The complicated story of NGOs in post-disaster Haiti

The 2010 earthquake in Haiti was the deadliest quake ever recorded in the Western hemisphere, and nearly seven years later, Haitians are still feeling its after-effects in profound ways.

One consequence of the disaster is man-made: the proliferation of foreign-run non-governmental organizations, or NGOs, in Haiti. These organizations, which arrived to help rebuild the country after the earthquake, and responded to more devastation after Hurricane Matthew struck in October 2016, have grown deep roots and evolved to become a massive sector on their own in Haiti.

But investigations have found some of these groups fall short of fulfilling their promises. CBS News went to Haiti to investigate the complex dynamics of NGOs in the poverty-stricken country. 

Jacqueline Charles, a correspondent who covers the Caribbean for The Miami Herald, says many foreign NGOs have shown a consistent failure to coordinate with locals on the ground to maximize their impact and avoid duplicated efforts.

“Oftentimes, these NGOs come into the country, they don’t talk to the people on the ground, they don’t ask them what their needs are, and they come in with certain assumptions,” Charles told CBSN’s Vladimir Duthiers. “They carry this out, and then they run up against all of these variable obstacles. And then they just throw their hands up in the air and say, ‘You know what? We tried.’”

At the center of the NGO ecosystem is the American Red Cross, which raised more than any other aid organization after the earthquake: $486 million. Reporting by ProPublica and NPR and an investigation by U.S. Senator Chuck Grassley, a Republican from Iowa, have highlighted the gaps between the American Red Cross’s claims about its work and the reality of its results in Haiti. 

“They promised donors the moon,” Jonathan Katz said of the American Red Cross. Katz was The Associated Press chief correspondent in Haiti when the earthquake hit, and he wrote the book “The Big Truck That Went By: How the World Came to Save Haiti and Left Behind a Disaster” in 2013.

“The reason why we pick on them [the American Red Cross] is that they’re the biggest game in town,” he said. 

The organization raised money on the basis of promises to save lives and help Haiti rebuild. But staff used the organization’s vast reserves in questionable ways: for instance, its promises of providing “shelter” for the most part didn’t involve building permanent homes, but just handing out tarps to people, Katz said. 

Garry Pierre-Pierre, editor-in-chief at The Haitian Times, said part of the reason the American Red Cross “failed miserably” in Haiti is because it is primarily a short-term emergency relief organization that attempted to do long-term development work.

The American Red Cross continues to have vast influence in Haiti, particularly after new donations streamed in in the aftermath of this year’s massive hurricane. This has led to a cycle of ineffective aid, Katz said. 

“It doesn’t change, because the power and the money stay in the same places they always were,” he said.