Haiti's Red Cross problem

Photo: IFRC

Photo: IFRC

I'm in Haiti this week, splitting my time between Cap Haitien and Port au Prince.  Haiti has been in the news again lately, this time as a result of the NPR's investigation into the Red Cross' $500 million of disaster relief.  Much of the money has either not been spent, or was spent poorly or non-transparently:

NPR and ProPublica went in search of the nearly $500 million and found a string of poorly managed projects, questionable spending and dubious claims of success, according to a review of hundreds of pages of the charity's internal documents and emails, as well as interviews with a dozen current and former officials.
The Red Cross says it has provided homes to more than 130,000 people, but the number of permanent homes the charity has built is six.

Some of the allegations aren't as severe as they might seem.  Sub-contracting projects to third party organizations is decried as wasteful spending, but remains standard when managing large sums of development aid, for example.  Still, $500 million is a lot of money that should have been accounted for and closely monitored to ensure results were being produced.  In April I wrote a three part series looking at disaster law and displacement in Haiti.  I argued that most shortcomings were the result of three factors: 1) weak building codes and a lack of enforcement; 2) an archaic land tenure scheme; and 3) a multitude of NGOs operating outside the parameters of a guiding legal framework.  The Red Cross controversy is emblematic of all three factors, but especially 2 and 3.  

From the Red Cross' perspective, building homes in Haiti is a vastly more difficult undertaking than one would assume, largely because potential homeowners have a hard time proving ownership over land.  NGOs are hesitant to invest when the beneficiaries are ambiguous.  The NPR report too quickly dismissed land rights:

The original plan was to build 700 new homes with living rooms and bathrooms. The Red Cross says it ran into problems acquiring land rights.  Their internal memos, however, show there were other serious problems, including multiple staffing changes and long bureaucratic delays. And then there was a period of almost a year when the whole project appears to have sat dormant.

Anyone who has worked in international development knows how frustrating it can be to wait for approvals from higher-ups, but acquiring land rights, or at least obtaining documentation sufficient to verify title to property, is more challenging than it's being given credit for.

On the other hand, the absence of a framework capable of governing foreign organizations and their various projects in Haiti meant Haitians were at risk of being misled.  NPR touts the ability of one organization to overcome land tenure schemes by employing mostly Haitians, whereas the Red Cross struggled to build a Haitian-led team.  In other instances, Red Cross staff couldn't speak French or Creole.  And their financial history is vague at best, with most records kept private.  Even the Prime Minister couldn't obtain financial documentation to verify the Red Cross' claims.  A robust legal framework for managing NGOs and other international organizations as they conduct development projects is obtainable, and can provide safeguards such as language requirements or financial transparency laws.  

While not immediately apparent, governance and the rule of law play a large role in development.  One email from the Red Cross suggests they had more money than they knew what to do with:

"We still are holding $20 million of contingency," she writes in an email. "Any ideas on how to spend the rest of this? (Besides the wonderful helicopter idea?) Can we fund Conrad's hospital? Or more to [Partners in Health]? Any more shelter projects?"

My suggestion: invest in public administration and the Haitian justice system.