Graffiti on the streets of Haiti’s capital city Port-au-Prince echoes negative views many Haitians now have of relief organizations praised as heroes immediately after the Jan. 12, 2010 quake. Daniel Morel
Reading Time: 13 minutes

No one doubted that the violent earthquake that laid waste to Haiti’s weary capital city in January 2010 would drastically change the country.

In the minute it took to topple buildings, crush limbs and steal nearly 250,000 lives, the Haitian landscape was forever altered.

Television news images of the widespread death and destruction prompted an outpouring of donations from across the globe.

About $3 billion in private donations went to charitable organizations responding to the earthquake. Some $1.4 billion of the total was raised just by U.S. based organizations. Another $4.6 billion in international aid was pledged by 58 countries and lenders forgave $1 billion in Haitian debt.

“There was so much goodwill from around the world for Haiti,” recalled Marilyn Allien, who runs the anti-corruption La Fondation Heritage Pour Haiti, the country’s chapter of Transparency International. “It was very moving.”

Non-government organizations (NGOs) descended on the island, offering medical aid, shelter, food, and clean water.

The humanitarian response was so appreciated that few could have predicted two years later the long and deep thread of anger toward NGOs that now runs through Haitian society.

Many Haitians refer to their country as “La république des ONG,” a reference to the presence of so many NGOs that are sometimes working at cross purposes with Haitian officials, and sometimes in competition with each other.

Antagonism is evident in graffiti painted on walls around Port-au-Prince; in commentary on Haitian talk radio and televised public affairs shows; and in conversations on neighborhood porches and college campuses. NGOs are variously described in Haitian Creole as “vòlè” (thieves or crooks), “malonèt” (liars) and “kowonpi” (corrupt).

On a concrete wall across the street from Institut National d’Administration de Gestion et des Hautes Etudes Internationales, and Faculté des Sciences, universities with a history of student-led, anti-government protests, student union members listed acronyms of 13 NGOs along with those of the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) and the United Nations.

A red “X” is painted over each organization’s name.

At the bottom of the wall reads: “Tout Komplis Nan Mizè Nou,” — All complicit in our misery.

Give them shelters

Perhaps nothing has undermined the image of NGOs more than the dusty, dangerous, and depressing “temporary” camps that still house 520,000 people left homeless by the quake.

It’s hard to miss the teeming camps. They dot the landscape with colorful tarps and tents branded with names and insignias of groups such as USAID, Catholic Relief Services (CRS), the International Organization for Migration (IOM), the United Nations Childrens Fund (UNICEF) and many others.

The tents came with messages in English or Creole, reminding recipients that the organizations are working hand in hand with Haitians.

“Nou Ansanm an Ayiti,”(We’re together in Haiti) tents provided by Catholic Relief Services say.

“From the American People,” declares a message printed on the green and gray USAID tarps.

“E D Pep Ameriken” — AID of the American People — says another.

The camps were meant to be temporary but they’ve become fixtures on the post-earthquake tableau.

Some tents have been replaced by one-room wooden shelters known as transitional shelters, or T-shelters. So far 100,604 of these structures have gone up, according to the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs.

The upgrade from tents to T-shelters is going slowly.

Judith St. Fort, director of the Haiti Assistance Program of the American Red Cross, which received $486 million in donations for Haiti, said Haiti is a challenging place to work — more so after the earthquake. She cited a long list of issues that slowed the rebuilding work, including logistical obstacles, customs delays and land ownership disputes resulting from the loss of deeds and government records in the earthquake.

For instance, some land owners who were happy to allow tent cities to be built on their land after the earthquake now balk at the idea of the arrangement becoming permanent.

The American Red Cross so far has built 4,839 of its planned 6,500. This year the organization also plans to repair 5,000 quake-damaged houses. Separately, the global Red Cross network built 14,328 T-shelters, while another 2,415 T-shelters have been upgraded to permanent housing.

St. Fort said she understands the level of frustration with the pace of rebuilding.

“Anything that can take a couple of days to get done elsewhere, in Haiti can take a couple of months,” she said.

Camp residents have a different view. Many said they’re still in camps two years after the earthquake because NGO’s are pocketing most of the donor money. This view was shared by Haitian-Americans who protested last spring outside Red Cross headquarters in New York City, demanding an accounting of the millions raised and chanting, “Where is the money?” and “Stop stealing the money.”

Creole commentary spray-painted in red on the outside wall of a makeshift school at l’Annexe de la Mairie, a Haitian tent camp run by the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies, echo these sentiments:

“Get out Red Cross and your committee of thieves.”

In the camp, located near the notorious Cite Soléil slum, Posy Jean-Raynold shares a dwelling with his wife, their four children and his brother. He had been moved up from a tent shelter, but his assessment of his hosts was direct:

“Compared to the conditions we had in the tents they’re an improvement but calling this good housing is an overstatement,” he said. “They’re making money to the detriment of Haitians … People are very frustrated, disappointed, discouraged.”

Other NGOs have been constructing shelters that vary in appearance though not much by size. In some camps shelters are painted in colorful pastels, dressed up with matching lace curtains in the front doorways. In other places, shelters resemble backyard sheds of unpainted plywood. They are without electricity or indoor plumbing. Windows are wood slats and residents complain that during the day the structures get so hot they feel like ovens.

Camp conditions are a far cry from the lifestyles enjoyed by many NGO workers who are ubiquitous around the capital.

Ordinary Haitians mostly walk, take dangerous motorcycle cabs or wait in the scorching heat for rides on makeshift jitneys – colorful pickup trucks known as tap-taps. Meanwhile, aid workers zip by in late model SUVs.

Many foreigners shop at high-priced supermarkets in Pétionville, a relatively expensive neighborhood with nice restaurants and shops. They hang out at trendy bars where they dance to the music of popular local bands and sun themselves poolside on the patios of nice hotels.

NGO leaders said criticism of their living conditions is inaccurate and unfair, particularly as they are being compared to very poor people living in conditions that are deficient by any standard — people who live on less than $2 per day.

Oxfam said it won’t apologize for ensuring its workers live in safe and comfortable conditions.

“Our criteria when we selected houses for our staff were houses that were still standing after the earthquake,” said Ana Caistor Arendar, a spokesperson in Haiti. “Because of the failure of building regulations here those houses still standing belonged to people who could afford to have architects build their houses properly. So yes the houses we rent are nice and large. The safety of Oxfam workers had to be guaranteed.”

Dependent on NGOs

The billions of dollars in aid is more than the Haitian government’s annual revenue. But only 1 percent of the Haiti aid goes to the public treasury. Donors have traditionally bypassed Haitian governments because of their history of inefficiency and corruption. In the year before the earthquake, Transparency International’s Corruption Perceptions Index rated Haiti a 1.8 out of 10. Zero means a country is perceived as highly corrupt. The score remained the same in 2011, when Haiti ranked 175 out of 183 countries.

Donors’ reluctance to work with the Haitian government has left state and public sector institutions and civil society organizations weak and, as a result, heavily dependent on NGOs.

While many Haitians have a dim view of NGOs, they also blame their own government for the lack of progress and for a woeful lack of leadership in the chaotic days after the earthquake.

Former President René Préval was roundly criticized for a failure to coordinate an orderly, dignified removal of rotting bodies on the streets. Corpses were loaded haphazardly into dump trucks and dropped in shallow mass graves on the outskirts of Port au Prince. Decaying limbs and other body parts protruded from the ground.

In a society where death is observed with respectful rituals and the deceased, whether poor or prominent in life, are “honored” with proper funerals, televised scenes of the bodies and mass graves prompted public outrage.

Back then, foreign relief workers and NGOs were viewed as heroes saving Haitian lives. The crippled Haitian government, with most of its ministry buildings and the National Palace destroyed, was seen as weak and ineffective.

Michel Martelly, the new Haitian president, is trying to change this image. He has vowed to rein in NGOs, but many Haitian political commentators and activists believe it’s too late. They say NGOs are charting a path for the country with little input from Haitian citizens.

Rightly or wrongly, some believe NGOs are purposely dragging their feet on rebuilding so they can continue to use the disaster to raise money for themselves.

“I call them the fly-by-nights,” Marilyn Allien said.

“The earthquake occurred at 4:45 in the afternoon on January 12th and you can bet that by 5:00 the so-called good Samaritans, the usual suspects, the crooks, were positioning themselves to come to Haiti.”

A former World Vision employee, Allien became frustrated by the post-quake bureaucracy and waste she said she saw among NGOs. She started her own organization to push for more accountability from the Haitian government and NGOs.

“I wanted to address the incoherencies between what we say and what we do – the lying,” Allien said.

Who works for whom?

NGOs in Haiti have not been shy about flexing their economic muscle.

Some refuse to work with the government or coordinate activities with public agencies. And critics say NGOs have competed with, and sometimes hurt, Haitian businesses, health clinics — even bottled water companies — by providing free products or services.

“This country is a donor priority. What we do is what the donors want and see as being good for us, not what we want and need,” said Jacky Lumarque, president of Haiti’s Université Quisqueya.

“The NGOs go from project to project without taking the time to develop a strategy for us to respond to our own needs and develop self-sufficient organizations,” he said. “At the end of their projects everything vanishes and we’re back we were started.”

NGO administrators, aware their reputations have sunk, accept some of the blame.

“Many aid agencies continue to bypass local and national authorities in the delivery of assistance,” states a report issued last January by Oxfam, a relief and development organization that has 32 years of experience working in Haiti. “Donors are not coordinating their actions or adequately consulting the Haitian people and key government ministries when taking decisions that will affect Haiti’s future.”

The report says international donor governments, the United Nations and NGOs should “be more accountable and should do much more to build the capacity of the Haitian people and state, so that they can take greater responsibility for the provision of basic services.”

It adds that assistance “is also having a negative effect on the small Haitian private companies and individuals who traditionally provide many of these services.”

But even Oxfam, which raised $106 million in public donations for Haiti, has not escaped criticism.

Last fall Oxfam investigated its Haiti operations following allegations of misconduct, abuse of power and bullying by some of its Haiti staff. The organization did not provide details about the allegations, or what its investigation found but the director of Haiti operations for Oxfam Great Britain resigned in August, 2011. A month later Oxfam said its investigation had “confirmed cases of misconduct” and that six staff members had left Haiti.

“All six individuals have left the organization. None of them were Haitian and all have now left Haiti,” Oxfam said in a statement. “The misconduct identified by the investigation was not related to fraud.”

Some of the strongest criticism of NGOs came from Ricardo Seitenfus, the Organization of American States’ (OAS) senior representative to Haiti.

He accused NGOs of turning Haiti into “a laboratory for humanitarian experimentation.”

“If there is a proof of the failure of international aid, it is Haiti,” he said during an extensive and blunt interview with the Swiss daily Le Temps. “The country has become a mecca for that.”

His comments, a year after the quake, were published in the widely read Haitian daily, Le Nouvelliste.

Seitenfus claimed the massive NGO presence keeps Haiti from building its own capacity and fosters long-term dependency.

“There is a malevolent or a perverse relationship between the strength of the NGOs and the weakness of the Haitian state,” he said. “Certain NGOs exist only because of the Haitian calamity.”

Not long after the interview was published, Seitenfus was recalled from his post.

A lack of accountability

There are believed to be at least 13,000 NGOs in Haiti. No one knows the actual number as only 561 NGOs have registered as required with UCAONG (Unite de la Coordination des Activites des ONGs), part of the Ministry of Planning and charged with coordinating NGO activities. Just 150 NGOs have provided progress reports to the government, according to Oxfam.

Last year the Disaster Accountability Project, an independent organization focused on promoting transparency and effectiveness by NGOs, surveyed 196 organizations working in Haiti about their fundraising and spending practices. Only 38 organizations responded; some that did left questions unanswered or incomplete.

Some U.S.-based organizations, who report financial details to the U.S. Internal Revenue Service have not made public specific details about their activities, said Ben Smilowitz executive director of the Disaster Accountability Project.

Many NGOs simply use their websites to provide information about their operations, Smilowitz said, and provide few specifics about spending practices and services. Instead they offer heart-tugging pictures of needy children and individual anecdotes of people supposedly helped by the organization.

“If the public wanted to find out what aid groups are doing on a regular basis, whether or not they’re still active in Haiti, on what scale, they would not be able to tell from their websites,” Smilowitz said. “They might have one or two blog postings about individuals who supposedly benefited from a particular organization.”

Other groups inflate their achievements by taking full credit for cooperative aid programs, Smilowitz said.

“Two organizations might jointly oversee a feeding program but will separately claim to have fed the same number of people,” he said. “We won’t know if they fed each person one time or on a regular basis, last month or last week.”

NGO administrators said their work in Haiti is widely misunderstood and that some of the problems they’ve encountered are structural and not of their making.

“We’ve heard a lot of the criticisms,” said Emmanuelle Schneider, spokeswoman for the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, which oversees NGO “clusters” that provide food, water, education, nutrition, shelter and other services.

She said NGOs could have communicated better and that not all NGOs are working at the same level of efficiency.

Still, we have a very clear and transparent reporting and funding mechanisms,” she said of NGOs working under the U.N. cluster system. “What the others are doing we don’t know. We have no responsibility for them and have no idea what they are doing and even they don’t always know what they are doing.”

Schneider said NGOs have improved Haitians’ lives by providing safe drinking water to 1.2 million people daily as well as latrine and sanitation services for folks who never had these services before. NGO’s also removed two million cubic meters of rubble, improved nutrition among Haitian children, gave them medical care and helped pay for their schooling.

The long-term goal is to “empower local authorities” to take over the work of NGOs, Schneider said.

“We need to be able to leave infrastructures in place that the government is able to manage … We came in support of the government and we’re not replacing the government.”

Haitians on the sidelines

After the earthquake the Haitian government prepared the post-disaster “Action Plan for National Recovery and Development of Haiti,” which established priorities for recovery and rebuilding.

NGO administrators have been reluctant to follow those plans, said Alice Blanchet, who was special advisor to former Prime Minister Jean-Max Bellerive.

Blanchet said she understands Haiti cannot function without NGOs, but said she considers some of them “beltway bandits who appear within hours of disaster situations.”

“It’s not that we resent the aid, we know we need it,” she said. “But you cannot expect the Haitian government to be accountable for the activities of organizations that are not accountable to the government. We need to know what they are doing around the country.”

She cited one example: It took months to get NGOs to stop distributing bottled water shipped in from the US — a supply that was displacing widely available water from Haitian companies.

“We have a responsibility to protect Haitian businesses,” she said.

Blanchet said she stopped attending regular meetings with NGO public information officers. “It was a waste of time,” she said, recalling one meeting with international health officials who wanted to release their own numbers for money raised for fighting the cholera epidemic – numbers that did not match the Haitian government’s tally.

“This was very misleading and would undermine the credibility of the Haitian government and make the local media think the Haitian government was lying,” said Blanchet, who complained about the numbers to U.N. officials. “That’s how they wear you out and keep the government in a weakened capacity because they have the logistics, the numbers and the strength.”

Blanchet recounted an incident that took place in her neighborhood on June 12, 2010 — the sixth-month anniversary of the earthquake — that in her mind sums up the troubled relationship between some NGOs and Haitians.

In a house on her block, one of three homes in the upscale Musseau neighborhood rented by employees of Oxfam, a large and boisterous party was held for a departing staff member.

At the time six houses in the neighborhood — near the home of the U.S. ambassador — were in heaps of rubble.

Blanchet said music from a live band blasted at full volume late into the night, annoying the neighbors. Drunken guests were passed out on the lawn, said Blanchet and other neighborhood residents.

Blanchet said she asked that the music be lowered. She reminded the host that residents of the neighborhood were still mourning loved ones lost in the earthquake.

Oxfam officials confirmed that they rent houses in that neighborhood, but said they were unaware of the party incident.

“Our Haitian and international staff endeavor to respect the people we support and the communities in which we work,” said Cecilia Millán, Oxfam Great Britain’s acting director in Haiti.

Blanchet said her Oxfam neighbors displayed no such respect on the night of the party.

“They had no couth,” she said. “No decency.”

Your support is crucial!

Our newsroom needs to raise $121,000 by end of the year so we can hold the power accountable and strengthen our democracy in 2024. Public Integrity doesn’t have paywalls and doesn’t accept advertising. We depend on individuals like you to sustain quality journalism.