Humanitarian 'industry' part of the problem in Haiti, critics say

Aid organizations 'only ever accountable to the people who are giving it money,' author says

Posted: October 12, 2016
Last Updated: October 12, 2016

Young men whose home was destroyed by Hurricane Matthew peer out of a tent as they awake for the day in the courtyard of a school where they have sought shelter, in Port Salut, Haiti, Monday, Oct. 10, 2016. Nearly a week after the storm smashed into southwestern Haiti, some communities along the southern coast have yet to receive any assistance, leaving residents who have lost their homes and virtually all of their belongings struggling to find shelter and potable water. (Rebecca Blackwell/Associated Press)

As aid agencies pour money and resources into Haiti in the aftermath of Hurricane Matthew, experts are warning the international community to heed lessons learned from the response to the 2010 earthquake.

"The humanitarian industry — and make no mistake, it's an industry — it comes in, it sets up shop, it will work in different ways until its money runs out," said Jonathan Katz, author of The Big Truck That Went By: How the World Came to Save Haiti and Left Behind a Disaster.

"It doesn't really ever have to make any effort to ... create institutions that will be there to outlast it, so that when it leaves it won't need to come back," he said. "And second of all, [the industry doesn't need to] be accountable to the people it works for."


The 2010 earthquake in Haiti resulted in the deaths of some 230,000 people. (Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press)

Six years ago, vivid scenes from the 7.0 magnitude earthquake — which killed 230,000 and left two million more homeless — resulted in a massive influx of non-governmental organizations (NGOs). 

The international community pledged $10 billion to help Haiti "build back better," to borrow a UN catchphrase from the time.

But there is a growing sense that that pledge amounted to little. 

Underlying problems not addressed: critic

Relief efforts in the wake of the deadly quake have been widely criticized for lacking co-ordination and an overarching plan that would see the country's own institutions built up.

'What needs to happen is that … there needs to be a serious effort made to ensure that the help that comes to help build up the country, and not undercut the country's institutions.' - Author Jonathan Katz

An Amnesty International report published last year found that while the number of people living in displacement camps dropped by over 90 per cent since 2010, most of those left are still not living in durable housing.

The problem goes beyond the kind of mismanagement documented in a report by ProPublica and NPR, which outlined how the American Red Cross succeeded in building only six permanent homes, despite raising nearly half a billion dollars with the promise to provide aid and help rebuild communities.


The American Red Cross defended its work, admitting it had only built six houses as part of a pilot project before revising its long-term shelter plans. The organization instead said it provided more than 6,000 transitional homes and provided more than 5,400 households with rental subsidies.

Even when done effectively, critics suggest international aid can be helpful in the short-term but destructive over the long-term.

Haitians line up for food after Hurricane Matthew in Anse D'Hainault. Residents have said aid has been slow to trickle out to some of Haiti's more remote regions. (Dieu Nalio Chery/Associated Press)

"The large problem in Haiti following the earthquake was that underlying problems that had made Haiti vulnerable to the earthquake in the first place were not addressed by the post-earthquake relief effort. In fact, it's worse than that," said Roger Annis, director of the Canada Haiti Action Network.

According to Annis, the post-earthquake relief effort was a continuation of "very harmful and destructive" policy invention. "And this is the reason that the balance sheet of earthquake relief is one of failure," he said.

Another call for help

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Aid workers still face difficulty delivering food, medical supplies  1:00

The death toll from Hurricane Matthew is still mounting, with some estimates putting the figure at more than 1,000. And there is growing concern about access to food, water and medical supplies.

The UN has made an emergency appeal for nearly $120 million in aid, saying about 750,000 people in southwest Haiti alone will need "life-saving assistance and protection" in the next three months.

Katz said he's hopeful the Haitian government will take a leadership role in overseeing the response effort. That task is made more complicated, however, by the fact that the country's presidential election last Sunday had to be postponed because of the hurricane.

"What needs to happen is that, as in every disaster, there needs to be a serious effort made to ensure that the help that comes builds up the country and does not undercut the country's institutions," Katz said.

He and other observers suggest that donors ask questions about where their money will go and prioritize giving to local organizations run by Haitians.

Relief needed now

For its part, the Canadian Red Cross has tried to assure potential donors their money will go to help Haitians in the aftermath of Hurricane Matthew and has distanced itself from online vitriol directed at the American Red Cross.

Marjorie Villefranche, director general of the Maison d'Haiti, a community centre in Montreal, is asking Canadians to give money to NGOs that can handle emergency response, such as the Red Cross or Médecins du Monde.

"When I talk to the people in Haiti now, the emergency now is water and shelter," she said. 

Some members of Montreal's Haitian community, however, have chosen to give money directly to people they know in the country — if they can get it there — rather than go through a large NGO. 

"I don't trust the Red Cross," said Raymond Gaetan, who has been sending money to family in Les Anglais, in Haiti's hard-hit southern region. "It's wasteful. We are better off sending money ourselves to our families."

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A Haitian woman pauses as she sweeps the ground where her home once stood in Jérémie after the passing of Hurricane Matthew. The UN envoy for Haiti says the impoverished Caribbean nation is facing 'a humanitarian tragedy and an acute emergency situation' with 1.4 million people needing immediate help. (Dieu Nalio Chery/Associated Press)
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Haitians unload soybean oil outside Les Cayes on Oct. 12. The UN humanitarian agency in Geneva says about 750,000 people in southwest Haiti alone will need 'life-saving assistance and protection' in the next three months. (Sylvia Thomson/CBC News)
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People are treated at a cholera treatment centre in Jérémie on Oct. 11. Dr. Dominique Legros, a top cholera official at the World Health Organization, said the agency will send 1 million doses of cholera vaccine to Haiti 'as soon as possible.' He also said safe drinking water and treatment of those affected by the disease are top priorities. (Carlos Garcia Rawlins/Reuters)
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Patients receive treatment at a cholera centre in Anse D'Hainault on Oct. 11. Those already infected with cholera need treatment, but a quarter of the health centres in Haiti's hard-hit southern area have been destroyed or seriously damaged. The disease has killed roughly 10,000 people and sickened more than 800,000 in Haiti since 2010, when it was first introduced. (Dieu Nalio Chery/Associated Press)
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Members of a rice co-operative work to dry wet rice damaged during Hurricane Matthew in a rural zone of Les Cayes. UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon told reporters in New York on Monday that crops and food reserves were destroyed and that at least 300 schools have been damaged. (Hector Retamal/AFP/Getty Images)
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Residents have set to work chopping up and burning debris, and creating makeshift partial roofs from salvaged pieces of mangled sheet metal. Here, Yvald Saint Joy bathes in his backyard littered with debris in the Sous-Roche district of Les Cayes. Saint Joy said he had done the patchwork roof repair himself on the house he shares with his father and two younger siblings. (Rebecca Blackwell/Associated Press)
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A man burns branches from fallen trees in Les Anglais on Oct. 10. A community group that formed in the southern seaside community began clearing tree limbs from streets and placing them into piles. (Andres Martinez Casares/Reuters)
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A man walks through smoke from fires set to burn debris in Les Cayes. (Hector Retamal/AFP/Getty Images)
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Others gathered scraps of wood to start rebuilding homes destroyed by Hurricane Matthew. These men are rebuilding a house in Les Anglais. (Andres Martinez Casares/Reuters)
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People worship in a damaged church in Port Salut on Oct. 9. (Patrick Farrell/Miami Herald/TNS/Getty)
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Residents line up for food in Anse D'Hainault on Oct. 11. Nearly a week after the storm smashed into southwestern Haiti, some communities along the coast have yet to receive any assistance, leaving residents who have lost their homes and virtually all of their belongings struggling to find shelter and potable water. (Dieu Nalio Chery/Associated Press)
Frantz Benjamin, right, a Montreal city councillor, is among Haitian community activists asking people to donate to the Red Cross. (Canadian Press)

With files from Jessica Rubinger and Associated Press