Americas

Haiti quake revives anger over aid response to past disasters

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A woman on a stretcher is pictured with a baby after a 7.2 magnitude earthquake in Les Cayes, Haiti August 15, 2021. REUTERS/Estailove St-Val

PORT-AU-PRINCE, Aug 16 (Reuters) - The earthquake that ravaged Haiti on Saturday has revived anger over international aid agencies' response to a devastating quake there 11 years ago, stirring calls to ensure donations do a better job of reaching the people who need them most.

Haitians and well-wishers have taken to social media to urge donors to send money directly to Haitian charities or via the government, criticizing what they saw as misuse of funds after the 2010 quake and a major hurricane in 2016.

Despite billions of dollars in aid, Haiti has slipped down global development rankings, violence is widespread and its institutions were already in turmoil when President Jovenel Moise was shot dead last month by what the government says was a group of largely Colombian mercenaries.

Saturday's quake in the poorest country in the Americas killed at least 1,419 people and injured thousands more. read more

It prompted pledges of support from U.N. bodies, the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), the Red Cross and governments around the world.

But with the scars of the last quake still visible in the Caribbean nation's capital Port-au-Prince, there were calls right from the top for the aid response to be different in 2021.

"We will not repeat the same things that were done in 2010," Prime Minister Ariel Henry said on Monday. "A lot of donations were made to the country, and a lot of money was spent without seeing the impact."

Jonathan Katz, a journalist and author of "The Big Truck That Went By," a damning critique of the international response to the 2010 earthquake, which killed more than 200,000 people, said the money needed to go directly to the Haitian population.

"The world had 11 years to prepare for the next earthquake. We did not," he added. "Don't shuffle money from the State Department to the Defense Department by way of USAID and tell the world that that was money for Haiti."

Much of the U.S. military spending right after the natural disaster was more focused on preventing social unrest and deterring mass migration than rebuilding, said Katz.

The Pentagon did not immediately respond to a request for comment on Monday. The State Department said that, while it spent money evacuating staff and U.S. citizens and keeping the local embassy operating in 2010, its diplomatic programs had "no relation" to security assistance, military spending or migration programs.

USAID, which has dispatched a team to Haiti to help relief efforts, pointed Reuters to recent congressional testimony by Barbara Feinstein, acting senior deputy assistant administrator within its bureau for Latin America and the Caribbean.

Feinstein highlighted improvements in infant mortality rates in Haiti and said that in 2020 alone, USAID had supported the vaccination of more than 75,000 children there and provided care to tens of thousands of women and newborn babies.

USAID had also benefited local farming, with its investments supporting 105,000 farmers to adopt new technologies, generating nearly $30 million in agricultural sales, she said.

MISSING AID

Haiti's government complained after the 2010 quake that aid was too slow to materialize. Six months after the disaster, it said it had received less than2 percent of the promised support, despite pledges by the U.N. special envoy for Haiti, former U.S. President Bill Clinton, to "build Haiti back better".

A 2012 study by Tulane University found that while some aid exceeded the population's needs in affected areas, humanitarian efforts did not contribute significantly to making Haiti more resilient to disasters and may even have "caused harm."

It argued the humanitarian response often undermined Haitian organizations due to the poaching of staff, and because they could not compete with larger, international NGOs for support, or lacked access to the decision-making process.

The American Red Cross in particular has been singled out for what critics said was the low impact of some $500 million in donations it received after the 2010 quake.

"Donate to HAITIAN ORGANIZATIONS ONLY! Please! Can't stress this enough. Haiti Based ONLY," Jessie Woo, a Haitian-American comedienne, said on Twitter. "DO NOT DONATE ANY MONEY TO THE RED CROSS REGARDING HAITI."

The American Red Cross has said it spent 91 cents of every dollar of that money in programs to help the people of Haiti.

In a statement to Reuters, the American Red Cross said it "strongly disputes negative reporting of our past work in Haiti" and had made a significant impact there.

This included investment in more than 50 hospitals and clinics, safer housing for more than 22,000 families, funding for Haiti's first wastewater treatment plant and support for the country's first-ever cholera vaccination campaign.

"Americans donated generously in the aftermath of the 2010 Haiti earthquake to save lives - which is exactly what their donations did," it said.

MISTRUST

Controversies linked to foreign intervention have reinforced a sense of public mistrust.

A sexual misconduct scandal that surfaced in 2018 centering on Oxfam International tarnished the name of relief workers in Haiti, while a cholera outbreak linked to U.N. peacekeepers in the country after the 2010 quake led to thousands of deaths.

Even as countries like Mexico began flying in aid, Haiti's government urged donors to go through its civil protection agency to better coordinate efforts this time.

"As we want to avoid the proliferation of tented camps, the ministry asks NGOs to distribute tents and tarpaulins to the identified people whose homes have been damaged to enable them to spend the night close to their residence," it said.

Over 1 million survivors of the 2010 quake spent months in makeshift tent camps crammed into Port-au-Prince, exposing them to the elements, lawlessness and the cholera outbreak.

The Caribbean Disaster Emergency Management Agency (CDEMA) said on Monday that Haiti's government was preparing a needs list and had asked for cash donations so humanitarian goods could be bought in the country. A major criticism of the 2010 response was that imports of foreign aid damaged Haitian farming and commerce.

One diplomat, who asked not to be identified, expressed confidence that the ad hoc government Haiti had assembled after Moise's assassination seemed to be taking a "big leap forward" in coordinating aid efforts.

But Haiti, which has only just begun administering its first publicly distributed vaccines against COVID-19, may not be in the spotlight as much this time, with events such as the U.S. pullout from Afghanistan dominating the news, argued Katz.

"I think it's going to get a lot less attention than the 2010 earthquake," he said.

Reporting by Laura Gottesdiener in Port-au-Prince and Dave Graham in Mexico City Additional reporting by Sarah Marsh in Havana and Kate Chappell in Kingston and Gessika Thomas in Port-au-Prince Writing by Dave Graham Editing by Daniel Flynn and Matthew Lewis

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