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How U.S. aid spent in Haiti "opaque as ever" - think tank

Source: Thomson Reuters Foundation - Fri, 12 Apr 2013 05:18 AM
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BOGOTA (AlertNet) - The United States government needs to do more to improve how billions of dollars of American quake aid to Haiti is tracked and accounted for in the Caribbean nation, a think tank said.

In its latest report, the Washington-based Center for Economic and Policy Research (CEPR) found a lack of transparency in how the U.S., the largest foreign aid donor in Haiti, is spending money on the ground there.

After the massive January 2010 quake, the U.S. pledged $1.15 billion for humanitarian aid and rebuilding - funds that are largely overseen by the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID).

“The overall picture is that some strides have been made by USAID to make some level of information available, but it’s not enough to make an evaluation of the impact of aid on the ground. There’s a lack of real transparency around U.S. assistance to Haiti that makes it more difficult to identify problems and make corrections,” Jake Johnston, a CEPR researcher who co-authored the report told AlertNet in a telephone interview.

The report said the few audits and evaluations of USAID programmes in Haiti since the earthquake paint “a troubling picture” about the way U.S. relief and reconstruction efforts have been carried out. It said a “lack of effective oversight and a failure to meet, or even apply, basic benchmarks are among frequently noted problems.”

According to CEPR, from 2010 to 2012, USAID’s office of inspector general (OIG), which audits the agency’s projects, noted delays in building USAID shelters and infrastructure projects in Haiti, contractors hiring far fewer Haitians than promised, the exclusion Haitian businesses and a lack of staff on the ground.

OVER-RELIANCE ON CONTRACTORS

A key reason why it is difficult to track how USAID funds are spent on the ground is because the agency relies so heavily on contractors, who then often hire subcontractors in Haiti, as is the case elsewhere in the world, Johnston said.

“Where money goes and what it’s being spent on is much harder to find out when it goes to a private entity. There’s little data available on the subcontractors used by contractors,” he said.

CEPR, a critic of U.S. foreign policy in Haiti, said in its report that the vast majority of the recipients of $1.15 billion in USAID contracts and grants awarded since the earthquake were U.S.-based companies or organisations.

Contracts in Haiti range from thousands of dollars to repair vehicles and buy office furniture, to $100 million for large infrastructure projects and repairing government buildings reduced to rubble by the quake.

According to CEPR, the Washington-based company Chemonics International Inc., is the single largest recipient of USAID funds worldwide, aside from the World Bank and United Nations, and is the main recipient of tens of millions of dollars of USAID in Haiti.

While Haiti’s reconstruction effort has meant big business for U.S. companies like Chemonics, just 0.7 percent of USAID awards have gone directly to Haitian businesses or organisations, CEPR's report noted.

“Haitian businesses, the government and its institutions have been bypassed, and not just by USAID, but by other aid agencies, too. It’s difficult for them to compete with the big U.S. companies,” Johnston said.

Excluding Haitians from rebuilding their own country undermines the response from the Haitian government and the overall reconstruction effort.

“It’s impossible to coordinate an aid response with the Haitian government if they don’t know how and where aid money is being spent,” Johnston said.

“One of the biggest complaints about the aid response and effort in Haiti has been the lack of community involvement. Haitians don’t know who aid donors are supposed to be helping and what they are actually doing.”

PUSH FOR GREATER SCRUTINY

Since becoming head of USAID in December 2009, Rajiv Shah has told the Miami Herald that the goal in Haiti by 2015 is to have 30 percent of U.S. aid go to programmes managed by Haitian groups rather than international organisations.

All of this, says CEPR, comes at a time when under Shah, USAID is pushing through a series of reforms, known as USAID Forward. The aim is to improve monitoring and evaluation of aid money and projects and to increase the use of local contractors and organisations in countries where USAID operates.

Despite such reforms, “in practice the agency’s activities in Haiti remain as opaque as ever,” said the CEPR report.

Moreover, the lack of transparency surrounding USAID and foreign donor aid in general has left many Haitians feeling frustrated.

“If you talk to Haitians, they say they don’t see the aid money and know where it’s going. They feel excluded, and there’s frustration,” said Johnston.

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