Of Donors and Disasters

These donor commitments are important. But previous donors’ conferences for Haiti indicate there is more to this process than pronouncements, and many steps must be taken before aid gets to where it is needed most. Huge sums were also ceremoniously promised at donor conferences in 2004 and 2009. Following the April 2009 conference, only 30% of pledges had been disbursed almost a year later when the earthquake struck.

Contrary to stereotypes, these missing funds did not disappear into the depths of a corrupt Haitian government, but evaporated when international partners simply failed to follow through on their obligations. At the March 31, 2010 conference, UN Special Envoy Bill Clinton publicly acknowledged his own failure to collect money pledged in the past, and emphasized the importance of follow-through on international commitments.

Poor communication, unclear avenues for aid delivery, and a lack of uniform reporting contributed to this dismal record. Absent adequate monitoring and coordination, it is difficult to assess how aid is used and how effective its impact. Foreign assistance that respects the human rights of the Haitian people will require donors to agree to apply the principles of transparency, recipient participation, and alignment with Haitian government priorities to ensure aid effectiveness.

Good Intentions, Poor Follow-Through

The enormous outpouring of solidarity with Haiti that began after the earthquake struck the island on Jan. 12 could still be felt in March in New York City. Yet, despite all the good intentions of donors at the conference, the recent history of aid to Haiti raises serious questions about whether donors’ measures and the millions of dollars behind them will translate into meaningful improvements in the lives of most Haitians. The existing means and machinery for providing assistance lags far behind the rhetoric. The complexities of the on-the-ground situation and the often conflicting interests involved in establishing post-disaster development projects make old habits hard to break.

The need for direct budgetary support is one example. Leading up to the conference, several donor government officials cited incapacity or corruption of the Haitian government as a reason not to provide direct funding. But reflection on the recent history of donor assistance to Haiti would help critics understand why, in the context of billions of dollars pledged over the years, Haitian public infrastructure remains weak.

First, as noted above, a huge proportion of the funds pledged were never delivered. Moreover, international aid donors have actually contributed to eroding the public administrative capacity that they now seek to restore post-earthquake. The standard practice of bypassing Haitian institutions has created private and NGO structures that supplant the role of the government, diverting both human and financial resources away from the public sector. Not surprisingly, a government structure to coordinate and ensure accountability for aid projects is non-existent. Together, the lack of public information about aid to Haiti and the large parallel systems create severe accountability problems. With no one checking on the status of projects left unfinished or investigating projects causing harm to communities, Haitians have no meaningful avenues for input or redress.

Unreliable funding and parallel structures have systematically undermined the Haitian government’s capacity to assess and coordinate aid, and consequently, of ensuring rights-respecting assistance to Haiti. Donors at the March conference spoke of Haitian ownership and leadership, yet said little about providing funding through the Haiti Multi-Donor Reconstruction Fund, which would ensure alignment with Haitian ministries and facilitate a more accurate monitoring and accounting of assistance. With the exception of very few donor states, including Brazil, Spain, France, and Venezuela, most donor states were unwilling to publicly make commitments to either the Multi-Donor Fund or direct budgetary support.

Donors’ rhetoric at the UN conference reflected a recognition of the challenges described above, but the declarations were not matched by specific changes in aid provision. The magnitude of devastation in Haiti demands that donor actions live up to their rhetoric; at stake are people’s rights to the most basic of human necessities—access to food, clean drinking water, and a decent quality of life.

U.S. food aid, as currently structured, provides a good example of counter-productive policy that can be improved upon. When donated under Title II of the Food for Peace Act, food aid is subject to the conditions that it be purchased in the United States and that 15% be sold in the recipient country. Instead of helping Haitians grow their own food, these requirements gradually shift eating habits toward external products and undercut domestic food production. Since the earthquake, there has been an important effort by the United States to shift a portion of funds to allow for the purchase of food in Haiti. However, supporting temporary local purchases falls short of the needed support and protections required for Haitian producers to thrive next door to some of the most heavily subsidized agriculture in the world.

That many of these problems already occurred prior to the earthquake, in a “non-emergency” context, underscores the importance of monitoring the assistance pledged to Haiti at the conference. With these large sums of money and the well-being of millions on the line, assistance must be done right. It involves compiling data from two dozen countries, each with somewhere between 1 and 20 governmental agencies involved with distinct accounting and reporting systems, any number of NGOs or private contractors playing various roles in carrying out the projects, which can, in turn, hire sub-contractors. Addressing this complexity and multitude of actors will require donors to break with the current mode of operation so that, in the long term, Haitian institutions can conduct appropriate monitoring and coordination.

Donor states have agreed that coordination, transparency, accountability, and participation are paramount, and have pronounced so in the widely adopted Paris Declaration on Aid Effectiveness (2005) and Accra Agenda for Action (2008). But whether donor assistance is rights-respecting will depend on how and whether these principles are applied. This means implementing the necessary mechanisms to determine what impact aid is having on the ground. Such mechanisms might include a multi-donor fund, as used in Aceh and Afghanistan, that would integrate meaningful representation from Haitian civil society and grassroots networks, together with adequate technical and budgetary support from donors. Other options include a publicly accessible aid monitoring database or a forum to ensure grassroots community participation and input into how the money is being used. Former President Bill Clinton’s remarkable admission that he had failed at one of his primary responsibilities as UN Special Envoy to Haiti—to ensure the disbursement of donor pledges from the 2009 Donors’ Conference—should serve as a warning. If we cannot muster the political will to do things differently than we have in the past in Haiti, we will have failed as well.

Salvador G. Sarmiento is an advocacy officer at the Robert F. Kennedy Center for Justice & Human Rights and a contributor to CIP Americas Program (www.americasprogram.org).