Money hunt turns aid agencies into rivals in shaken Haiti

Miami HeraldMarch 10, 2010 

PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti — At an encampment on the outskirts of Haiti's capital, physicians from three international aid agencies provide identical services. On a charter flight to Miami, competing doctors get into a shouting match before takeoff.

And at a search-and-rescue operation, one international team claiming ownership of the effort asks another to leave -- although the departing group has the equipment to do the job.

Haiti has long been fertile ground for international aid agencies that want a shot at helping the impoverished nation pull out of misery. But the politics of aid has become even sharper following the 7.0-magnitude earthquake that left more than 200,000 dead and toppled hundreds of thousands of buildings.

The behind-the-scenes jockeying -- even as hundreds of thousands remain without adequate shelter -- is likely to intensify as President René Préval pleads for more aid from Washington this week and the international community prepares to meet in New York later this month to discuss Haiti's reconstruction plans.

The battle includes aid groups known as nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) and U.N. agencies that want to be the chief humanitarian agencies, countries that are lobbying for a seat at the decision table, and leaders from around the world who fly in frequently making promises that have yet to be met.

"Every country is out to get a piece of the action,'' Robert Fatton, a Haiti expert at the University of Virginia. ``Did the earthquake release something that we don't know anything about?''

The answer, according to experts: a grab for cash.

"It's the biggest source of money,'' Mark Turner, a spokesman with the International Organization for Migration, said of the Haiti earthquake, considered to be the deadliest disaster to beset any single nation in the modern era. ``The world is pumping in money here and everyone wants in on the action.''

Since the devastation, more than $2 billion in assistance has poured into Haiti. But almost all of it has gone directly to aid groups, the U.N. and development agencies. Americans alone have donated $1 billion, according to the Center on Philanthropy at Indiana University.

"All of the millions that are coming into Haiti right now are going into the hands of NGOs,'' Préval told The Miami Herald before heading to Washington where he planned to ask the U.S. to reverse its long-standing policy of not providing money directly to the Haitian government. The U.S. and others had stopped funding the government directly because of Haiti's history of corruption.

Préval said his government had received $7 million out of the many millions promised. Haitian government officials acknowledge that it was difficult to control aid agencies before the quake, and now it's become even more difficult.

"Half of these NGOs is some dude with a briefcase saying I am now representing the association of Leogane schoolchildren,'' said Turner, who shares the government's view that aid groups must be reined in.

"Many people have got very profound motivations for doing this work,'' he added. ``But organizationally, the aid industry is like corporations. A budget depends on a big job that is high profile, and if you want budget, you want staff, you have to be here.''

With one of the highest number of private, nonprofit aid agencies per capita, Haiti boasted between 4,000 and 10,000 before the quake. Today, the number is uncertain even as the U.N. reports that 318 international aid groups have registered in its database under quake response.

The increase, often small groups incapable of handling the challenge of such a disaster, has led to increased traffic jams, haphazard tent distributions, confusion and even backlash.

``The population is always a victim because it never benefits,'' said Mordochee Saint-Louis, a community leader who lives in an encampment with 2,000 people left homeless.

In another camp, 2,677 residents living on a private plot sleep in soggy cardboard and on dirty sheets fastened by tree limbs, instead of in tents.

A few weeks ago, a white tent sprouted up in the middle of the camp ground, delivered there by an NGO. Soon after, another aid group brought a potable-water bladder. And several days ago, Korean aid workers dropped by and vaccinated the children.

No one has come to coordinate the effort, or even deliver food, say camp leaders, who recently created their own food coupons -- pink slips that are ready to be swapped for the real thing should an aid group come.

``It's growing everyday,'' said Peterson Jean, a camp leader. ``Nobody has come.''

Prime Minister Jean-Max Bellerive said the problem is that everyone from international financial institutions to countries themselves want to prove their relevancy in the midst of Haiti's despair.

``Everybody has their little container,'' Bellerive told The Herald, adding that the U.N.'s new cluster system, which brought together up to 200 organizations, has also been time consuming. ``People come to you and say, `Yes I need it.' But I need to have some control.''

John Holmes, the U.N.'s chief humanitarian, told The Herald ``It's difficult to regulate aid nationalism'' in circumstances like Haiti.

Holmes recently took U.N. agencies to task for not adequately coordinating the international relief response.

To better regulate aid agencies and prevent the infighting and competition that have come up in past disasters, the U.N. introduced its cluster system, where U.N. agencies were divided into different groups.

``The agencies, which are trusted to lead, need more resources to maintaining those clusters,'' he said.

Eloise Vital, 57, is among those waiting. After sleeping on the streets, she recently moved into a shack, made of wood and rusty zinc sheeting, along the front wall of the damaged state university medical school home. When it rains, it floods her one-room shack where she and eight others sleep.

``If I could find a tent that would be great,'' she said.

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