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Haiti and the Media
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.
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