“Haiti and the truth about NGOs” – radio documentary

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Posted 15 Jan 2011 in Context and Analysis

UK aid being unloaded and distributed in Haiti from the Royal Fleet Auxillary ship Largs Bay. Photo: DFID.

On 11 January BBC Radio 4 ran a documentary entitled “Haiti and the truth about NGO’s”. The BBC’s description of the programme is pasted here:

A year after the earthquake, Edward Stourton returns to Haiti to look at problems in the aid industry. How far has the way we help gone bad?

Aid workers have already baptised the earthquake in Haiti a “historical disaster”. But despite more than an estimated 10,000 relief agencies flooding the country in the wake of the emergency, the rescue operation has become notorious for the slowness with which aid reached the victims.

More than one million people are marking the anniversary of the quake still living in refugee camps. How can that be when Haiti has attracted billions of dollars in donations and aid pledges?

Critics say foreign aid groups were out of control – that they failed to coordinate and were therefore ineffective; that they swamped some areas leaving others untouched. One NGO evaluation described a ‘wild west’ situation.

In Haiti, Edward talks to UN officials responsible for coordinating the humanitarian response, to local aid watchdogs about how aid is failing to meet needs, and to Haitian grassroots NGOs about a different way to deliver help where and how it is needed.

Is what has happened in Haiti symptomatic of a wider crisis of humanitarianism?

Insiders say many aid agencies have been compromised by business imperatives and increasing political ties. Inside the sector there is growing concern about previously taboo issues of aid corruption and abuse, and ways to improve weak accountability and deliver relief that local people really want.

An insight into the aid industry as it faces challenging times.

On AlertNet, John Mitchell wrote:

Edward Stourton’s BBC Radio 4 documentary, ‘Haiti and the Truth about NGOs’ aired yesterday, went for the jugular. In the spirit of several polemic criticisms of aid agencies from Willam Shawcross’s Quality of Mercy, Graham Hancock’s Lords of Poverty through to the Linda Polman’s War Games, the documentary cited specific examples of incompetency, ineffectiveness, moral corruptness and waste. It seemed to me that Stourton was persuading the listener the humanitarian system, in Haiti and by implication elsewhere, is a system that has lost its moral compass and is tired if not completely broken.

All of us who have worked in relief situations will recognise many of the anecdotal stories upon which Stourton’s narrative is based and it is particularly worrying that some of the weaknesses that emerged have been identified time and time again in evaluation reports. But is the humanitarian system really that corrupt and dysfunctional?

I think not.

You can listen to a recording of the radio documentary here:

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