Questions arise about how Haiti earthquake donations have been spent

01/10/2012 6:56 AM

01/10/2012 7:41 AM

Half the money world governments pledged to Haiti never showed up. Half the money American private donors raised for Haiti hasn’t been spent. And many millions went to things like gasoline, car rentals and salaries.

Two years after the ground shook in Haiti, more than 500,000 people remain on the street, many of them wondering why all that assistance did not lift them out of dire straits. In a nation where the minimum wage is $5 a day, international aid groups say seven-figure donations aimed at rebuilding the health care, housing and school systems were just not enough to alleviate a country mired in poverty.

So while families continue to live in plastic tents, some organizations are running dry and major reconstruction projects are taking years longer than anticipated. Even after the billions were spent and billions more promised, experts say it will be another 10 years of spending before people see serious results.

“The world’s response to the disaster is slowly coming to an end,” said Sam Worthington, who heads InterAction, an umbrella group of major international aid groups. “I look at what’s left to be done and how much money is left — $360 million — there’s no way that much amount of money can address the problems that exist down there.”

A 7.0 earthquake devastated the capital two years ago Thursday, killing 316,000 people and toppling hundreds of buildings. The world rushed to Haiti’s aid, sending money via text message, telethon, debt relief and through foreign ministries.

The International Red Cross alone raised more than $1 billion. Just in the United States, Americans actually donated more than they pledged, and chipped in $1.36 billion. Of that, $725 million was used to keep quake survivors alive, under tents and free from disease, Worthington said. The rest is on long-term planning drawing boards.

“It was about one-tenth of what the Haitian government said it needed,” Worthington said. “There will be wholesale areas and families that will not see results.”

But just as many Haitian survivors suspected, huge amounts of money went toward supporting the relief and recovery operation in intangible ways that were difficult for most Haitians to accept or understand. The lack of an educated civil society meant agencies had to send in experts for everything from accounting to human resources, feeding the perception that aid benefited foreigners as much as it helped Haitians.

The Center for Economic Policy Research think tank found that beltway area for-profit development companies received 83 percent of U.S. Agency for International Development Haiti contracts. About 2.5 percent of the funds went to Haitian companies, and less than half of one percent went to Haitian non-profit groups.

Agencies also burned through money on soaring rents and overpriced supplies. After the quake, landlords charged $7,000 or more to rent a single house and quadrupled the prices of materials.

Consider: Project Medishare, the University of Miami hospital, spends $30,000 a month on electricity alone. It costs another $3,500 a month to rent an SUV in Haiti.

Tax records show Save the Children’s Haiti financial director — one of 1,200 Haiti employees — earns almost $200,000 annually.

Oxfam is among the few groups that spell out how much it spent just on management: $14.4 million. It also spent $150,000 a month trucking water and $30,000 per month on warehouse fees.

“You have to have security, you have to have cars, you have to have a driver — one in the morning and one in the afternoon,” lamented Oxfam acting country director Cecilia Millan. “Many people got rich selling supplies. Well, actually, not a lot of people got rich — a few people who could do business got very rich.”

Save the Children CEO Carolyn Miles said personnel costs were particularly high, because there were not enough trained experts in Haiti. She acknowledges that the international community could have done a better job of training local Haitians.

“There’s criticism that the money did not go to the Haitian government. I think it’s wrong to say it did not go to the Haitian people,” she said, noting that most of 1,200 people hired were Haitian. “I don’t look back and see mistakes. I think we saved lives and made lives better. I know we got more kids in school.”

Jake Johnston, a researcher at the CEPR who contributes to a Haiti aid watchdog blog, said many organizations appeared to spend money pleasing their boards and donors — not the quake survivors.

“A lot of good work was done; the money clearly didn’t all get squandered,” Johnston said. “A lot just wasn’t responding to needs on the ground. Millions were spent on ad campaigns telling people to wash their hands. Telling them to wash their hands when there’s no water or soap is a slap in the face.”

He pointed out that $170 million of the American Red Cross’s funds went to other non-profit groups, meaning each receiving organization got to chip away at the donations to cover overhead.

“As far as I am concerned, I don’t see what they did with the money,” said Wisner Frazme, 26, who shares a shack made of worn tarp, Canada written on the side, with seven relatives. “Yes, they gave us some stuff to fight cholera; they gave us water, aqua tabs to treat the water. But right now, you don’t even get that. You have to buy your own aqua tab and water.”

He lives at one of Haiti’s largest tent cities, where tattered canopies stand empty, and the names of the organizations that mounted them are faded out by the sun.

The free soap, toothpaste and medical care long ago disappeared at the Acra tent city, as it did at hundreds of others in quake-affected communities in this poverty-stricken nation. These days, not even the latrines get cleaned regularly, leaving residents to wonder where the aid groups went, and what they did with all that money.

“They used to give us a little bit of help. Others visited us, gave us advice, but there was nothing accomplished,” said Mirlande Louis Jeune, a mother of three who has called the tent city in Delmas 32 neighborhood home since the massive quake destroyed her rental unit.

Aid organizations say more than 21,000 houses have been repaired, and 100,000 transitional shelters built. About half the rubble was cleared, 267 miles of road was built, and 650 schools repaired.

“Quite honestly, donor funding is never going to be enough,” said Tom Adams, the U.S. State Department’s Haiti special coordinator. “In some areas, we are really just starting, because we wanted it to be a Haitian-led effort, not a donor-led effort. We are criticized for not having spending the money faster, but in some ways that’s a virtue. To spend intelligently, it has to be done in partnership with the government and other donors.”

Many international donors have been slow to comply with their pledges: only half the funds promised by the international community have been dispersed. United Nations reports show countries such as Venezuela promised $1.3 billion but by December had only paid out $24 million.

Many groups are now trying to draw camp-dwellers back to their neighborhoods by repairing homes and providing community services.

The American Red Cross built about 5,000 transitional houses and fixed the same number of broken ones. By this time last year, The Red Cross had built 133 homes. Now it boasts 4,900.

But that organization and other large non-governmental organizations are continuously under fire here for having large balances. The American Red Cross alone has $150 million left, which it plans to use on long-term projects.

“The positive news is there really has been significant progress. We’ve had the he ability to transfer from emergency relief to recovery and focus on long-term solutions in housing (and) safer, more secure homes,” said Red Cross spokeswoman Julie Sell. “Everybody wishes we had made a little more progress in Haiti, not just the Red Cross.”

Miami Herald Staff writer Jacqueline Charles contributed to this report.

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