Haiti: Pointing Fingers and Embracing Failure

Stories about relief and reconstruction in Haiti after the earthquake have been overwhelmingly dominated by a simple narrative: "Haiti is failing and it is the fault of ___." Oxfam, for example, tell us that it is Bill Clinton who has "failed Haiti." But while many have been quick to point fingers and assign blame for the slow speed of recovery in Haiti, this can dangerously lead to a poorly-informed public and a skewed set of incentives for donors and NGOs.

Recently, a favorite version of the Haiti blame-game points out that much of the money donated to recovery efforts has not been spent. While at first glance this claim may seem to offer reasonable grounds for outrage, there is a central problem in how such accounts fail to clearly distinguish between emergency rescue, relief, and long term recovery with a standard time frame of seven days, three months and five years respectively.

Emergency rescue and relief provides immediate support in the aftermath of a disaster. This can include giving out food, water, medical supplies, setting up mobile clinics, rescuing people from rubble, and setting up make-shift shelters for the displaced. Recovery, on the other hand, looks to rebuilding, cleaning up, returning people to their homes, providing clean water sources, supporting business and so on. Relief and aid can appear to be the same thing, but they are not and organizations are often set up to deal with one or the other. The Red Cross, for example, would fall under short-term relief, while Partners in Health would fall under long-term aid.

This means that not every dollar donated to Haiti was meant to be spent immediately. Just because Medicins sans Frontiers spent $100 million out of a total $138 million does not mean that they have failed to meet their obligations. Using such logic would be the same as saying that a trip to the grocery store is only successful when every dollar allocated for the trip has been spent. At the store, changes in the price or availability of goods can dictate how you spend your money. The same applies to Haiti . Accessibility of roads can slow down the clearing of rubble and thereby delay reconstruction.

The US State Department has taken an explicitly long-term view on Haiti since the earthquake. This week, the US special coordinator for Haiti, Thomas Adams, emphasized: "as you try to develop Haiti to turn around its economic problems - that's going to take a decade or more. Now, that's not to say you're not going to see progress soon. I think in the next two or three years you are. But it's not the kind of thing that happens overnight, unfortunately."

If the goal is to provide support for over a decade, it makes sense not to spend all your money at once. So while the U.S. did promise slightly over $1 billion, this money was never meant to be spent quickly in the first place -- it was meant to support the long-term recovery in Haiti, to build infrastructure and revive the Haitian economy.

A second danger with the claim that failures in Haiti can be explained by the slow spending is that it creates dangerous incentives for organizations to burn through their money. This shifts the focus off the quality of assistance and onto the speed with which money is spent.

Haiti is still a long way from full recovery. The earthquake brought a spotlight to a nation which had serious problems in need of attention long before January 12, 2010. It is all too easy to scream that things are not going well while providing half-truths, and it is always in the interest of an individual or NGO to shift the blame onto another without accepting personal failures.

The one group who has yet to shoulder any blame in all of this is the media. Quality reports on Haiti seem to have fallen through the cracks while big headlines and features with someone to blame have remained. Finger-pointing, after all, is a great way to grab headlines and get attention.

Simple answers are always desirable, and we like a culprit when things go wrong. It is easy to put the fault upon a single person, group, or project. However, the truth is somewhere in between and it is far too early to come to final conclusions in Haiti a year later when so much time and energy is assessing external rather than internal blame. The open acceptance of failure would be far more beneficial to the recovery effort.

Pointing long fingers at each other can only make things worse. By reporting Haiti in a way that assumes major problems could have been solved in a year is misleading and harmful to the recovery effort.