A couple builds a makeshift tent as dark clouds cover a tent camp in Cite Soleil in Port-au-Prince February 26, 2010.
A couple builds a makeshift tent as dark clouds cover a tent camp in Cite Soleil in Port-au-Prince February 26, 2010. 
Carlos Barria / Reuters

In the five years following the devastating 2010 earthquake that killed more than 200,000 and displaced nearly two million, approximately $13.5 billion in aid poured into Haiti. Yet many Haitians still lack access to suitable housing, clean water, and proper sanitation. The American Red Cross led U.S. fund-raising efforts. It hauled in nearly half a billion dollars, which it pledged to use for housing and long-term stability. But according to exposés by ProPublica and NPR, thanks to five years of mismanagement, the organization created a total of six permanent homes. 

The Red Cross debacle is appalling, but it is only a symptom of a larger problem: the lack of accountability in humanitarian assistance.

EXPOSED 

Criticisms about the Red Cross’ efforts in Haiti predated the exposé. In the immediate aftermath of the disaster, donors expected that their money would go toward meeting the population’s urgent needs. But Haitians and others have long lamented the slow pace of spending. One resident, Simone Charles, told reporters in 2010, "Today marks the sixteenth day that I have been here with the children. I am dying of hunger.” Although some funds were spent on emergency relief, part of the money continued to sit in general accounts or went toward eliminating the group’s $100 million deficit, or was earmarked for extended development projects. As former Red Cross board member Victoria Cummock told reporters in 2010, “That's not disaster relief, that's long-term recovery, and that's not the Red Cross' mission and not the donor intent either." 

A woman raises her arms for products as people loot from a destroyed shop after Tuesday's earthquake in Port-au-Prince, January 16, 2010.
A woman raises her arms for products as people loot from a destroyed shop after Tuesday's earthquake in Port-au-Prince, January 16, 2010.
Carlos Barria / Reuters
For years, the Center for Economic and Policy Research (CEPR), a Washington-based think tank, has meticulously chronicled the bungled post-earthquake aid efforts in its Haiti: Relief and Reconstruction Watch. The Red Cross claims it “helped 132,000 Haitians to live in safer conditions—ranging from providing temporary homes and rental subsidies to repaired and new homes” and helped 4.5 million Haitians get back on their feet, but CEPR’s blog criticizes the relief organization’s self-reporting as being plagued by a lack of transparency and accountability. Indeed, the Red Cross’ numbers seem inflated. Haiti’s entire population is only 10 million people, and the Red Cross’ figure for helping people get safer living conditions includes the number of people who attended seminars on construction as well as those who were placed in transitional housing—one-room shelters designed to provide only temporary relief. 

Meanwhile, Haitians, whom the original donors believed they were aiding, had no meaningful chance to guide or challenge the Red Cross’ priorities and processes. Among the most damning charges of mismanagement is that the organization’s lack of geographic and development expertise impeded its ability to operate in a culturally respectful and competent way. The group claims that 90 percent of its paid staff was Haitian; what it doesn’t emphasize is that the Haitian employees largely occupied low-level jobs. The well-compensated positions were reserved for expatriates and foreigners, many of whom could not speak French or Creole. Whereas a compensation package for one foreign manager amounted to $140,000 a year, the highest-paid local employee received less than $40,000 a year. 

Foreign managers had a difficult time navigating legal and land title issues. And foreign staff members, some of whom who were overheard making disparaging remarks about Haitians, often declined to work collaboratively with the local communities that were affected by the projects. For example, after raising local expectations, the group’s project in Campeche to develop 700 housing units was substantially downgraded when the agency’s bureaucratic structure and lack of local knowledge thwarted its stated goals. In the end, no houses will be constructed. And the group’s initial response to the cholera crisis—an educational campaign about hand-washing—was tone deaf and unhelpful for people lacking access to clean water and soap. 

It is understandable that, after the earthquake, donors preferred to give money to the Red Cross to bypass a government with a reputation for ineptitude and graft. But, in doing so, they helped create a parallel and unaccountable system.
To be sure, there are many success stories of projects funded by the outpouring of aid, especially when the projects were managed with local grassroots participation. But when groups whose goals and processes are largely dictated by foreign bureaucracies distribute aid, the direct and indirect long-term damage can be stark. Involving local stakeholders in the process of aid delivery helps them develop the capacity to self-manage later on. In the case of Haiti, that opportunity has been lost. Perhaps even worse, the way aid was distributed furthered the legacy of colonialism in Haiti. In 1825, Haiti, the country with the first successful slave revolt, was required to pay off France for its liberation—in sums that depleted the national coffers until 1947. The money would have been far better spent building the country’s economy and fragile civil and political institutions. To this day, the country is plagued by deprivation, corruption, and weak democratic infrastructure. It may be understandable that, after the earthquake, donors preferred to give money to the Red Cross to bypass a government with a reputation for ineptitude and graft. But, in doing so, they helped create a parallel and unaccountable system that ultimately hampers the development of the clean state structures and robust civil society necessary for Haiti’s people to prosper—and, in this case, they aided few people in return. 

The Red Cross disputes the claim that it squandered millions of dollars in Haiti. Yet many sources for the ProPublica and NPR stories were current or former Red Cross employees, some of whom spoke on the record. And much of the information was derived from the group’s own internal documents. 

BAD PRACTICE 

The Red Cross case is emblematic of a larger accountability gap. Haiti has been the unfortunate breeding ground for some of the aid industry's most glaring bungles. And as the Western Hemisphere’s most impoverished country, it is poorly situated to demand better. But it is not just the aid programs of charities that have failed the country. 

The United Nations has an abysmal record in Haiti. Despite overwhelming evidence that a contingent of UN peacekeepers from Nepal brought cholera to Haiti in 2010, the UN has steadfastly refused to accept responsibility. The disease, which was not previously recorded in the country, has killed more than 8,600 people and sickened at least 700,000. But the UN, the world body designed to ameliorate misery and advance the rule of law, continues to hide behind immunity rather than invest in the health, water, and sanitation systems necessary to eradicate the disease. On June 2, six different groups of scholars and human rights and civil society groups filed “friend of the court” briefs in litigation at the U.S. Second Circuit Court of Appeals to seek redress for the victims of cholera and funds to stamp out the disease. That and a simple apology would go a long way toward restoring the United Nations’ credibility in Haiti and beyond. 

Haitians wait for water being distributed by U.N. peacekeepers during a peaceful rally calling for peace in the volatile neighborhood of Cite-Soleil in Port-au-Prince, April 27, 2007.
Haitians wait for water being distributed by U.N. peacekeepers during a peaceful rally calling for peace in the volatile neighborhood of Cite-Soleil in Port-au-Prince, April 27, 2007.
Eduardo Munoz / Reuters
The cholera epidemic isn’t all. According to a recently released internal report, UN peacekeepers in Haiti are guilty of widespread sexual exploitation, including trading sex for food. As the host country for the forces, Haiti was required to confer immunity to the troops, entrusting that their home states would prosecute any misconduct. Yet most of the time, abusive soldiers face little or no punishment. To mention just a few examples, there is no evidence that the hundred-plus Sri Lankan troops expelled from Haiti for alleged sexual exploitation of women and girls ever faced punishment. Neither did the Pakistani troops responsible for sexually abusing a mentally disabled 13-year-old boy, despite the UN mission in Haiti being lauded by UN higher-ups as a “model of accountability.” And many cases go unreported because of the inherently unequal power dynamics between international peacekeepers and local abuse victims. The UN’s recent mishandling of sexual abuse charges against French peacekeepers in the Central African Republic underscores its inability to enforce principles of accountability necessary to protect the vulnerable people it is charged with guarding. 

In another case not involving the UN, the U.S. government’s Government Accountability Office issued a report earlier this month reviewing the $1.7 billion in the U.S. budget allocated to assistance for Haiti since 2010. The watchdog concluded that reconstruction efforts were hampered by “lack of staff with relevant expertise, unrealistic initial plans, challenges encountered with some implementing partners, and delayed or revised decisions from the Haitian government.” Two USAID contractors were suspended for poor work and contractual violations in a botched housing development project. Despite ample warning about potential pitfalls of the project and its contractors, USAID failed to exercise adequate oversight or ensure that the substandard housing was remediated, leaving Haitians disappointed and at continued risk instead of better off.

MAKING AID ACCOUNTABLE

Bringing immediate relief and long-term stability to vulnerable populations are and worthy goals that are replete with daunting challenges. That doesn’t entitle those providing the help to a free pass.
From the Red Cross to the UN to the U.S. government, the failures in Haiti all stem from a lack of accountability to the people of the country. The Red Cross is obligated to convince donors in the United States that it is advancing its humanitarian mission. As it turns out, the focus on pleasing donors to facilitate ongoing fund-raising creates a disincentive to conducting a careful and honest evaluation of the group’s impact on the ground, from the perspective of the aid recipients. Similarly, the UN answers to its troop-contributing countries, not to the people of Haiti or to other receiving countries. To be sure, all parties would prefer to avoid missteps and international opprobrium related to sexual assault or cholera contamination, but they juggle other priorities and political considerations that prevent them from ensuring that the peacekeepers are helping, not harming, vulnerable populations. The United States could come to terms with its own missteps by holding congressional hearings on the mismanagement of funds by USAID and the American Red Cross, which was created by legislative charter. 

As a guiding principle, disaster-affected populations—not just international stakeholders—should have meaningful participation in the aid delivery process, from its inception to developing and implementing the metrics of outcome assessment. But participation alone is insufficient: organizations that provide emergency assistance must embrace a human rights–based approach that recognizes enforceable rights in the intended beneficiaries and in which duty-bearers, including humanitarian organizations and donor governments, must respect and protect those rights. And when assistance goes awry, such as peacekeepers engaging in sexual exploitation or introducing cholera, individual wrongdoers must be punished and those harmed must be compensated. As long as the people who need aid have no effective way to present claims and reinforce rights, they will continue to suffer.

As was the case in Haiti, human misery elicits compassion and donations. Bringing immediate relief and long-term stability to vulnerable populations are separate and worthy goals that are replete with daunting challenges. That doesn’t entitle those who are dispensing and dispatching assistance to a free pass merely because their motives are charitable and their recipients desperate and disempowered. Victims of humanitarian disasters, whether geopolitical or environmental, deserve the same justice and dignity as those to whom fate has been kinder. 

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  • LAUREN CARASIK is Clinical Professor of Law and Director of the International Human Rights Clinic at Western New England University School of Law.
  • More By Lauren Carasik