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‘Fatal Assistance’: The Promise and Failure of Humanitarian Aid in Haiti

February 20, 2014

(Kathryn Pyle is a documentary filmmaker and a regular contributor to PhilanTopic. In her previous post, she wrote about the documentary Shored Up, winner of the 2014 Hilton Worldwide LightStay Sustainability Fund & Award.)

Fatal_assistance_posterThe magnitude 7.0 earthquake that struck Haiti on January 12, 2010, killed more than 200,000 Haitians, injured over 300,000 people, and left some 1.5 million Haitians homeless. It also devastated the capital city of Port-au-Prince, destroying buildings and wiping out large swaths of the city's infrastructure. As in most natural disasters, it was the poor, living in the most vulnerable areas, who were most affected – and Haiti was already the poorest nation in the Western Hemisphere.

The international response was immediate and unprecedented: ultimately, $14 billion was pledged for relief and recovery efforts by donor countries, bilateral and multilateral agencies, individuals, and foundations and corporations. The total amount actually disbursed was considerably less but still significant for a country with a population of only ten million.

Four years later, the clamor that arose almost immediately over how the aid was being disbursed, continues. In an editorial last month marking the fourth anniversary of the earthquake, the New York Times declared that despite the outpouring of support (and notwithstanding certain achievements), "Haiti is a fragile, largely forgotten country" where more than 170,000 people still live in temporary shelters.

A major criticism of the response has been the lack of direct support for, and meaningful consultation with, Haitians. According to the Guardian, of the $9 billion spent in Haiti by January 2013, 94 percent was funneled through donors' own entities, the United Nations, international NGOs, and private contractors. Reports since then confirm that only 5 percent of the money pledged for relief and recovery efforts in the country reached Haitian organizations.

Fatal Assistance, a new documentary by Haitian-born filmmaker Raoul Peck, provides a personal account of what happened in the weeks and months after the quake struck and, at the same time, is a plea for a more effective approach to humanitarian assistance in developing countries. Completed in 2013, the film premiered last year at Berlinale, the Berlin international film festival, and has been shown as part of the 2014 Human Rights Film Festival screening in cities across the U.S.

When the earthquake struck, Peck, like many other Haitians living abroad, returned home to help. "Those first weeks were a time of solidarity and connection," he told me. "Everybody slept outside. The Haitians were organizing everything."

That changed when the international relief groups arrived.

"Suddenly all our organization was erased. We weren't wanted and we were overwhelmed by the megaproject that took over. The locals were swallowed by the aid machine. We were of no use. So I decided to do what I do best: make a film. Without having any specific idea in my head, I decided to observe the whole process for a full two years, filming what was going on, interviewing people, penetrating the power structures where decisions were being taken, tracking the progress of the humanitarian efforts."

Peck's despair and anger with the reconstruction process is evident throughout the film, as the initial outpouring of money and promises of help were overwhelmed by agency competition, duplication of effort, and corruption.

Peck was in Philadelphia recently to screen Fatal Assistance and a previous feature film he had made, Moloch Tropical (2009), a satirical look at the final days of an unpopular Aristede-like politician. Organized by the Scribe Video Center in collaboration with International House Philadelphia, the program included a conversation with Peck about the creative process that was moderated by Louis Massiah, director of the Scribe Center.

In the post-screening discussion, Peck elaborated on a theme that was woven through Fatal Assistance: that the interests of humanitarian agencies working in Haiti seemed connected more to profit than to the needs of the Haitian people.

Even though many had never been to Haiti before, "the foreign workers didn't consult or involve the Haitians. They were the experts," Peck told those in attendance. "So much money was spent, but almost all of it went to foreign NGOs that carried out the projects designed by those experts. That meant that the money went back to the donor countries, it didn't go to the Haitian people. It was a business, where, for instance, instead of bringing water from other parts of Haiti, donors bought bottled water from businesses in their own countries and distributed them in Haiti."

Similar criticisms of the humanitarian relief model have been heard before. In a recent Q&A with PND about humanitarian aid efforts in the Philippines following Typhoon Haiyan, Jessica Alexander, author of Chasing Chaos: My Decade In and Out of Humanitarian Aid, made a plug for an alternative approach: humanitarian agencies should "recognize that the Philippines will always be vulnerable to natural disaster, and that the best thing they can do is to work with local communities to strengthen their capacity to prepare for and respond to the next disaster."

Oxfam International, a confederation of fourteen Oxfam organizations that was working in Haiti with about a dozen rural projects before the earthquake struck, is an example of this more sustainable model. The organization is highlighted in the film in an interview with one of its Haitian staffers.

"Many of those projects had roots in previous crises, so disaster risk prevention was part of our day-to-day program," says Michael Delaney, head of Oxfam America's humanitarian response efforts. "Our approach to disaster relief is closely linked to long-term development programs, focusing on the most vulnerable populations to create resilient communities.

"In this kind of situation, there's pressure on organizations to be seen doing something, such as housing construction," Delaney adds. "Consultation takes time, so it's often not included in a top-down relief program. It's easier to design the housing and get it done. But housing is the hardest piece of reconstruction: it's personal, it's cultural, there are related issues like getting land titles. You can't do that unilaterally. You get a lot of solutions that are rapid but not sustainable."

Oxfam America raised about $30 million from foundations and individuals for its relief and recovery efforts in Haiti. About $20 million has been spent on direct disaster relief such as emergency water, sanitation, and other public-health services that have reached more than a million Haitians. The organization also provided emergency shelter for more than 94,000 Haitians and food assistance to over 200,000 people. Other assistance included grants to small businesses and cash-for-work programs. The rest of the funds it raised will support ongoing programs to address local communities' economic and infrastructure needs – programs that are run by Oxfam America's Haitian staff working in collaboration with local Haitian partners.

Before the earthquake, Oxfam America had been building a "South-South" bridge between its partners in El Salvador and its local efforts in Haiti. The Oxfam America program in El Salvador helped create an effective emergency response and disaster risk prevention squad in that country, and it is now working to do the same in a number of Haitian communities. The focus is on preventing cholera and other sanitation-related diseases, building communication networks and infrastructure, and enhancing technical capacity within the local population. Local governments are also involved, preparing for the next disaster, including designing and coordinating the reconstruction projects they most need.

In the years since the earthquake, any number of reports have been highly critical of the way humanitarian assistance was delivered in Haiti. But critical analyses of the humanitarian aid model itself have been largely missing. Peck's powerful and very personal film provides such an analysis and argues for a different model, one that is inclusive, consultative, and, like Oxfam America's ongoing efforts in the country, guided by the goal of long-term sustainability.

Kathryn Smith Pyle

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