On 12 January 2010, the deadliest earthquake in the history of the Western Hemisphere struck Haiti. In a country already struggling with huge developmental challenges, the disaster killed more than 300,000 people and left over one million homeless. Yet, despite an unprecedented outpouring of global generosity, the relief – and later reconstruction – effort has floundered. In this ‘Republic of NGOs’, good intentions have often gone wrong, and those driven by a humanitarian impulse have inadvertently contributed to an international response that will be remembered most for promises unfulfilled.

Long before January 2010, when the sky above Port-au-Prince swarmed with foreign aircraft and aid caravans proliferated in the rubble dust, Haiti had been known for one of the world’s thickest concentrations of aid groups. The country’s ever-worsening poverty and proximity to the United States (US) and Europe’s island holdings, combined with an absence of major conflict, had for decades made it a place where aid workers felt needed and free to work. A persistent lack of local governance meanwhile meant that managers could experiment as they pleased. Many of the most successful projects, by their own criteria, had long since become essential providers of public services, further supplanting and weakening the state.

This weakening of sovereignty was a bitter pill for the second-oldest independent republic in the Western Hemisphere. Snide references to the Caribbean nation being governed as a de facto ‘Republic of NGOs’ date back to at least the 1990s. Moreover, experienced aid workers themselves knew that the cycle of dependency and despondency undermined their own goals. A persistent lack of coordination among NGOs ranging from offices of the world’s pre-eminent international actors to one-man shows seemingly improvised on the spot made an effective aid regime impossible. When in mid-2009, less than a year before the earthquake, former US President Bill Clinton was appointed the United Nations (UN) Special Envoy for Haiti, one of his primary missions was to improve NGO coordination, eliminate redundancies and see to it that coverage gaps were filled. His attempts ended in exasperation.

When the earthquake struck, longtime Haiti hands and clear-eyed aid leaders thus faced a paradox. They knew that outmoded, uncoordinated assistance had not only failed to help in the past, but also helped create the fragility exposed by the disaster. On the other hand, there was now an unspeakably dire emergency, to be followed by long-term, resource-exhausting reconstruction. To add final fuel to the fire, even more NGOs – many with no experience in Haiti whatsoever – were rushing into the disaster zone, lured both by a genuine desire to help and a bonanza of donations pouring in from shocked observers around the world. In the US alone, private donations reached $1.4 billion by year’s end – equating to approximately $6 per American adult. Ultimately, more than $3 billion would be donated to international NGOs after the quake, part of a gargantuan pledged total of $16.3 billion in all. Coordination would be more crucial, yet harder to achieve, than ever.

The approach chosen after the catastrophe was to coordinate aid actors through a system of humanitarian ‘clusters’, in which efforts would be organized by subject area, such as housing or sanitation. Representatives from aid groups of all sizes and provenances – from Médecins Sans Frontières to the newest aid-group leader of all, the movie star Sean Penn – gathered for regular meetings to share data, discuss results, and agree on new strategies. The system’s top-level coordinators were in turn to liaise with deployed military and other government agencies in hopes of achieving a consistent response. Variations on this basic strategy had been employed after the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami and elsewhere, including at a smaller scale in Haiti after a series of deadly tropical storms in 2008.

As I trace in my new book, The Big Truck That Went By: How the World Came to Save Haiti and Left Behind a Disaster, the system failed. A critical moment came at the beginning of February 2010, toward the end of the first month after the quake.

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By Jonathan M Katz

Photo © UN/Logan Abassi