What do YOU think?

7 Aug

I know that I’ve done my share of ranting, especially since the Haiti earthquake, about mass media, journalists, celebrities, self-appointed watchdogs, and those ordinary citizens who – it seems obvious to me – just don’t get it.

But now, I think it’s time to turn the table a bit. I’d like to hear from you. Thanks to the tools available in WordPress and Twitter, I know you’re reading. I would specifically like to hear your thoughts on:

How much should be spent for the response to a large disaster by the six-month mark? At the one year mark? Beyond?  From inside the aid industry, I can tell you that as a rule of thumb, we try to spend down within the first year somewhere between 50-70 percent of funds raised in the first year. In other words, if in the first twelve months after “Cyclone X” we raise US $10 million for that disaster response, we should be spending down in the neighborhood of $5-7 million during that same period. Some organizations have a policy about it. Others just follow a general principle.

How does that sound? There’s been plenty of criticism of large INGOs in Haiti for supposedly spending too slowly at the six-month mark. What number or percentage of spend-down sign would be adequate? What proportion of an organization’s income for Haiti would need to be spent down by six months in order for this issue to not be raised? On the other side, what would be too high a proportion? I’d especially like to hear from, say, Sharyl Attkisson on this one.

How long should it take to get back to “normal”? And what is “normal”? I’ve written before that there’s plenty of precedent for recovery following a large disaster to take years. And yet, after every earthquake, typhoon or tsunami, there are accusations and insinuations that the aid is slow in coming and that things are taking too long to get better. Personally, I think that Haiti will, for all practical purposes, be an emergency response for a full 12 months. As was Aceh and eastern Sri Lanka. As was the Aerawaddy River Delta. No, not emergency in the sense of people being pulled alive from rubble. But emergency in the sense that many of the basic life-sustaining and life-preserving measures being taken are and for some time will be emergency ones: food and water distribution, emergency sanitation (as opposed to permanent sanitation), and emergency shelter. Land is a key element in determining the rate of transition to “recovery” in this case, and land remains a difficult issue to resolve.

Anderson Cooper  and Eric Klein seem pretty certain that good progress isn’t being made. What about you? All things considered, what should Port-au-Prince look like right now? Or, for that matter, Louisiana? What would a realistic set of expectations around things like the proportion of people living in something sturdier than tents, or the proportion of people still reliant on food distributions? (Mind you, “realistic”, not “wishful thinking.”) What do you think is a reasonable timeframe within which to return things to “normal”? And what does that “normal” look like?

Transparency, Honesty and Accountability. I’ve shared my thoughts on these before. The Disaster Accountability Project  is pretty sure that aid agencies in Haiti have not been sufficiently transparent and, by extension, not accountable.

I’ll keep this one short: What about you? What would you see as the minimums around transparency and accountability for aid agencies responding to disaster with public and private funding? What kinds of information should they be required to voluntarily share with the public? What kinds of information should they be required to share upon request? And what kinds of information, in your opinion, if any, should they be allowed to withold? Under what circumstances?

* * * * *

I’m most interested in hearing from journalists/media types, disaster survivors and aid critics. Aid workers and ordinary citizens, you’re welcome to share your thoughts as well.

I may springboard some responses or comments into full posts on this blog in the future.

Add your thoughts in the comments thread below this post, DM me at @talesfromthhood, email at talesfromethehood(at)gmail(dot)com (be sure to spell correctly).

RT and forward this post.

Let me know what you think.

17 Responses to “What do YOU think?”

  1. @viewfromthecave 7 August, 2010 at 10:40 pm #

    I don’t even want to try to estimate how much should be spent. However, normal I want to bring up. To me, it seems like this is something which is entirely relative. One thing that struck me after the earthquake was how surprised people I spoke to were about the conditions of the people in Haiti. Anyone who paid some attention knew that the situation in the country was not good prior to the earthquake. So, with buildings collapsed and people displaced, the majority of Americans were introduced to Haiti by seeing it as the worst possible outcome due to a natural disaster.

    With a little help from the media, a lot of naivete, and some celebs running around, a perfect storm for misconception was born. It seems that this plus the association with the American lifestyle as normal will have to lead people to have very high expectations for a return to normalcy in a quick manner. Toss in the fact that a large amount of money is now perceived to be flowing into the country though donations and aid, and the belief that in the third world you can buy a meal for a penny. I exaggerate a bit, but returning home I ran into many of these assumptions from people whom I consider to be quite intelligent in regards to Kenya.

    What this means, to me, is that the expectation of the return to normalcy by most probably looks something like a low developed country. In many ways, normalcy will be acheived when people stop paying attention and media turns to a new story. By this measure, the tsunami ravaged areas are back to normal because they do not impact the life of the average American.

    A little less cynical, being that New Orleans is not back to normal after 5 years, I am going to toss out 10 years. I agree with J. on the ‘disaster’ portion lasting roughly a year, but physical rebuilding and removal of rubble will take a few years as the economic shock to the nation might bring about longer lasting problems (not an economist, so it is just based on the fact that the economy was not in great shape prior and the injection of aid, more NGOs/NPs and the physical destruction of property have to do something to alter the economy).

  2. Will 8 August, 2010 at 1:15 am #

    I would hope that it depends on the type of disaster and the relative effectiveness of aid in the present vs. aid in the future.

    If there were a massive earthquake for example, and most of the infrastructure was destroyed, it seems reasonable to smooth spending out over a longer period. If there was severe flooding, but most of the infrastructure could be reestablished within a shorter time frame, aid should correspondingly be deployed more rapidly. The percentages in any given case would depend a lot on the context in my opinion, so applying a standard seems kind of arbitrary to me.

    It should depend on government capability as well. If the government can credibly take over most of the heavy lifting in the future, it makes little sense to save much. In another case, where the government is not likely able to support basic needs, I think it is completely reasonable to place greater weight on future expenses than would be the case otherwise.

  3. joe 8 August, 2010 at 11:13 am #

    Possibly a schoolboy/ignorant question, but why would you not spend the money in the year that you raised it? I’d naively guess that more invested in the short term might lead to concurrent benefits in subsequent years – so replacing 60% of bridges in the short term in Pakistan might sound like a sound investment, saving money for next year, but wouldn’t spending all the available money now mean that there was a better chance of economic stability in the future?

    As to normality, I’d expect/want the society to be assisted to some kind of baseline which may be significantly better than was there before the disaster struck. Maybe I am being unrealistic there.

  4. jina 8 August, 2010 at 1:09 pm #

    I’m not qualified even to speculate what Haiti “should” look like right now, etc. But I have a thought worth sharing on normal, or rather I heard someone else’s smarter thought and it’s worth repeating.

    I spent the last three months in post-conflict countries famous for being disasters, and I met a UN strategy officer in Sierra Leone who talked about “normal” in an interesting way: His idea of normal is that things work unexceptionally. That you don’t really notice them working is when you have “normal.”

    This was completely the case with Sierra Leone’s trash, as it turned out. I was flabbergasted — they have trash collection in a famously dirty city, where I used to see them ignite huge piles of trash on the busiest thoroughfares — but when I asked Sierra Leoneans about it, including the guys who have jobs picking up the trash, they thought it was the most common thing ever, and that I was really weird for noticing.

    A better version of this story is at the CSM.

  5. Jim 8 August, 2010 at 1:55 pm #

    As an “ordinary citizen”, though perhaps much more up on aid than most of my fellow Americans, I’m confused. I haven’t lived three years in a hut; didn’t get an MA in development studies from Tufts/NYU; earn less than development workers I am reading about.

    It seems like everyone in development is either singing a happy song, or accusing everyone else of being corrupt and incompetent.

    I wish that you, J, and many others, would take their cues from Terry Gross of Fresh Air, and the PBS News Hour, and conduct a quiet persistent search for the truth, instead of imitating Limbaugh and Beck and seeing who can make the snarkiest statement. Perhaps this statement comes late in the game, as you ARE now adopting a new tone, perhaps.

    If you are, thanks. You’re a great writer– your prose is powerful. When you attack, you do it well. I’d recommend reading http://www.jinamoore.com/2010/08/07/alleged-power

  6. Stephanie 9 August, 2010 at 4:41 am #

    Great questions, Tales. Interaction is trying to get the major relief organizations to submit reports about what they’ve spent and what they’ve done after disasters. I’ve seen a few and they’re not bad. Here’s the ones on Haiti: http://www.interaction.org/document/haiti-accountability-report-interaction-members-use-private-funds-response-earthquake-haiti

    It also has a project to try to map efforts on the ground in Haiti. Personally, it’s my favorite because it visually shows how uneven efforts are: http://haitiaidmap.org/

    I can’t help asking this question: How much to relief organizations make on the float, i.e. if you hold back money for whatever reason, you’re going to make money on the retained portion (although in the current interest rate environment, not much). If you hold back 50 percent, you’ll make more than if you hold back 20 percent. Is the interest earned on the heldback portion used only for the disaster for which the principal was raised? Or can organizations use the float for general operating expenses? Sorry, I grew up in the Watergate era and still believe “follow the money” is sound advice.

  7. Blair 9 August, 2010 at 6:42 am #

    Repping the “Aid Worker” camp here.

    I think anyone really experienced with this kind of work would, when asked “how much should be spent by XX date,” would respond, after a sigh, with “well, that depends.” It depends on the type of work you’re doing, what kind of funding you have, and where you’re working, for example.

    Working on providing housing or transport, for example, involves land rights and right-of-way issues, which inevitably involves government and courts. In the case of Haiti, that inevitably means it will take 10,000x longer than it conceivably should, and probably cost a lot more too; so it’s not that shocking that very little has been accomplished as yet. Food aid? Sanitation? Medical treatment? Even longer-term stuff, like economic development? All of these things involve completely different actors, processes, officials and so forth.

    What kind of funding do you have? John Q Contributor to the Red Cross might want his $25 check used rightawaynow to pay for someone’s daily allotment of grain; but the professionals on the ground are probably in a better position to judge what that money would be best used for. So maybe they stuff it in an account that will eventually be used to underwrite a big new housing development or closed sewer line.

    Finally, non-specialists simply tend to forget that Haiti is a really tough place to work. The government is more or less useless and corrupt. There is a long history of civil strife and small arms are ubiquitous. There’s a very good reason why that place was screwed from the get-go with this earthquake – the “government” was more of a very large, organized shake-down scam than an organization dedicated to the protection and service of its citizens. Welcome to development.

    So media types will hop up and down and get puffy in the face demanding why things aren’t working better. The only ones who it’s politically correct or easy to point fingers at are the development experts. I wonder what Anderson Cooper has done for Haiti lately.

  8. didier 9 August, 2010 at 10:36 am #

    Both the spend rate and the transparency issue are currently too tied to a “resource transfer” as opposed to an “investment” paradigm. If you move your money quickly into targeted areas with a low overhead rate than you will get high marks from most charity watchdogs. If you are moving a lot of money though; then in those situations where the capacity to absorb a large amount of resources quickly is not very good; then the money can be squandered either by giving it to local organizations or government entitities that might not be setup to spend it effectively or – to compensate for weak local institutional capacity – by investing large of amounts in outside experts and international staff, vehicles, offices and all the attendant accoutrements for sustaining a large expat operation on the ground. In many cases, that might be the right thing to do – in many others, it is often a huge waste of resources (although quite a boon to hotels, hookers and cafes in the local capital). The accountability can be a bit sketchy as almost all of this is considered to be a program expenditure and not overhead which means that an organization can spend a lot of money on cars for zipping around the capital and still look good on the books. The good organizations seem to know when and how much of their money to put upfront and when and how much to hold back to continue investing in the rebuilding of the affected area.

    With regard to Stephanie’s questions on interest or investment income from the float, most organizations I’m aware of actually put that into the same kitty that the original contribution or grant was directed to (it sort of operates like a term endowment).

    Finally, if we were truly operating on an investment paradigm, post facto evaluations would factor into this a lot more than they do but those take time and occur way down the road.

  9. c-sez 10 August, 2010 at 3:49 am #

    Project managers across all spheres in developed countries — public, private, construction, IT — know that if you want to do things quickly cheaply and well, you get to pick only two. And this is with highly predictable externalities: stable regulatory environments, nearby suppliers, reliable supply chains, guaranteed electricity, and minimal bribery.

    In the more chaotic environment of humanitarian response I’d suggest you often get to pick only one; if you manage two of the three, that’s a win. Nevertheless this is an iron triangle upon which aid agencies can always, always be whipped for *something*. Not doing it cheaply, but doing it quickly and well? Headline: aid agencies are wasting your money! Not doing it quickly, but doing it cheaply and well? Aid agencies aren’t doing anything! Not doing it with lasting quality, but doing it cheaply and quickly? Aid agencies are ineffective, aid doesn’t work!

    We should be pushing back with this fairly common sense rule of thumb, that will be familiar to a great many people. If a builder is fixing your house, do you want a rush job that costs more, or do you want it done right, even if that takes longer?

  10. Linda Raftree 12 August, 2010 at 5:10 am #

    I’d jump in with, and if you want local ownership, it will also take much longer, because you’re trying to help build capacities along the way, and you’re trying to ‘build back better.’

    In any case, I think this is a trick question… The point being, no one has any real idea how long it should take, and it’s pretty ridiculous for journalists and armchair commentators, not living the realities, to be spouting off about it as if they are authorities. Of course we all want things to be better asap, but they won’t be. Things take time, especially when the situations is so complex.

  11. Carla Murphy 13 August, 2010 at 6:44 am #

    I’ll chime in from the journalist’s pov: I agree with your points that a lot of commentators just don’t know what they’re talking about–and that’s reason to be turned off. (I for one was not pleased with that DAP report.) What worries me though, is that reacting to their ignorance/poor analysis will hide the real problems that come from uncoordinated and unvetted aid delivery. I have yet to see the slew of news reports that document, specifically, how communities on the ground are affected by shoddy, criminal, wasteful, top-down or unprofessional aid delivery. Those stories–about one country, alone–could probably fill a weekly column for a year.

    I feel your annoyance but really, at the end of the day, the aid community still comes out of this supposed blowback, relatively unscathed. What policy changes will come out of this media nitpicking? How will the professional aid community improve how it functions, as a result? Very little, if nothing will come of this blowback, I imagine.

    But from my perspective, I hear from people on the ground (here, I’ll focus only at Haiti). And in addition to the wonderful stuff I hear truly horrid things. And I also hear things that people refuse to go on record about. Why? Because NGOs are basically one of the biggest employers in town. That matters in a country where the unemployment rate is somewhere in the nabe of 90%. Such conditions buy silence even if it’s not what one desires.

    I could go on but I’ll just end by saying, societies and industries have cops/enforceably standards for a reason. It’s not the government so, who is aid communities’ cop in Haiti?

  12. Alister Wm Macintyre 13 August, 2010 at 1:52 pm #

    Much more important than how much money is spent, is how much of the spending is WISE.

    The UN has a cluster system where NGOs can work together in a team effort.
    99% of the NGOs in Haiti have chosen not to cooperate with this or any other system.

    Haitian economy is on life support. It could be helped if the NGOs purchased food and other humanitarian aid from Haitian farmers, encouraging growth of Haitian agriculture. Instead, they spend a small fortune shipping the food from rest of world, competing with Haitian farmers, driving them out of business.

    40% of the tents and tarps for the Haitian tent cities lack quality to withstand normal Haitian weather, so they have to be replaced BY THE SAME QUALITY?

    The quake rubble debris is more than was in 9/11 from twin towers. The 9/11 rubble had a plan, involving dump trucks and construction equipment. Haiti debris movement is mainly by hand, and total anarchy. Many people have solutions, which the people in charge are not interested in. Human remains are still in the rubble.

    Temporary Housing, that looks like tool sheds or outhouses, that can be opened by a rapist knife at night, is in the works to accommodate the millions now in the tent cities. Why not permanent housing that can survive earthquake, hurricane, rapists, surprise evictions etc.? Haitian land ownership documentation is another disaster, which could be solved in a month the same way the rebuild better action plan was developed, with input from every segment of Haitian society and international community. With rare exceptions, the people in charge are more interested in pointing fingers of blame at each other, than working together to solve this mess.

    I can and have cited many more examples of how lots of the money donated to help Haiti may as well have been paper money in a big bonfire, for all the good it has been put to.

  13. c-sez 14 August, 2010 at 3:29 am #

    Just a small technical followup to Stephanie re floats:

    >> How much to relief organizations make on the float, i.e. if you hold back money for whatever reason, you’re going to make money on the retained portion (although in the current interest rate environment, not much).

    In terms of appeal funds from the public, yes as Didier says it generally gets put towards the same issue/emergency.

    In terms of (the usually much bigger) grants from government donors, there will be one of three stipulations attached:

    * any interest earned must be stated and will be *deducted* from the final balancing payment on the grant made by the donor agency. in other words, zero net effect for the NGO.
    * interest earned must be stated in final reporting, and must be put towards the specific purpose of the grant, or if not, repaid.
    * finally (and most rarely) the donor’s T&Cs might be silent on interest, or specifically state that interest earned may be used for any other general purpose. Frankly, this is a cheap way for the donor to give some kind of recognition to the overhead & underlying costs of the NGO, especially if they formally pay 0% towards indirect costs.



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