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)