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Wednesday, April 7, 2010 as of 11:14 AM ET

Health

Kathleen Foster

New York

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Haiti 1 Year Later: Tracking Donor Dollars

January 11, 2011 - 9:25 AM | by: Kathleen Foster

The night of January 12th, 2010 suddenly homeless  people in Port-au-Prince started pitching tents on any open parcel of land. Mainly, they used bedsheets for shelter…  fabric flowers and cartoon characters covered the heads of more than a million people sleeping outdoors.

Haiti’s overcrowded, filthy – and now Cholera contaminated – tent cities were born that night and are about to mark their first birthday. The bed sheets have largely been replaced with waterproof tarps and tents. There are white ones and gray ones and blue ones, usually bearing the names of the organizations that donated them: like Oxfam, Unicef, Samaritan’s Purse.

A million people still live in tents in Haiti

But there are a lot of gray ones with black stripes that say nothing at all. Those are from the American Red Cross, but you wouldn’t know it by looking at them. The Red Cross decided to save money by not stamping their logo on their tents, despite raising nearly 500 million dollars specifically for Haiti.

An American Red Cross Tent in the foreground, new Red Cross semi-permanent houses in background

“People were incredibly generous,” says American Red Cross spokeswoman Julie Sells,  “We raised more than 32 million dollars just from text messaging alone, 10 dollars at a time. It was a phenomenal response.”

A year later, Americans are still seeing images of Haitians living in tents and wondering why. Their $10 dollar text donation may have helped pay for those gray tents with the black stripes.  But Ben Smilowitz from The Disaster Accountability Project (www.disasteraccountability.org)  says if donors want to know, they should ask.

His watchdog group did just that, asking 200 aid organizations operating in Haiti to detail how much money they raised and how they are spending it. Only 38 of them responded to the survey. Those 38 collectively raised 1.4 billion dollars and say they’ve so far spent about 700 million of it. However, Smilowitz says many refused to state clear goals and provide a breakdown of how they are spending donor money. He says transparency among aid groups is key to evaluating success in Haiti, but realizes it could also point out some flaws.

“Flaws could lead to less donations. Do we want honesty and a more effective relief effort? Or do we want groups to amass just huge sums of money and not spend half of it?”

Aid groups say Haitian laws often impede spending their donations on the Haitian people.  Land ownership was hard to prove before the earthquake and now that so many deeds and documents were destroyed in the collapse of government buildings, it’s even harder.

“We as the Red Cross can not just march in and say ‘we’re going to build here,” Sells tells us, “We have to respect the laws of the country and property ownership.”  The Global Red Cross network has plans to build 30,000 wooden, semi-permanent houses, at least 300 are already built. It just needs a place to put the rest.

Semi-permanent wooden houses could last up to 10 years. The most vulnerable Haitians receive them first. They can choose the color.

High taxes are also a hindrance to helping hands. Haiti tacks a 40 percent import tax on to everything that crosses the country’s border, from eggs to automobiles. That often forces aid groups to make the hard decision between importing much needed medicine and the means with which to deliver it.

Adam Marlatt of Global DIRT (Disaster Immediate Response Team, www.globaldirt.org) says he’s seen brand-new, fully donated pick-up trucks designated for aid groups sitting idle at the airport for so long, weeds grew up to the windows.  The aid groups the trucks were sent for can’t afford, or choose not to spend, the thousands of dollars they would have to pay the Haitian government to use them. It’s like winning a free car, but you can’t afford to pay the taxes on it.

Aid groups are eligible for a tax exemption, but obtaining the exemption is a long and lengthy process.  A year later, few who were not operating in Haiti before the quake are eligible for the tax break.

Ben Smilowitz says paying what it takes to operate – and accounting for it – will make a difference. “If these organizations don’t spend the money they have, then what kind of urgency is it for countries to give more?”

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