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Haiti and the Media

John Mitchell

By John Mitchell on 12 January 2011.

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As we approach the one year anniversary of the Haiti earthquake many of us have been anticipating an examination of the humanitarian system from the media. And this is a good thing. There is an entirely legitimate, indeed essential, role for journalists to play in reporting on the challenges and failures of rebuilding Haiti, particularly given the generosity of the public in donating to the Haiti relief effort (£103 million donated by the British public through the DEC appeal alone). Members of the public who contributed hard earned cash to the relief effort have a right to know what worked well and what went wrong and, most importantly, they have a right to know that the agencies that comprise the humanitarian system are open to learning and committed to making improvements.

A responsible media have a role to play in this process. On the anniversary of the Indian Ocean Tsunami various media inquests took place and, with a couple of exceptions, I think the debate that emerged was a positive thing. However, this time it looks as though the agencies are in for a particularly rough ride.

There can be few people who have not seen the tragic images of cholera and families still living amongst the rubble that still clog the streets of Port au Prince. And we know from the UN’s Real Time Evaluation that the perennial problems of ‘weak leadership’ and ‘limited collaboration between international actors and national institutions’ were still very much in evidence in the initial stages of the response.

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. The fact is that the overall humanitarian system is not broken but is actually improving. ALNAP’s pilot State of the Humanitarian System report, which is the most comprehensive effort to date to measure the performance and progress of the humanitarian sector at a system wide level, reveals that since the 2005 Tsunami, the quality and performance of humanitarian action has been gradually improving. Progress may be slow, and there are undoubtedly major structural issues yet to be addressed, but nonetheless, the trend in performance is essentially upwards.

One of the most cited criticisms of the humanitarian system is that it allows the proliferation of thousands of small NGOs, which lack capacity both to provide effective aid and to monitor their own performance. Often referred to as ‘cowboy agencies’ the argument goes that they are hard to coordinate and drag down performance. Alongside this, larger agencies are simultaneously criticised for their spending on overheads. Amongst those organisations that are large enough to allocate resources to monitoring and accountability, there is clear evidence that they are taking these responsibilities seriously in Haiti. The Haiti Learning and Accountability portal on the ALNAP website documents the current and completed evaluative activities currently underway in Haiti.

Amongst the most serious concerns in the humanitarian response in Haiti must surely be the failure to properly consult with Haitians affected by the earthquake in planning the relief response and to communicate effectively with those affected by the ongoing crisis. Nevertheless, many agencies have been working hard to improve this aspect of their work, which has not generally been acknowledged in recent media coverage. The Inter-Agency Working Group on Communicating with Disaster Affected Communities (CDAC) for example provided a coordination platform for an unparalleled collective communications effort, with daily radio shows that ensured that up to 70% of the Haitian population is being reached with messages, news and information on relief services and programmes.

These are just a few examples of a humanitarian system striving to deliver aid as effectively as the incredibly difficult circumstances on the ground allow. Others can share many more such examples as I think it is important to recognise and speak out in defence of those positive trends wherever we see them. If we don’t I fear that the public are going to get a skewed vision of where the humanitarian enterprise is really at.

John Mitchell
Director, ALNAP

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Vivien Walden

Vivien Walden (Oxfam) 12 January 2011, 10:29

I found John Mitchell's blog to be spot-on - we have learnt from our
experience in the tsunami and that needs to be acknowledged. Unfortunately
the media these days is less interested in positive results, they want to
point a finger and to criticise. This must be especially hard on all those
aid workers who have been slogging away under difficult conditions over
the past year.

Paul Harvey

Paul Harvey (Humanitarian Outcomes) 12 January 2011, 11:23

Paul Harvey (Humanitarian Outcomes)

I have found myself wondering whilst watching the media coverage of the 1 year Haiti earthquake anniversary whether aid agencies need to take greater responsibility for the recovery process. the argument tends to run along the lines of; we made relative success of emergency relief but the mess that it being made of recovery - with people still in tents and rubble uncleared - is not our fault. To the general public I fear this just sounds like washing your hands of the problem. A humanitarian system that can claim success when people are still living in inadequate accommodation just isn't convincing. Yes, reocvery is more complicated and involves a wider range of actors but international aid agencies are part of the recovery process and so perhaps need to come up with a more convincing narrative about how they are trying to overcome the difficulties of a slow to move government and land tenure complications.

Marie McGrath

Marie McGrath (Emergency Nutrition Network) 12 January 2011, 11:29

Dear All

The topic of 'sensationalist' media coverage of the humanitarian effort in Haiti in 2010 was the topic of the editorial of Field Exchange 38 (reflected in our cover image), that we, at the Emergency Nutrition Network, felt very strongly about. We share John's sentiments and the editorial discusses what we consider a considerable lack of accountability and rigour within the media 'profession' around emergencies. See the online issue and editorial at:

We found it is not only general media that can 'bash' the aid effort, an editorial in the Lancet hopped on the bandwagon also, prompting a few of us to pen a letter in protest to those who, we felt, really should know better. See:

As John states in his blog, the humanitarian system is by no means perfect, but on balance, is both improving and trying to. A common feature of the reviews featured in issue 39 of Field Exchange was they clearly identify positive developments with the reformed humanitarian system and also recommended concrete ways to address existing weaknesses and gaps. An article in the issue sharing experiences of the Nutrition Cluster coordination during the early Haiti response and the post script by UNICEF is a great example of this. The editorial observes that the humanitarian 'system' is not only reforming but is also becoming increasingly complex as more and larger institutions evolve, emergency aid spend increases and many complex mechanisms, policies and procedures, tools and guidance are put in place. See both editorial and Haiti article at

Finally to share a positive experience, our next issue of Field Exchange (40) is due out late January and is focused on the experiences and progress in Ethiopia in the emergency nutrition and food security sectors. Like Haiti, Ethiopia is another country that has had more than its fair share of media coverage over the years. The issue will have a bumper crop of field articles and profiles from government and non-government agencies and institutions, and the rich collection of experiences is a testament to the learning and progress made in-country and internationally over the last 25 years.

Timo Luege

Timo Luege (Consultant) 12 January 2011, 13:00

The thing that annoys me most about the piece is that this is not some journalists who had to hack a piece together in half an afternoon. He was able to travel, spend a substantial amount of time on research and was given 45 minutes of airtime - which is an eternity!

The things that probably annoy me most about this piece are that he doesn't seem to consider the Government of Haiti to have any role. It's all the UN's and NGOs' responsibility and I find it quite telling that he hasn't interviewed anyone from the government for his piece. Another for me shocking shortfall of this piece is that he doesn't mention the Haiti Interim Recovery Commission with one word. Surely there is a lot that could be said about it - both positively and negatively. Finally, as John has mentioned, implying that the aid sector has just lost it's moral compass and consciously chooses not to do the right thing is more than just slightly insulting.

Of course we cannot be happy with the Haiti response. But the criticism we need is one that looks at how things could be done better and why and where decisions have been held up, rather than a 45 minute piece that claims that the main reason for generators to be set up is so that aidworkers can watch DVDs.

(My full rant regarding this piece can be found on my blog:

Sarah Bailey

Sarah Bailey (Overseas Development Institute) 12 January 2011, 15:22

Good blog - though I fear it will always be a no-win situation regarding NGO/humanitarian-bashing. Any defence is seen as being defensive and ignoring legitimate concerns; and it's often a defence that we make amongst ourselves more than we do with the general public.

I think a good discussion would be on 'whether/when/how being bashed matters'. I'm much more concerned with how NGOs are portrayed in local media in Haiti than what the BBC thinks as I would argue that that has more of an impact on the provision of assistance in Haiti.

Sir John Holmes

Sir John Holmes (Former UN Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs) 13 January 2011, 10:04

I too thought the Stourton piece was unnecessarily negative, gave excessive space to one or two contributors who were saying newsworthy but not very representative things, and did not distinguish as clearly as it should have done between humanitarian emergency relief and reconstruction aid.

The impression too easily left was that money donated by people very often does not reach its destination or do any good, which is quite false in my view, despite the weaknesses of which we are all well aware.

Elias Sagmeister

Elias Sagmeister (Global Public Policy Institute) 13 January 2011, 12:59

I have posted some thoughts on this blog and my own experiences in Haiti on the ALNAP Media and Disasters forum here

Jonathan Patrick

Jonathan Patrick (Department for International Development) 13 January 2011, 15:00

Currently undertaking a synthesis of evaluation findings and lessons from the Haiti earthquake response, I was struck by the regularity which the same lessons learned appear in evaluation of humanitarian responses to similar disasters. Ben Ramalingam reminded us of many of these in his highly pertinent ODI blog post of January 19th last year just as the response was kicking off. These drew on ALNAP's research on earthquakes but other - pre-Haiti earthquake - evaluation studies highlight the same or similar issues.

These lessons included many of the issues raised in Edward Stourton's BBC Radio 4 documentary, notably the imperative of good humanitarian leadership and coordination; starting recovery on day one rather than phasing it in later; involving local people and national government in the identification, design and delivery of emergency response and recovery interventions; and the value of using cash as a form of assistance to augment coping strategies and support livelihood recovery.

If these lessons have been learned in Haiti they appear not to have been applied nearly as much as hoped leaving one wondering (as Simon Levine wondered in his ODI blog post in October) not, what lessons have been learned, but rather what it is about the humanitarian community that makes applying lessons learned from previous relevant experience so difficult and how to ensure that these lessons are operationalised next time.

While the BBC piece did not necessarily set out to present a comprehensive and balanced view of Haiti's emergency response and recovery - indeed it gives an overly negative impression judging from my reading of relevant evaluation reports - it does raise many legitimate concerns which the humanitarian aid community needs to respond to. As ever the issue is neither black nor white, but rather shades of grey. Highlighting the darker shades of grey is a nudge in right direction and should be welcomed.

Michael Edwards

Michael Edwards ( 13 January 2011, 15:28

As one of the people who were quoted in Edward Stourton's radio program on Haiti I was interested to read the comments on this and other blogs. Of course the program would have been better had it been more nuanced and 'representative' - programs like this are invariably over-generalized in order to create more 'edge,' and that's frustrating to those who consider themselves among the 'exceptions!' But frustration and complaint isn't an effective answer to this problem - it just makes you look weak, complacent and defensive. The answer is to create an alternative narrative that is bold enough to capture the media's attention, and I don't think NGOs have done that, for reasons that are well-known and much-discussed (fundraising pressures, inertia, the dynamics of foreign aid etc.). Part of that narrative has to be built on greater honesty, which I think most journalists respect, but most of it relies on closing the gap between the stated commitments of the NGO community and their actions in areas like long-term capacity- and relationship-building, handing over control, building downward accountability, 'speaking truth to power', staying around whatever the conditions, rejecting the imperatives of foreign policy and business, and all the other things we say we believe in. It can't just be about the technics of aid and effective delivery, or built around cases of NGOs that think they are performing better than the rest. That's too much like 'business as usual.' Would the BBC be interested in such a program? I think so, but it makes sense regardless. And if such narratives exist already and I've missed them, please let me know so I can cite them the next time I'm called. You can reach me at or via twitter @edwarmi.

Gareth Owen

Gareth Owen (Save the Children) 13 January 2011, 15:46

I have to say I agree with you Michael, my approach in the attached audio blog was to acknowledge what was being said because ultimately much of it resonates with what us aid workers say privately to each other - we just get uncomfortable when it gets aired publcily because we fear the PR consequences, rather than embrace the controversy as an opportunity. The Burlesque-ing of the various key points to make them stand out and provide the edge is inevitable as you say, but in doing so it creates space for us to give a nuanced, more contextually rounded and hence credible sounding reaction without being defensive. Anyway here's my 5 minutes worth:

James Henry

James Henry (Independent) 13 January 2011, 19:55

This is a fascinating discussion, John's blog and the comments reflect the wide-ranging and complex issues affecting the humanitarian system. I agree with many of the comments, and am here simply adding a few personal observations and comments on the comments.

Firstly, about NGOs- NGOs have no legal mandate to enter sovereign territory, and are able to provide aid, in theory, at the invitation of the Government. They are guests, and perhaps if this was remembered a little more often, the problems associated with the lack of involvement of the local population in defining their own priorities might be mitigated or avoided.

Secondly, NGOs do not 'fix' disaster situations, or repair failed States - they have a role to play, given the humanitarian space to address the needs of those who cannot be reached by whatever State systems exist. However, the publicity and fundraising machines are continually suggesting much more can be achieved than the reality. Governments, the United Nations and international diplomacy are the only tools currently available for fixing crises that challenge sovereign States, but where they are not able, or interested to act, the humanitarian system acts as a proxy, and is generally damaged as a result.

Notwithstanding the need to involve the local population in every case, the situation is more complicated in a situation where the State has collapsed, and NGOs set up parallel structures - where Gov't Ministries would otherwise control aid activities.

The UN aid system is supposed to be responsible for coordination - but the failure of the UN (systemically) to coordinate NGO activities with Government has left a huge gap for decades, and one which has been exploited to the detriment of the humanitarian system.

Talking of the humanitarian system - it is absolutely right that huge progress has been made in recent decades in improving the system. However, I would suggest that much of this effort has involved the larger global agencies, which are both cost-effective and efficient, and sensitive. BUT, as someone who was horrified that 4,000 agencies were allowed into Indonesia after the tsunami (if I remember rightly), I fail to see how 10 or 14,000 agencies are involved in Haiti - this to me as a dinosaur in humanitarian affairs is ridiculous !

A reference to the learning capacity of the 'humanitarian system' - to see the same systemic problems being repeated in evaluations (over the last 30 years) is simply not good enough

And lastly, the media and the public expect only one thing - that the horrific picture they see (within minutes) of an an international catastrophe are dealt with effectively and quickly, and that the suffering of the poor unfortunate people affected are given support and care, and that the next time they see them the victims are not suffering in the same way. One year after the Haiti earthquake, the public is entirely justified to demand why hundreds of thousands of people are living in squalor, and (while I have not seen the Stourton piece) I would suggest that (in the context of what I have said, and others above) this represents a systemic failure of the humanitarian "system". If the humanitarian system cannot do it, it should not suggest that it can......

Maybe the problem in the end is that there is no humanitarian "system" . Is continuing the current system simply 'herding cats' ?

As suggested in the comments - if the media was better informed, and the aid system was less opaque, it is surely possible the challenges to the humanitarian system would be a lot more substantial than they usually are ?

Dame Barbara Stocking

Dame Barbara Stocking (Oxfam GB, Chief Executive) 14 January 2011, 13:15

While the programme makers were clear about the position they intended to pursue, I had hoped that the programme would have explored the issues and actually addressed the highly speculative and contentious anti-aid arguments in the piece. The absolute lack of recognition of what has been achieved in the last year (Oxfam alone has reached 1.2 million people through our earthquake and cholera response) was irresponsible and misleading.

Claude Forthomme

Claude Forthomme 18 January 2011, 17:52

An excellent post - focussed on the BBC but it wasn't just the BBC that went for the jugular: so did the French press and TV, particularly France 24.

The problem is that the statistics are catastrophic, just to quote one among many: after one year, only 5% of the rubble has been removed?! With that kind of numbers, it is normal that people wonder what happened to the so called "humanitarian system". And that the system is further damaged by small irresponsible NGOs - the famous "cowboy agencies" - is a fact. And one that was particularly evident in Haiti where a lot of bizarre scientologist and other religious-inspired gurus came to distribute their (poisonous) gifts...If you add to that the political void in Haiti plus bouts of traditional corruption, you could hardly expect anything else but raging criticisms.

So perhaps Haiti is not going to provide us with a convincing test to demonstrate the soundness or "progress" made by the humanitarian system, but I believe there's another, deeper kind of problem here.

As mentioned in some of the comments above, we do have 30 years of evaluation and "lessons learned", and you'd think that would allow us to finally come forward with a "model project" that would guarantee success.

Nix. Nothing like that has happened. Instead, it has taken a brazen Irish billionnaire, enamoured with the old Iron Market that collapsed in Port-au-Prince to come forward with something of a solution. I'm not saying that what he's done in restoring the market is unique or special but (a) he's done a good job of it, (b) it clearly responds to local demands, (c) he's thought of a way to make it sustainable, as he stands ready to support market management for many years to come.

Naturally the fact that he has deep pockets always helps - and he hit upon an obvious project idea that didn't require preliminary surveys to make sure that it was wanted by the local population. But let's face it. Rebuilding is just that: rebuilding. It should be therefore easier to hit upon what people want than when you're dealing with normal development issues which requires a forward looking vision: in that situation, needs may not be all that evident.

If you want to read more about this interesting project, you can check out a post I did on this, entitled "Haiti one year later and still so much to do...but one clever project is completed!"
You'll find it on my blog here:

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