NGOs in Haiti face new questions about effectiveness

Jan. 12, 2011, marks the first anniversary of the earthquake that devastated Haiti.
Washington Post Foreign Service
Tuesday, February 1, 2011; 10:24 PM

IN PORT-AU-PRINCE In the days after the earth shook and the government collapsed, the municipal nursing home here became one of the most desperate sights in Haiti, as old people lay swaddled in dirty sheets, huddled in cramped tents, begging visitors for water.

But little by little, order was restored. A humanitarian aid group called HelpAge International arrived at the nursing home. They paid salaries for security guards, health-care workers and cooks. The last building left standing was patched, and the elderly residents no longer were bathed with buckets in the yard.

But six months later, HelpAge abandoned the project after it failed to negotiate a new agreement with city hall. The group Project Concern International, which was operating a clinic on the grounds of the nursing home, also closed down after the mayor asked for rent.

The travails at the municipal nursing home illustrate both the promise and the perils of the unprecedented humanitarian aid response in Haiti.

Hundreds, maybe thousands, of nongovernmental organizations, known as NGOs, poured into the country after the Jan. 12 earthquake to provide emergency services. The groups - from international brand names such as Save the Children to unknown Baptist missionaries from Oklahoma - were supported by overwhelming global generosity, including more than $1.4 billion in donations from Americans.

But the effectiveness of the NGOs is now being questioned, by the groups themselves, and especially by Haitian leaders who complain that NGOs have become a parallel government hobbled by poor coordination, high turnover and a lack of transparency.

In the squalid camps where 800,000 people still languish, many Haitians routinely say their misery is exploited by NGOs to raise funds rather than raise them up from poverty. Children throw rocks at photographers from aid groups trying to take their pictures, demanding money.

Haitian officials speak of being "overrun" by "an invasion" of NGOs. Prime Minister Jean-Max Bellerive said that foreign NGOs operate in Haiti with little regard to government planning and that their presence, while necessary, can actually undermine long-term recovery efforts. By funneling most aid dollars through the NGOs rather than the government, which struggles with a legacy of corruption, the NGOs condemn the country to a cycle of dependence, he said.

Michel Martelly, the popular carnival singer who has become a top contender in the chaotic presidential election, promised that if elected, his government would rein in the NGOs and change how they do business in Haiti.

"We will allow them to function, but I will tell them what to do and where to do it," Martelly said in an interview. "We are going to impose a system to oversee what is done. We are going to get control of them."

'The answer is mixed'

The Disaster Accountability Project, a nonprofit staffed by law students and interns, solicited data from 196 NGOs operating in Haiti and got responses from 38 organizations, which reported that they had raised $1.4 billion in donations for earthquake relief in Haiti and spent $730 million on the ground.

Of the 196 Web sites operated by the NGOs in Haiti, only eight contained information the group considered "average or better than average" at transparency. "Most of the Web sites rely on anecdotes, aggregations and appeals to emotion," said Ben Smilowitz, the group's founder.

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