Misuse of previous aid money, Haiti’s political convulsions, and competing humanitarian demands may signal less generosity this time.
The urgent pleas for donations to help Haiti cope with last Saturday’s magnitude 7.2 quake began almost immediately: Charities reported an initial outpouring of generosity for a poor country that has long depended on philanthropic aid.
But the longer-term outlook for securing the billions of dollars needed — not only to rebuild but also for major investments that could make Haitians less reliant on outside help — faces a far more uncertain fate.
“Many people will be generous in the early days — then the funding often ends,” said Patricia McIlreavy, president and chief executive officer of the Center for Disaster Philanthropy, a Washington group that works with nongovernmental organizations and others on how to best assist in such emergencies.
“There may be funding for the immediate lifesaving phase,” Ms. McIlreavy said. “The challenge is whether there is funding for the recovery phase. That’s the bigger concern.”
The quake struck just as the world is dealing with a cacophony of humanitarian crises — desperate Afghans seeking escape from the triumphal Taliban, possible famine in Ethiopia and other African nations, long-term conflicts in the Middle East — all against the backdrop of the global coronavirus pandemic.
The competing demands for humanitarian funding could slow aid to Haiti, which has no state safety net and is heavily reliant on other governments — most notably the United States — as well as the United Nations and international aid groups. Roughly 3,000 nongovernmental organizations operate in Haiti, which has sometimes been dubbed the Republic of NGOs.
Add to that the political convulsions in Haiti from the still-unsolved assassination last month of President Jovenel Moïse, plus the impoverished Caribbean country’s own history of purloined, misused or missing aid.
Huge questions remain over how much of the roughly $13 billion spent after the 2010 earthquake — one of the deadliest and most destructive of modern times — actually benefited victims of that disaster.
“A lot of the money that was sent was not spent well,” said Jake Johnston, a senior research associate at the Center for Economic and Policy Research, who has written extensively about Haiti.
And many aid groups now operating in Haiti or planning to send help have serious security concerns. Organized gangs control overland routes to the quake zone from Port-au-Prince, the capital, about 80 miles east. Kidnapping for ransom is a constant worry.
Days after the quake struck, two Haitian doctors treating victims who had been airlifted to the capital were abducted, including one of the country’s few orthopedic surgeons.
Janti Soeripto, president and chief executive officer of Save the Children US, which has long operated in Haiti, said that she had seen “a decent response” from donors to the group’s initial plea for help via social media and email, which was sent out the morning the quake struck.
At the same time, she said, the organization, which is no stranger to operating in dangerous places, is mindful of the security hazards of delivering aid in Haiti.
“Of course we’re concerned, of course we’re doing risk assessments,” she said. “The safety of staff is foremost on our mind.”
Other groups, as well as the U.S. Agency for International Development, which is helping coordinate the response to the quake, have said that security protection for their people on the ground is part of the planning.
“Our top priority is getting assistance to people in need,” said Sarah Charles, assistant administrator of USAID’s bureau of humanitarian affairs, and to “scale up assistance safely.”
Despite these efforts, accounts from the ground in Les Cayes, a main entry point for aid, suggested deliveries remain patchy and sporadic, with fights erupting among Haitians desperate for food. Some convoys of aid trucks have been looted, including at least two trucks in front of a police station.
When Michel Martelly, a former president, visited a Les Cayes hospital on Friday, his supporters brawled over cash dispensed by his bodyguards as he was departing.
The slow pace of emergency aid distribution has flustered international charities, which partly attribute delays to quake damage and the effects of Tropical Storm Grace. And the Les Cayes airport, some said, is not designed to handle huge cargo shipments.
“The logistical challenges alone are just herculean,” said Christy Delafield, a spokeswoman for Mercy Corps, a leading charity that is providing thousands of hygiene and shelter kits. “Landslides, rockslides, mudslides.”
She also expressed some concern that Haiti’s travails could soon become a footnote in the litany of current international disasters, most of them man-made.
“Honestly, I think it is worrying,” Ms. Delafield said. “Thirty years ago, something like 80 percent of humanitarian assistance went to natural disasters like this. Today, it’s completely flipped.”
Humanitarian officials, led by the United Nations secretary general, António Guterres, have sought to convey that the world would never turn its back on Haiti.
“We will stand by your side and support you every step of the way out of this crisis,” Mr. Guterres said in a message to Haitians.
Nonetheless, those words are not necessarily reassuring in Haiti, where the United Nations has a mixed record. Many Haitians are embittered over the organization’s role in a cholera epidemic after the 2010 quake, which was traced to poor sanitation by U.N. peacekeepers.
Most of the aid so far has been for basic survival needs: medical supplies, food, water, tarpaulins and tents. Detailed assessments of what is needed to rebuild the thousands of collapsed homes and other structures — including many of the area’s schools and churches — are unlikely to happen for weeks, experts said.
The enormity of the quake damage pales in comparison to the one that hit densely populated Port-au-Prince in 2010, flattening much of the city. Approximately 250,000 people were killed.
But many charities remain haunted by aid problems after the 2010 quake, particularly the lack of coordination among providers and the desire by many well-meaning Americans and others to help without realizing what assistance was most needed. Few long-term investments were made in new sanitation systems and other infrastructure needs. Many survivors moved from their homes into makeshift tent cities because that was the only way to qualify for benefits.
“You can’t do a humanitarian response and ignore the long-term underlying issues in the country,” Ms. McIlreavy said.
Jonathan M. Katz, an author and former Associated Press correspondent who covered the 2010 quake, wrote in a book that the response had illustrated Haiti’s entrenched cycle of dependence.
“Donations toward immediate relief will bring doctors and rescuers when people are still pinned under concrete, stranded by floodwaters, or fleeing the firestorm,” he wrote in the book, “The Big Truck That Went By: How the World Came to Save Haiti and Left Behind a Disaster.”
While that is important, he wrote, it is the “time between emergencies, when the heaviest lifting has to be done.”