There's a wide gap between aid's promise and reality, Haitians say – The New Humanitarian
‘We don’t want to be made into victims for a sack of rice.’
Director, Ground Truth Solutions
On a Saturday in Les Cayes, a small town in the southern peninsula of Haiti, Wesly Jean was on his way to interview people affected by an earthquake that had struck the region in 2021. It left approximately 650,000 people in need of emergency assistance.
Grumblings about survey fatigue, or respondents’ reluctance to share honest thoughts, often arise when setting out in affected communities to ask about humanitarian aid. Was he worried?
“Oh, no. People here are so keen to tell me what they think of humanitarians, trust me, I will have no trouble,” he laughed, during a check-in call before the interviews earlier this year.
He was right.
They spoke out about wanting to know how aid money is spent when it pours into their country – as it has been, by the billions of dollars, for decades – and who decides what is done with it. They want to see more local involvement in aid decisions. And they don’t want to “be made into victims for a sack of rice”, as one woman told us.
In short, the 1,251 Haitians who took part in the survey told us that the experience of receiving aid falls painfully short of their expectations. Their views were collected as part of a project conducted by Ground Truth Solutions, in partnership with The New Humanitarian. Through a phone survey and in-person interviews, we set out to understand how those living in the earthquake zone view power, agency, and participation in the sector. The research came on the heels of a new surge of international humanitarian relief sparked by the August 2021 earthquake.
1. Is it important to you to be informed about what humanitarian assistance is available to your community?
1a. Do you feel informed about what humanitarian assistance is available to your community?
2. Is it important to you that humanitarians consult your community on the programming of humanitarian aid in your area?
2a. Do you think your community has been consulted on the programming of humanitarian aid in your area?
3. Is it important for you to understand how humanitarians decide who receives aid and who does not?
3a. Do you know how humanitarians decide who receives aid and who does not? 4. Is it important to you that humanitarian assistance helps your community to live without aid in the future?
4a. Do you think that humanitarian assistance helps your community to live without aid in the future?
5. Is it important to you to know how humanitarian money is spent in your community?
5a. Do you know how humanitarian money is spent in your community?
6. Is it important to you that people in your community can provide feedback or complain about humanitarian assistance?
6a. Do you think people in your community know how to provide feedback or complain about humanitarian assistance?
7. Do you think people in your community feel comfortable to report cases of abuse and sexual exploitation committed by humanitarians?
8. Are you satisfied with the humanitarian services that are available to your community?
9. Have you personally received any type of aid since the recent earthquake?
Not all respondents expect to be personally involved in the aid effort, but a more diverse set of community leaders and community organisations need to be included in decision-making processes about aid, many people told us. There’s a sense that this would promote more localised aid provision while tackling the often-raised issue of community leader corruption. As one woman from Les Cayes noted, “the community organisation knows our needs best and will distribute aid in a respectful manner.”
Accessing aid can be dangerous, degrading, and barely worth the short-term assistance provided, many people said: “We always have a feeling of shame during the distributions,” said a woman from Port-à-Piment, a community in the southern peninsula, with others noting that aid should be distributed with more respect.
There was consistent feedback that the short-term view of emergency aid response – the inability to support anything beyond a few days’ relief – doesn’t meet their most fundamental needs. “I can buy a plate of food for you, but this won’t mean you won’t be hungry anymore,” said a man from Port-à-Piment.
Overall, across our research questions – from whether aid helps people become resilient, to whether people understand how recipients are targeted for assistance – the gap between expectation and reality was striking.
In our survey, we asked people a set of questions for each aspect of aid, first asking how important they considered it, and then how they saw it working in reality. The red dots indicate how people rated the importance of the questions, while each blue dot indicates responses to the perception questions. The position of each dot was calculated according to the mean Likert score given for each question, where 1=strongly disagree and 5=strongly agree. The line in between represents the “gap” between expectations and perceptions of aid.
That prompts many questions. Key among them: Surely, in a country where residents have clear ideas for longer-term solutions and a desire to be involved, conditions are right for an approach that doesn’t require people to line up for a tarp?
As one respondent explained: “In our country, it is always after a disaster that we see humanitarian agencies coming. In my opinion, it should not be like that. We should be autonomous. We should be able to respond to our needs after a disaster. We should not be dependent on others all the time.”
Below, we share Haitian residents’ responses to the survey and insights from focus group discussions, which took place following the survey. These have also been shared with UN agencies, international NGOs, local organisations, and governmental institutions.
Ground Truth Solutions is also sharing the results with those who took the time to offer their feedback: residents in the areas impacted by the earthquake. Jean, who led the qualitative portion of this research, is looking forward to returning to those people he spoke with, to let them know the survey findings, how those findings were shared with the humanitarian community, and what is being done to address them.
“People tend to believe that when they are consulted to provide information, their feedback will remain in the drawers,” he said. Organisations rarely – if ever – return to explain what happened with the feedback residents provide, he added. “But this willingness to speak out is a way to try to influence things. It… shows their interest in engaging in any process that will help them change their lives.”
When the August 2021 earthquake in Haiti’s southern peninsula sparked a new surge of international aid, Ground Truth Solutions and The New Humanitarian set out to learn whether Haiti’s citizens feel humanitarian organisations are meeting community expectations about aid, and where they are falling short. Using phone surveys, we asked 1,251 people affected by the earthquake to compare their expectations of humanitarian workers and programmes with their experiences of aid in reality. We then dug deeper, talking to 86 people through qualitative, long-form interviews to help answer the question: Where there is a gap between expectations and reality of aid, why does it exist, and how can it be closed? For further detail on the methodology, please see the full report.
“We don’t know anything. We only see the people that pass by with kits or food.”
The gap between expectation and lived experience was highest when it came to issues of transparency. Ninety-eight percent of respondents said they expected to know how humanitarian money was spent in their communities, but only 2 percent said they had any idea, and only 14 percent said they understood how decisions were made about who received aid and who did not.
That Haitians expect to know how targeting works, where to access aid, and when help is arriving is not surprising, nor is it unique in this context.
“When people are giving me something, I always want to ask questions,” said a man from Les Cayes.
He added: “If someone sends me something, I’d like to know who it is and why they sent it to me. I would like to be informed.”
Transparency – sharing honest information about how decisions are made, how money is spent, and what the end results are – is a recognised pillar of accountability in most sectors, including in the humanitarian space. But over time, the issue has fallen a few rungs down the priority ladder of those working on accountability to affected people. The concept has slowly shapeshifted from an ethical use of power among leadership into a perceived technical speciality, with a focus on reactive feedback mechanisms and working groups.
The result of this lack of participation or transparency is that people understand their role when it comes to aid as that of passive recipients. “We are in need”, “we the poor”, and “we are victims” were phrases that repeatedly came up during focus groups, implying that recipients do not feel on equal footing with those providing aid.
“I see them as tourists.”
Aid workers are seen as foreigners – to either the affected area or to the country – which breeds mistrust. “When the humanitarian workers are not from here, it is the people of the area who know what they need. If they don’t sit down with people in the area, they’re not going to get positive results,” said a man in Camp Perrin, a village in Les Cayes. He added, “I see them as tourists because they just pass by and watch but don’t seriously care about people’s problems.”
Another respondent painted a picture of aid workers as visitors in different coloured T-shirts, while another said the Red Cross was the only organisation that listened to people.
Only 34 percent of people we surveyed reported even being consulted on aid programming, despite feeling they have the right to be involved in decision-making, to know the source and legitimacy of aid providers, and to receive quality aid. Some cited experiences of corruption, unfair beneficiary selection, sexual exploitation scandals, and violence during distributions as contributing to their feelings of mistrust. Generally, there was a preference for aid to be provided by people and organisations who are trusted and respected, in particular, those closest to the community, such as local community organisations.
“People who lost everything are not the ones who have received aid.”
Respondents said aid does not reach those who need it, and that the targeting criteria were inappropriate or dysfunctional. “There are people who receive aid three or four times, even while there are people in need who haven’t received anything,” a community leader in Port-à-Piment said.
In addition to a fairer geographic distribution of aid with a focus on rural communities, aid should be given to everyone affected, instead of limiting it to specific targeting criteria that focuses on certain groups, respondents said. Humanitarian funds are of course limited, and thus transparency about the selection process is all the more crucial if it is to be considered fair.
“What is important to us is to reconstruct, to rebuild, so that we can figure out how to live again, because we can’t stay in a tarp our whole lives.”
While people may not know how decisions are made nor how money is spent, the survey revealed that they certainly know that aid isn’t doing much for them in the long-run. Humanitarian assistance is recognised as useful in limited instances to answer immediate needs, but it is never seen as more than a stop-gap solution; this is the case even in a response where “resilience” and the humanitarian-development nexus are the main priorities of the humanitarian response plan.
“We found a little bit of aid, such as tarps and food, and this really helped us,” a young man from Port-à-Piment said in an interview. Others were quick to praise the perceived motivations of aid workers, knowing that they intended to do good. But the feedback on aid’s inability to support anything beyond a few days’ relief was consistent.
While aid is useful in the emergency phase, it is not aligned with respondents’ long-term (or even medium-term) priorities. Respondents were split about whether short-term emergency aid eventually helps them live without any assistance – only 36 percent of respondents said aid helps their communities to eventually live without it. Respondents felt that Haitians themselves, not foreign aid, should help each other in future disasters – but they didn’t feel they were being prepared to do this. While the aid sector has for years tried to bridge humanitarian assistance with development through the nexus, these efforts were not evident to respondents.
“We don’t want to be made into victims for a sack of rice.”
Very few respondents reported having good experiences when aid is distributed. They spoke of insecure, crowded, and disorderly distribution sites, which often contribute to violence and injury. Such settings perpetuated feelings of shame, as well. One woman said: “We always have a feeling of shame during the distributions. It’s because of this that some people never go to one.”
Many people with disabilities said they were accessing aid through specialised organisations for persons with disabilities (OPDs), indicating that inclusion efforts on the part of the response were helpful. They said that, otherwise, the crowded and disorderly conditions can make aid inaccessible for them, especially for those with reduced mobility or sensory impairments. “By the time I arrive at the distribution site, the aid is gone,” a man in Les Cayes said. “Because I have a disability, my means of transport makes me late.” Other people with disabilities who spoke with us said they had accessed aid through family members or neighbours.
One respondent in Les Cayes told us, “We don’t want to be made into victims for a sack of rice,” alluding to the fact that often the effort of knowing about, registering for, and accessing aid in Haiti’s south can be dangerous, degrading, and barely worth the goods provided – a bottle of oil here, a bag of rice there. This is perhaps why, despite their general politeness, some people were clear that they should have a right to refuse either the presence of aid workers or the assistance offered to their community.
You can read more about the results in the full Ground Truth Solutions report here.
Data visualisation by Christian Els, Ground Truth Solutions. This project was funded by H2H and the Gates Foundation. Videos by Haitian researcher Wesly Jean. Video production by TNH Multimedia Editor Ciara Lee.
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