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Where did Haiti donations go?

Posted: February 1, 2012 11:38 a.m.
Updated: February 3, 2012 5:00 a.m.

Two years after a 7.0 earthquake struck Haiti, killing hundreds of thousands, more than a half-million Haitians are still sleeping under tarps, often in camps without enough water or toilets. As another hurricane season approaches, many people are asking, what happened to the generous donations that Americans gave? Congress should make it easier to find out.

No one is charging corruption, at least not at the top of the aid organizations. But as aid agencies pumped out press releases touting their successes during the second anniversary of the quake, the charities also confronted a rising tide of skepticism about why so many earthquake victims remain unhoused.

For example, two-thirds of the displaced have left the camps, according to the American Red Cross, which says it has relocated more than 100,000 people into transitional housing. It also says it has spent more than a quarter of a billion dollars in the past year.

But the Red Cross raised almost twice that amount -- $486 million -- and has been criticized for not spending more of it. The organization has also been criticized along with other non-governmental organizations, or "NGOs," for not disclosing more details as to how the money has been spent.

The question of where all the money went has sparked by NPR and other media. But none brought as much backlash as a new documentary film by independent filmmaker Michele Mitchell, "Haiti: Where Did the Money Go?" which has been airing on PBS stations across the country.

Produced by her New York-based company Film At 11, the film paints a very grim picture of how much obviously has not been done. In a camp of 5,000 people, for example, only six toilets are provided -- and no one to clean them. In separate visits on the first and second anniversaries of the quake, Mitchell found the camp's conditions actually had gotten worse.

"This is not just about Haiti," Mitchell told me after a screening before members of Congress on Capitol Hill. "It's about the need for real reform. Because when you give money to a do-good organization, you expect them to do good with it. We need to do better."

The film upset the American Red Cross with its implications of ineffectiveness and allegations that the Red Cross lacks transparency. The organization released a statement charging the film with "inaccuracies." However, after talking with David B. Meltzer, the organization's senior vice president for international services, I think the dispute boils down mainly to differences of opinion and emphasis. The Red Cross understandably wants to focus on the people it has helped. The film's focus, like mine, is on how many people the NGOs have missed -- and why.

Haiti's earthquake, Meltzer pointed out, is "the largest urban disaster since the end of World War II." It left 1.5 million people homeless in a city that had already had hundreds of thousands living in squalor in its poorest sections. The donations have been generous, but they don't begin to cover the total costs of Haiti's recovery. "We've had big challenges," he said, "but we've also had big successes."

True enough. But on the question of where the money went, Meltzer, like other officials, proudly directed me to the Red Cross website, where they freely disclose information required by law. Unfortunately, the law doesn't require a very detailed disclosure, such as how much was spent on specific items like food, water and latrine services or where the money found its way to people who need help.

It also doesn't address larger questions that have been raised about how disaster aid is delivered by NGOs. The Red Cross, for example, has been forced to defend itself many times in the past against critics of its relief efforts after disasters like Hurricane Katrina and the Japanese earthquake and tsunami.

Mitchell's film was defended against the Red Cross' criticism by at least one watchdog group, the Center for Economic and Policy Research, which also called for more disclosure and accountability by NGOs. Congressional hearings and oversight, which Red Cross officials say they welcome, would be a good place to start.

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