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The Challenge Of Measuring Relief Aid To Haiti

Last year, the Annex de Martissant area of Port-au-Prince was a camp for displaced people. The area was filled with tents. Today, locals are building sturdier shelters with funding from the American Red Cross.
Marisa Penaloza
Last year, the Annex de Martissant area of Port-au-Prince was a camp for displaced people. The area was filled with tents. Today, locals are building sturdier shelters with funding from the American Red Cross.

After Haiti's devastating earthquake two years ago, Americans donated large sums of money. This helped charities and aid groups save lives immediately after the disaster. But it's been much harder for them to help Haitians rebuild their devastated country. In the second of two stories, NPR's Carrie Kahn and Marisa Penaloza report that its difficult to get detailed information about how organizations spend their money.

NPR surveyed 12 of the largest and best-known U.S. charities about their work in Haiti. The groups say they raised nearly $1.8 billion and have spent more than two-thirds of that.

But how is the money being spent, and what kind of impact is it having?

Guy Serge Pompilous is not impressed with the job nongovernmental organizations, or NGOs, are doing. Serge heads a small community group called Haiti Aid Watchdog.

"Satisfactory ... just plainly satisfactory," he says. "People have been helped; there have been some beneficiaries. But there is still some work to do. That would be a D-plus, C-minus. I would rate them C-minus.

Serge says it's been difficult to get nongovernmental organizations to account for the money.

Julie Sell of the American Red Cross disagrees. She says her organization has done a good job. She's standing in a Port-au-Prince neighborhood where 100 homes are being repaired with $150,000 from the Red Cross.

Sell says it's difficult to show someone exactly where their $10 contribution has gone.

"One way we can show that impact is by telling the stories of Haitians and the people that we helped ... here is a life that you have helped to change," she says.

NGOs A Target Of Anger

But as the pace of recovery in Haiti drags on, those whose lives have not changed are angry. Much of that anger is directed at the NGOs.

Pierre Jean Nelson has been living in a tent for two years and is out of patience.

"What are they going to do with us? Because we can't suffer anymore. ... We can't take it anymore. ... It's too much," he says.

He can't find a job and spends most of his days playing his rusted bongo. A small stream of foul-smelling water runs beside him.

He wants to know where all the money has gone.

Nigel Fisher, the United Nations humanitarian coordinator in Haiti, says NGOs must do a better job accounting for their funds. He says other kinds of aid, like money given by foreign governments and international banks, is very closely tracked and monitored.

"It's not so easy to track the NGO resources that were raised, and we guess that there were maybe $2 billion raised by NGOs around the world ... that has been difficult to track," he says.

The only legal accountability U.S. charities must complete is an annual form with the IRS. Many go beyond that requirement and post audited financial statements and other information on their websites. But those are complex documents with few details, especially when it comes to overhead costs in Haiti like housing, rental cars, security and local staff salaries.

There's the proverb, you know ... they are giving a lot of fish but they are not teaching how to fish.

A spokeswoman for the American Red Cross declined to provide a local overhead breakdown. World Vision did give NPR a local figure of nearly $1 million a month on average. That's 8 percent of the total amount the religious charity spent in Haiti.

Planning For The Long Term

One of the other big issues facing aid groups is making sure enough resources go to long-term reconstruction as well as immediate relief.

The U.N.'s Nigel Fisher says everyone must invest in the future of Haiti and make sure national institutions are strengthened, or "we'll be here in 20 years' time, and our successors will have the same discussion unless we change the approach."

Without that greater accountability, many fear there will be more waste and duplication.

Peter Bell of the Harvard Kennedy School of Government and a former CEO of CARE, agrees. He says U.S. charities should adopt a model used in the United Kingdom where groups jointly ask for money when a major disaster occurs.

"It would take out some of the competition among the NGOs for resources and allow more of them to band together," he said.

And he says that in Britain, an independent third party evaluates the groups' finances and its effectiveness.

Guy Serge Pompilous, of the Haiti Aid Watchdog group, would have welcomed such an approach. His group tried to do its own survey of NGOs but none responded to his inquiries. His organization is no longer trying to monitor the work of NGOs.

Serge doesn't want NGOs to leave Haiti, he just wants them to include more local input in their decision-making.

"There's the proverb, you know ... they are giving a lot of fish but they are not teaching how to fish," he says.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Marisa Peñaloza
Marisa Peñaloza is a senior producer on NPR's National Desk. Peñaloza's productions are among the signature pieces heard on NPR's award-winning newsmagazines Morning Edition and All Things Considered, as well as weekend shows. Her work has covered a wide array of topics — from breaking news to feature stories, as well as investigative reports.
Carrie Kahn
Carrie Kahn is NPR's International Correspondent based in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. Kahn's reports can be heard on NPR's award-winning news programs including All Things Considered, Morning Edition and Weekend Edition, and on NPR.org.