Culture  A noble inquiry

Michele Mitchell's Haiti: Where did the Money Go?

Recently, the documentary Haiti: Where did the Money Go? was screened at Cinema Politica, followed by a panel discussion with indie production company Film at 11. The documentary itself aims to answer a very simple question. Billions of dollars have been raised internationally in the three years since Haiti was struck with an earthquake in 2010. Where did it all go?

There has been plenty of talk centered on the efforts of charities and governments alike, but not much is known about the specific actions that have been taken.

Michele Mitchell, American journalist, former political anchor at CNN, and director of the documentary, answered The Daily’s questions in a phone interview. Where did the Money Go? was created mainly for educational purposes, and had its first showing last year on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C.

Despite the documentary being relatively new, it has already sparked increasingly active conversations concerning the role of international entities, the U.S. Congress, the Haitian government, and local NGOs (non-governmental organizations) in Haiti.  While some felt that the documentary could build a greater understanding of the situation in Haiti, members of the Red Cross criticized the film as a rather misleading representation of their efforts in Haiti. Mitchell comes to the conclusion that although the NGOs were well-intended, there was virtually “no accountability, no transparency, no cooperation, no reflection, and no effort on their part.”

The film realistically documents thousands of camps lined with tarp tents and poorly-built hygiene stations amongst remnants of rubble and waste. Living situations were clearly unsanitary, and even after almost a year of relief efforts, no significant sign of change was spotted. When asked about this issue, Mitchell offers an explanation as to why money didn’t effectively create positive change.

“People think, ‘well, it’s Haiti,’” she began. “It’s an urban disaster, [a] developing nation, and the government is corrupted. However, the problem with relying on that as a crutch is that the essential problem with the relief effort can be transported to almost any type of post-disaster [situation].”

Mitchell explained that even in the United States – a first world country with a strong government – disaster relief following Hurricane Sandy wasn’t managed properly. Help from NGOs was not present when needed, and problems were blamed on the city, when apparently the Red Cross had close ties with the intended emergency plans. This constant blame game is only a fraction of what is preventing Haiti from making progress toward recovery.

When it comes to the core issue of money management, the documentary leaves no space for sugar coating the problem at hand. Most strikingly, there is the misuse of aid money. The film insinuates that this corruption is due to collusion between NGOs and the Haitian government.

Mitchell states, “the issue of corruption comes up a lot, and there is no denying that there is an element of corruption. Any post-conflict expert will tell you that a government with no revenue and a lot of money washing around it [from the NGOs] [will see an increase in] corruption, not [a] decrease.” Economic distortions occur with regards to wages, the economy is exposed to crises and rents rise about 300 per cent, and the country becomes flooded with expatriates.

There is also a problem with corruption and legitimacy in land ownership. Mitchell clarified this through interviews with families and individuals involved. Residents of the camps explained that supposed landowners would sometimes bulldoze inhabited campsites in order to claim land. With official documents lost during the disaster, it becomes hard to determine exactly who owns the land. The government, on the other hand, is not strong enough to claim the tracts. This, in combination with lack of accountability among NGOs, leads to even more issues. Mitchell points out that this is verified when the Red Cross allegedly purchased a piece of land in Port-au-Prince for $10 million, not to form temporary shelters or aid, but for a for-profit hotel and conference center. “This is not just the problem with the Haiti government. There are serious problems with priority,” she said.

Although certain NGOs are portrayed in a rather negative light, the documentary points out that the lack of progress also originates from outside factors such as the U.S. Congress. The term “tied aid” refers to aid money that is tied to requirements made by Congress. It defines what aid missions do on the ground and as a result, much of the money ends up in American hands.

However, the documentary also brings our attention to the smaller, more effective organizations in Haiti such as Gobal DIRT and Habihut. Mitchell believes that these organizations can better handle disaster relief efforts.

The solution to the many complications above? According to Mitchell, “the best suggestions are to actually separate our government and NGO efforts. It is the foreign funding through NGOs [that] complicates the vision. The humanitarian strategies are affected by the lawmakers, and that is not a good idea.” In reference to the organizations themselves, she said, “there has to be some accountability in this. What do people do with [the money]? There has to be some level of transparency; it is not enough to say that 99 per cent of your money goes to Haiti. It would be great if we could find a way to make this possible.”

In the end, what future donors should take from this frank view of Haiti is that, firstly, there are always good intentions involved. The point of the documentary is not to suggest that people should cease donating to these large NGOs. However, in order to make humanitarian efforts better, these groups should find a way to work together so that the process is collaborative and efficient, rather than competitive. In the end, it all comes down to improving the efficacy, accountability, flexibility, and transparency of aid organizations.