responding, and will be helping in the country for a long time.

Ideas for how to help and where to give:

Getting and sharing information:

First-person accounts and in-depth coverage:

Humanitarian response:

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