The Illusion of Understanding

16 Jul

You should know that there is something called the Humanitarian Accountability Project (HAP). (http://www.hapinternational.org/) I’d encourage anyone with interest in or concerns about humanitarian accountability, whether in Haiti or in some other disaster response context to become familiar with the information and material available through and from HAP. In addition to it’s regulatory function, HAP and many of it’s members have done a great deal of work to establish accountability standards and best-practices that focus humanitarian accountability exactly where it should be focused:

On the survivors of disaster and conflict.

* * * * *

I am troubled by recent coverage of the Haiti response in a number of widely read/viewed and supposedly credible outlets of late. In particular, I’m piqued by this report (The Report On Transparency of Relief Organizations Responding to the 2010 Haiti Earthquake) recently published by the Disaster Accountability Project (DAP) (www.disasteraccountability.org) that has been gaining visibility in the popular press the past few weeks.

Never heard of DAP before? Me neither… They have interesting roots (p.2 of the report). I mean, I’m fully in favor of citizens holding to account their governments in the aftermaths of big disasters, like Hurricane Katrina. Interesting, though, that they apparently fail to see the irony of their own slogan – Citizen Oversight Requires Citizen Engagement – in the context of Haiti: they’re Americans, not Haitians. By the logic of their very own raison d’etre, they’re irrelevant in Haiti. It should be citizens of Haiti demanding that the government of Haiti resolve the constraints to relocation forthwith. But instead, DAP chooses to focus it’s energy on clarifying for the general public whether or not INGOs involved in the response make situation updates easily available and answer questionnaires sent by interns.

The results of the report appear dismal: The vast majority of organizations participating in the response in Haiti received a “red” rating from DAP, meaning that “…the respective organization does not have a situation report available on its website, although other, non-factual updates may be available.” (p. 19). Scrolling quickly through the table, I counted fewer than 10 organizations with a “green” rating (“… full situation reports available”).

The New York Times covered the report, worrying that “…some of the findings in the report are disturbing, particularly given how aggressively many aid groups promoted their work using the wrenching imagery from the shattered neighborhoods around Port-au-Prince”,  then quotes Ben Smilowitz, CEO of DAP, as saying:

“After the quake, the public was eager to donate, but it had to know which groups already had the greatest capacity to deliver, which groups were already in Haiti, and which were planning trips for six months later. Looking back over the last six months, the lack of transparency by relief groups has caused much of the coordination problems that continue to plague the response.”

The Huffington Post article quotes the same quotes as the NYT and insinuates the same accusations, the basic logic of which go something like this:

Only a tiny fraction of the INGOs involved in the Haiti earthquake response had situation updates on their websites…

= aid agencies are not transparent…

= that’s why the relief effort is slow, why hundreds of thousands still live in tents…

But… when was it decided or agreed that having situation updates on homepages was the benchmark of aid agency accountability? And more to the point, how in the world is that related to the pace of the relief and reconstruction effort in Haiti?

* * *

It’s easy to read The Report On Transparency of Relief Organizations Responding to the 2010 Haiti Earthquake and feel like we’ve caught somebody red-handed in the act of something bad. But have we?

The report feels like information. All 79 pages of it. It feels like data. And I suppose that in the broadest sense of the word, it is. But it is not data which can support the conclusions which follow. And more importantly, I think, it draws on assumptions not yet proven. Smilowitz complains, for example, that aid agencies have “broken public trust.”

But have they? NGOs, by definition, are private, non-governmental, specifically non-public, and so there can be no public trust to be broken in the first place. Where private citizens are donors to aid agencies, I’d agree that they have some specific rights, as donors, to information about how their donation was used. Where aid agencies receive public grants they are legally obligated to disclose specific kinds of information to their donors – governments – information which then, at least in theory is available on inquiry to those citizen subjects of those same governments. But I’m not sure I agree that aid agencies are in necessarily obligated, as a matter of principle, to be voluntarily transparent with the general public.   (See also: Honesty v. Transparency)

And of accountability: Should we be accountable to our “beneficiaries”? Absolutely. To our donors? Equally so.

But to random self-appointed watchdogs like DAP? I don’t think so.

* * *

Reports like The Report On Transparency of Relief Organizations Responding to the 2010 Haiti Earthquake create a false sense of clarity about what is “wrong” with the earthquake response in Haiti. It creates an illusion of understanding of the issues at play in that incredibly complicated environment. It creates the illusion of understanding how to do it right. It creates the illusion of accountability being exacted.

But who holds DAP accountable? I cannot help but note that the article in NYT ends with DAP’s 1-800 number “for disaster survivors, workers or volunteers to report gaps in disaster prevention, response, relief and recovery services, along with instances in which money may have been been [sic] misspent.”

By so doing the NYT confirms DAP’s apparent inability to successfully implement one of the most basic humanitarian accountability best-practices of all: a local or on-site feedback mechanism.

So, basically, if you’re a Haitian earthquake survivor and you feel like your INGO service-provider isn’t helping you quickly enough, or maybe if you don’t like the quality of what DAP is doing… just make a call to the USA to complain.

(See also: Accountability)

18 Responses to “The Illusion of Understanding”

  1. lu 16 July, 2010 at 12:52 pm #

    grrrrr… this is so frustrating and harks back to the online conversation that you started a few months ago about having the right to help and what your rights are as someone who gives a gift, in this case a monetary donation to an agency.

    good job at breaking down the report’s data, who they are accountable to, and who humanitarian organisations should be accountable to.

  2. John 17 July, 2010 at 6:40 am #

    A little research around the Disaster Accountability Project (founded in response to Katrina) and their BOD/Advisory Board discovers lawyers, lobbyists and those who aspire to be lawyers or lobbyists. I’m reminded of South Park/ManBearPig and I take that report no more seriously than I do an episode of South Park.

    Unfortunately the NYT, HuffPost, and all the rest of the crank it up to 11 media outlets do take this stuff seriously. It’s frightening, not only in this context but generally, that those who claim to defend accountability are not held accountable. I guess there is no money in prosecuting Libel these days.

    Add another item to the list of distractions that take away time and money from… err… ya know… Helping People.

  3. c-sez 19 July, 2010 at 1:17 am #

    J, would you agree with the following statement?

    Corporations, by definition, are private, non-governmental, specifically non-public, and so there can be no public trust to be broken in the first place. Where private citizens are shareholders in corporations, I’d agree that they have some specific rights, as shareholders, to information about how their capital was used. Where corporations receive government contracts they are legally obligated to disclose specific kinds of information to these governments – information which then, at least in theory is available on inquiry to those citizen subjects of those same governments. But I’m not sure I agree that corporations are in necessarily obligated, as a matter of principle, to be voluntarily transparent with the general public.

    I think meeting demands for transparency (and yes, at times demands which are frivolous and over the line) comes with the territory, when as NGOs you want to advocate for greater public transparency from multinational extractives and the like, without appearing hypocritical.

    That said I agree that its a very long bow to suggest that greater transparency to the general public via organisation’s own website is the most proximal issue to be addressed to improve aid delivery on the ground. Daily public sitreps, no less, is their demand!? Right, because that’s the standard that government agencies (eg: the DMV) and banks, and business are held to…

    Only their final survey question (p8 of report) asks how the respondent is actually collaborating/coordinating with others, which is really much more important day to day. It is probably a fair question to want to know how many of the 200+ agencies and myNGOs on the ground have fronted a (dreaded) cluster meeting? Or steer the discussion toward why agencies can’t interface with cluster leads, OCHA (via say oneresponse.info) using a a common API with operational details and place names or GPS locations? That might be a step forward.

    • J. 21 July, 2010 at 8:41 am #

      I do not agree that it is legitimate to directly compare for-profit corporations and not-for-profit humanitarian NGOs across the board. Their respective purposes are very different, as are their structures, the way they work, etc. While I am not at all suggesting that no rules of public transparency should apply to humanitarian NGOs, I do not agree that because X transparency requirement does or should apply in the for-profit sector, the same should also necessarily apply in the humanitarian sector.

      • C-sez 21 July, 2010 at 4:13 pm #

        No worries, as long as you’re prepared for the accusations of hypocrisy to come flying at your organisation during it’s next elephant-multinational advocacy safari, quicker than you can say “why doesn’t transparency international have a public register of all it’s staff’s exact salaries”.

  4. C-sez 19 July, 2010 at 2:42 pm #

    I forgot to add that old adage, how does it go, about lies getting halfway around the world before the truth gets it’s boots on. Well, in the age of twitter I think we can say it’s probably twice around the world. When some kind of reputational question surfaces, you better already have your own facts already online out there and discoverable. So I’m not supporting these DAP folks and their implicit standard or rationale, just saying that (for reasons *other* than direct operational effectivenes) that NGOs should be on the front foot with public information regardless.

  5. didier 22 July, 2010 at 11:13 am #

    I can appluad DAP’s efforts but you’re right: mission and methods don’t match up.

    First as a contributor to severeal organizations involved in Haiti, I have access to better information as a donor than they seem to have since I get regular situation reports via e-mail that are well packaged and presented from organizations that are “yellow” on their spectrum. My trust has not been violated.

    Second, as someone who used to work with organizations dedicated to promoting transparency in another sector, I know from experience that having interns send e-mails with questionnaires and logging the response rate is not a good proxy for determining the transparency of the organization. It is rather a better proxy for determining how busy the organization might be and how you rate on their radar screen in terms of importance. Now that doesn’t mean how “transparency” rates in terms of importance; just how high this particular organization rates in terms of its own credibility vis-a-vis the organizations it is looking at.

    DAP might be a good organization, but it will need to move beyond interns and e-mails to establish credibility and its products (reports) will need to be of a higher caliber.

  6. De Pores 29 July, 2010 at 6:39 am #

    It is true that some international NGOs have used the Haiti earthquake to solicit funding for other purposes including administrative expenses. For how do you explain the billion plus dollars raised versus the unmet needs?

    This is not new. As we speak, tsunami victims still live in makeshift shelters, many years after. This is despite the many billions raised for disaster relief.

    Some career “disaster consultants” have perfected the art of soliciting funding and channelling it back to home countries, in the form of huge pay packages and allowances.

    We have always said the locals should have the ultimate say. But then, he who pays the piper calls the tune.

    Local governments are often bypassed (of course some are corrupt, but not all)
    The local communities are mostly passive onlookers, with foreigners calling the shots. How would a beneficiary in Haiti, a mere recipient of a pack of rice, or a liter of water be able to unmask this? I am from a developing country, and was surprised the other day, to hear a gentleman I know very well, who works for an NGO, and is now an “expert” commenting with authority about the situation in my country.

    This is not to say, some NGOs are not doing a good job. But at any point in time, there is need for someone to critically follow up on how funds that have been donated are used. The “voice of the voiceless.”

    Lastly, look at all the reports. SITREPS, annual reports etc, written by NGOs. They are fairly standard and use the same language; it is as if all were written by one person.

    The fact of the matter is that disaster relief is an unregulated industry . HAP does a good job, but they do not have teeth. Tell me how many people have been arrested for misusing disaster relief funds?

    We need all such innovative approaches like DAP to enhance transparency.

    • J. 30 July, 2010 at 7:33 pm #

      I’m inclined to agree with almost everything you say, up to the very last sentence.

      I do not agree that DAP is innovative – they’re just lame. And while humanitarian accountability and transparency remain challenges for the aid industry overall, I do not agree that DAP’s approach enhances transparency.

  7. 2carz 6 August, 2010 at 8:42 pm #

    good post

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