How Much Aid Is Going to Haiti? TONS. And That’s the Problem

Years after a major humanitarian intervention in Haiti, many who donated to “help” after the 2010 earthquake are still wondering what happened to the money. Hurricane Matthew brought Haiti under the limelight once again, and just this week, headlines and accusations are flying towards the Clinton Foundation. Other weeks, we’ve seen headlines about waste at the American Red Cross. Yele Haiti, the organization led by Wyclef Jean, one of the most famous Haitians in the world, was shut down after an investigative story into its finances by The New York Times.

The public perception of humanitarian aid as a futile and possibly corrupt endeavor is a major threat to the industry and to global efforts to ease suffering. But most aid organizations have no one to blame but themselves for this perception. In annual reports and online marketing materials, many organizations make loud and exaggerated claims of success. These claims run directly counter to the ongoing struggles of local communities.

Aid organizations aren’t lying, not exactly. They are exaggerating and misdirecting donors. Where aid organizations include numbers to “prove” their “impact,” they are often shaped to give the best possible impression. Data as proof of impact is a huge trend in the industry. “Evidence-based” aid is seen as a concrete solution to the problem of accountability.

Unfortunately, numbers on their own are not proof of anything. In fact, data often obscures and obliterates a need for human input. “Billions” were spent and “millions” were helped. Meanwhile, local communities insist that they aren’t getting the aid they need and they don’t like what they get. For numbers to have meaning, people must understand the reality behind the information being shared.

Reporting in “Tons” of Aid

I know people don’t really understand the meaning behind the numbers because I’ve been studying humanitarian aid for a decade and I don’t understand it myself. It’s not for lack of trying. As an example, for the past few weeks, I’ve been following the aid response to Hurricane Matthew. I’m finding that some aspects in the marketing of humanitarian aid have improved in recent years. For instance, almost no organizations are claiming to “rebuild” Haiti after this latest disaster. Following the earthquake in 2010, claims of “rebuilding” turned out to be deceitful, as very few houses were actually built.

But in this humanitarian response, I’ve noticed a troubling trend. Aid organizations are reporting how much they’ve given in “tons.” Metric tons, U.S. tons… just tons and tons of aid. “Tons” is a dangerous word, like “rebuilding,” because it has a formal and an informal meaning. It is the definition of an actual weight and, more simply, “a large number or amount.” To give real meaning to this metric, we would have to know how much each aid intervention weighs. How much does one tarp weigh? How much does a water filter weigh?

Food aid has been reported by tonnage for many years, partially because the World Food Program delivers so much of it. In the case of Hurricane Matthew, almost every major aid organization is reporting their aid in tons and it’s not only limited to commodities. This is deceptive because some aid is heavy while also being small. Consider a bottle of water. A few bottles of water are much heavier than a water filter, but for the people on the ground, they have less impact.

If an organization reports giving a “ton” of aid, which is only bottles of water, what did they achieve? After a disaster, donors and local communities often complain about how nothing on the ground seemed to change despite the scale of the response. They are legitimately confused because “scale” is not reported in a way that makes sense.

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What “Helping” Should Mean

The use of the term “tons” is not the only problem in humanitarian reporting. Other units of measurement are equally perplexing. The numbers of “people in need” and “people reached” are often vague and not based on human observation. For example, one of the biggest needs in Haiti right now is what humanitarians call “WASH,” or water, sanitation and hygiene. The U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (UNOCHA) in Haiti reports 2.1 million people were impacted by Hurricane Matthew. At the same time, they say that only 750,000 people will need WASH “services” provided to them for three months during the “emergency.”

What about the remaining 1.35 million people? If aid organizations insist on using numbers, maybe they could tell us how they came to them. Cholera is a deadly waterborne disease that is passed through fecal contamination. So we can assume many WASH activities will be aimed to provide clean drinking water and safe places to go to the bathroom. The water and sanitation working group, which collaborates with the government of Haiti, says their goal is to provide toilets to 200,000 people. Their standard is 50 people per toilet.

The very best metrics here are simple: How many toilets were destroyed? How many delivered? And how many people are using each one? But that’s not how the working group calculates its impact. They calculate success by what percentage of their goal they’ve reached. According to their reports, they’re at zero percent so far. Even before the hurricane hit, 32 to 50% of defecation in the region was outdoors. So this is the humanitarian response: 2.1 million Haitians get 4,000 toilets for a period of three months, maybe? When you put it that way, it sounds silly and inadequate. Which it is. Which is probably why they don’t put it that way.

Bottom line: the goal of the humanitarian intervention is not to make Haiti better than it was before. At best, it is only to get Haiti back up to pre-hurricane levels of sanitation. To humanitarians, this probably seems like an obvious point. Ordinary people have no idea that this is how aid works. Donors assume their donations will improve the living conditions of Haitians. They believe aid improves lives because of the word “help,” which they are frequently implored to do. No reasonable person believes that getting Haiti back to their terrible pre-hurricane living conditions is a truly moral intervention. For most of us, “help” means improving lives over time.

A Numbers Game

Many aid organizations contribute to the public’s misunderstanding by overstating their goals and impact. “ARRIVED,” USAID reports on Twitter, “38 metric tons of chlorine we sent 2 #Haiti to help stop the spread of #cholera. It’s enough 2 treat Haitian water system for 3 mos.” That would be great, except almost none of the people impacted by the hurricane were even on the Haitian water system to begin with (1.2% in the Grande Anse, 7.3 to 10% in Nippes and Sud). Without providing context, USAID is making a completely meaningless claim.


Similarly, on their website, the French organization ACTED reports they installed six water filtration units in Haiti. “The Aquaforce 500 units provide from 40 to 50 m3 [cubic meters] of drinking water per day,” they report. “The six water purification units allow some 12,000 people daily to drink safe water…” Wow, sounds impressive!

Wait, what is a cubic meter of water? I dare you to ask your neighbor how much water this is. Probably, the people who wrote the press release don’t even know. I looked it up. Forty to 50 cubic meters is equal to 40,000 to 50,000 liters. For Americans, this is between 10,000 and 13,000 gallons of water. So everyone gets five gallons of water every day? If only it were that simple. I researched the filtration system, the Aquaforce 500, and discovered its rate of water production. In a perfect world, if the water is not too dirty, it can deliver 528 gallons per hour.

For 2,000 people to get five gallons of water per day from one Aquaforce 500 machine, they would have to run each filtration system for 19 hours a day. Each hour, 106 people would have to line up. ACTED shows a photo that indicates the machine has six spigots. That means about 17 people would stand at each spigot, and to get five gallons, they would all take exactly 3.5 minutes. It’s highly improbable that any of that will happen. The Aquaforce 500 may be capable of producing 10,000 gallons of water per day, but it definitely won’t be delivering that much. Right now in Haiti, there are less than 12 hours of daylight each day. People don’t have flashlights. They’re not going to be standing in line from 5 a.m. to midnight.

The Need for a New Lens…

While it seems like ACTED is reporting what they delivered, they’re not. To do that, they would have to count how much water is processed through the machine each day and how many people drank the water. Like many organizations, they are reporting their intent. By doing so, they are making people believe that their donation is going much further than it really is. Metric tons, millions of dollars, “people reached” and cubic meters are nonsensical units of measurement chosen because they sound impressive. No one should have to use a calculator to figure out how much humanitarian aid is actually being delivered.

When journalists report that people in Haiti are thirsty and they are dying because the water is so dirty, many critics claim they are focusing too much on the “disaster narrative.” When journalists go to great lengths to investigate non-profit organizations, officials often demean their efforts by claiming they’re on a “witch hunt.” While it may be true in some cases, for the most part, journalists are doing nothing of the sort. Journalists are watching Haitians die and they are trying to make sense of their observations in a world dominated by a powerful, false “hero” mythology cultivated by the aid organizations themselves.

If the humanitarian industry wants to survive, they need to admit that “accountability” is not about data, evidence or reporting. They are already reporting data, most of it is meaningless. Bold claims to “innovate” through technology or technical standards won’t fix the problem. This is about ethics. Aid organizations are not meeting their ethical obligation to donors and to the communities they serve because they refuse to communicate with them in an understandable way.

If they want to live up to their own moral promise to “help,” they need to turn their focus back to real people and report their activities through the lens of people in need. When my friends look at the stories coming out of Haiti with heartbreak and desperation, they ask me, “What happened to the money we already donated?” I would love to know. We all would.

How can humanitarian response be decentralized?

Source: How can humanitarian response be decentralized?

For a long time, it wasn’t possible to include everyone’s voice in planning or decision-making without impossibly large amounts of time. There was no way to listen, at scale. So aggregation and centralization became common, especially in times of urgency, even with the troubles these tend to cause.

But now, with the technologies we have, we can *listen*, in high resolution and in high fidelity. But technology isn’t a silver bullet. We also need the political will and the personal values to make that happen. With Aspiration’s new Digital Humanitarian Response program, we get to support some of the rad people willing and able to make these movements happen. In May, we hosted the Humanitarian Technology Festival at MIT. The Digital Response Wiki provides resources and notes, and here are some top-level highlights from the event:

Disaster and humanitarian issues don’t happen in a vacuum

Notes from the Humanitarian Technology Festival

Groups like Public Lab help lay the groundwork (both socially and technically) for fast-cycle disasters, via their ongoing interaction with communities around environmental justice. This also provides scaffolding for handing off responsibilities after an extreme event. Kathmandu Living Labs, a group committed to mapping the infrastructure of their geography, is an excellent case study in this. When the Nepal earthquake hit, they were able to jump into action quickly due to pre-existing Open Street Map communities, workflows, data infrastructure, and (most importantly) social ties. Kathmandu was then capable of making use of (and maintaining) the updated data after the fact. Simply by being (and being allowed to be) active in affected communities on a day-to-day basis, organizations can support communities in becoming more resilient to disasters.

That said, preparing for extreme events before they happen can help mitigate the severity of impact on people lives. We explored the idea of games to make what might be considered dull more fun. No need to start from scratch (though that can be stimulating as well!). Climate Centre makes such games, and publishes them openly over on their website.

We already have much of what we need

One of our spectrogram statements was, “We already have all of the technology we need.” While we were divided in our responses, we acknowledged that the ability of groups of people to make do with what they have in disaster is astounding. And our preferences apply here technically as well as ethically. Distributed, federated systems both for technology and for communities/governance are more resilient than centralized systems (as well as addressing human rights in general). There are a few of these rad systems being built, NYC Prepared being one of my favorites.

Data and consent are deeply linked

Data use with populations that are vulnerable (based on their history, their current circumstances, or both) is still a big question, but not one we need to face on our own. OpenGov, Missing Persons, and other transparency-related initiatives have figured an awful lot of that out, and we should take note. Additionally, while consent is different in high-stress situations than in long-term advocacy campaigns, it should still be a strong consideration in any plan or intervention.

We looked at the Framework for Consent Policies which came out of a Responsible Data Forum in Budapest, and suggested advocating for a “notify this set of people in case of emergency” embedded into social platforms, similar to Networked Mortality or ICE contacts in some phones. This way, people would be consenting and determining who would be their contacting associates in case of disaster (unlike what Facebook recently did). Consent is a component of accountability, both of which highlight how frontline communities might be the architects of their own rescue.

Accountability is just as important in precarious situations as it is in everyday life, if not more so

Accountability is sorely lacking in humanitarian aid and disaster response. Fantastic organizations exist to track where spending is going, but money is often considered misspent. Frameworks exist for deploying aid in ways which alleviate, rather than exacerbate, conflict and tensions. However, these frameworks and mechanisms are still sometimes insufficient, as even well intended groups remain in regions for decades while populations become reliant on them, rather than becoming self sufficient.

Rather than come up with an external group to hold response groups accountable, we figured the frontline community could state whether or not initiatives are working, and those reports could be sent directly to the response organizations, their donors, and relevant constituents. This factors in strongly to the Dialling Up Resilience initiative grant of which Aspiration is a part (Yes, it’s spelled with 2 L’s. They’re Brits). More on that soon.

You can find more thorough notes from Humanitarian Technology Festival on (you guessed it) our wiki. Reach out to us if you have any questions about this ongoing work. Contact us here: / @willlowbl00

Digital Humanitarian Response

Unusual Earthquake Warning Prompts Action, Anxiety in Southern California

Source: Unusual Earthquake Warning Prompts Action, Anxiety in Southern California

(TNS) – Southern Californians learn to live with the risk of earthquakes.

But over the last week, anxieties were particularly heightened, and the natural denial that is part of living in earthquake country was harder to pull off.

A swarm of seismic activity at the Salton Sea that began a week ago prompted scientists to say there was an elevated risk for a big San Andreas fault earthquake. By Monday, that risk had lessened.

But the impact of that warning was still being felt. For some, it meant checking quake safety lists. Others looked at preparing for the Big One, such as bolting bookshelves to walls, installing safety latches on kitchen cabinets and strapping down televisions.

San Bernardino, which is on the San Andreas Fault, took the unprecedented step of closing down City Hall through Tuesday over concerns about how the structure would fare in the big quake.

“We haven’t had an alert like this,” Mark Scott, San Bernardino’s city manager, said. “We’re not trying to suggest that the alert is an impending catastrophe. We’re just trying to use an abundance of caution. We care about the safety of the public and our employees.”

The city had already been planning to vacate the seven-story building within the next few months.

The City Hall building was constructed before the Sylmar earthquake in 1971, according to Scott. After that earthquake, he said, seismic codes changed significantly.

“Other earthquakes have changed California seismic codes even further, to the point where the current City Hall building in San Bernardino is an example of everything you would not build today,” Scott said.

A 2007 report noted the potential instability of the building in the event of a major earthquake, Scott said.

The estimated cost of retrofitting the building is more than $20 million, Scott said.

“For a bankrupt city, that’s a tough challenge,” Scott said. “We’re looking at alternative approaches, rather than doing $20 million worth of work.”

The risk of a big quake was highest during and directly after the quake swarm, experts said.

Thomas H. Jordan, director of the Southern California Earthquake Center, said Monday afternoon that the earthquake swarm about 150 miles southeast of Los Angeles has been “decaying away nicely. It’s been tailing off.

“I would say the risk is declining,” Jordan said. Of swarm activity at the Salton Sea, “it really hasn’t been very active in the last couple of days. It’s been pretty quiet.”

U.S. Geological Survey research seismologist Rob Graves said he thought the elevated risk of a San Andreas earthquake has largely receded to the background level of risk found in any given week.

“It’s getting pretty close to the background level — which is not zero; there’s always a chance of having a major earthquake,” Graves said. “It’s been almost a week since the swarm activity has subsided, and so that’s about the time window we’d be looking at for its effects to diminish.”

Seismologists have been closely tracking a swarm of earthquakes just south of the end of California’s mighty San Andreas fault, which experts consider overdue for a major earthquake, with a magnitude of 7 or greater.

Any significant seismic activity near a major earthquake fault is a cause for concern, scientists say, because of the fear it could awaken it and trigger a massive temblor.

The San Andreas fault’s southernmost stretch has not ruptured since about 1680 — more than 330 years ago, scientists estimate. And a big earthquake happens on average in this area once every 150 or 200 years, which is why the region is long overdue for a major quake.

Last Tuesday — Sept. 27 — the U.S. Geological Survey issued a statement that the chances of a magnitude 7 or greater earthquake being triggered on the southern San Andreas fault over the next seven days were as high as 1 in 100 and as low as 1 in 3,000.

Without the swarm, the average chance for such an earthquake striking on any given week is 1 in 6,000, according to Jordan.

That seven-day period ends Tuesday morning.

The swarm began just after 4 a.m. on Sept. 26, starting earthquakes three to seven miles deep underneath the Salton Sea.

The biggest earthquakes hit later that morning — a 4.3 and then a pair later at night, another 4.3 followed by a 4.1. There was another burst of activity the following night.

It marked only the third time since earthquake sensors had been installed in this area in 1932 that the area had seen such a swarm. And this swarm had more earthquakes than events in 2001 and 2009.

Earthquake experts say it’s important that the elevated risk of a major event from a seismic swarm be clearly communicated to the public.

For San Bernardino, the quake swarm was just latest reminder of the seismic risks the city faces.

San Bernardino has one of the largest concentrations of unreinforced masonry buildings in the state that are at risk of particularly intense ground motion.

“I was shocked to hear that, because I’ve been in several other cities and a lot of cities [retrofitted unreinforced masonry buildings] 30 years ago,” Scott said.

Twitter: @ronlin

©2016 the Los Angeles Times

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UN relief chief calls for urgent protection of civilians and scaling up of support to Yemen

Source: UN relief chief calls for urgent protection of civilians and scaling up of support to Yemen

Source: UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs
Country: Yemen
So far this year, aid workers have reached some 4 million people. However, the Humanitarian Response Plan for 2016 is only 46 per cent funded, leaving a gap of US$880 million.

(Sana’a, 4 October 2016) – Stephen O’Brien, UN Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs and Emergency Relief Coordinator, concluded his three-day mission to Yemen today calling for all parties to grant humanitarian access and uphold their responsibilities to protect civilians in a conflict that has displaced three million people, injured and killed thousands of innocent civilians, shattered the civilian infrastructure, and destroyed livelihoods in a country which was already suffering from endemic poverty.

“In Yemen, four out of five people are in need of humanitarian assistance. In the 21st century that is outrageous by any measure. I am particularly concerned about the health care system as most of the health facilities in 16 out of 22 governorates are either not functioning or only partially functioning, denying thousands of Yemenis access to much needed essential health services,” Mr. O’Brien said in Sana’a.

Mr. O’Brien met with humanitarian partners and authorities and stressed that “we must do more to deliver in this protracted emergency. Humanitarians are ready, but it is essential that we have safe and unhindered access and that people in need be afforded freedom of movement to access the services that humanitarian partners can provide”.

Mr. O’Brien travelled to the field to meet with people affected by the crisis. “My visit to Al Hudaydah hospital was heart-breaking,” said the Emergency Relief Coordinator. “Mothers bring their malnourished children for treatment but there is simply not enough medicines to treat them. The quantities of food, medicine and fuel entering the country are way below the needs and must be increased as a matter of urgency“.

The Emergency Relief Coordinator also witnessed the effects of the destruction of bridges and listened to the concerns and grievances of a community affected by airstrikes in central Hudaydah.

So far this year, aid workers have reached some 4 million people with assistance and protection. However, the Humanitarian Response Plan for 2016 is only 46 per cent funded, leaving a gap of US$880 million. USG O’Brien emphasized that the humanitarian community has scaled up its presence in Yemen since April 2015 and has deployed strong leadership to drive the response on the ground. “We deliver emergency food assistance to 4 million people every month, but we need to do more. More funding is urgently required for the scale-up of assistance across the country. The UN and our humanitarian partners are ready to do so, but donors need to support resources mobilisation efforts,” Mr. O’Brien said.

Violence against aid workers and civilians continue to characterize the conflict in Yemen. On 3 October, 10 civilians including six children were killed while 17 others were injured, reportedly due to shrapnel of a shell. Since March 2015, 13 health workers have died and 31 have been injured. More than 70 health centres have been damaged or destroyed by conflict. The USG condemned attacks on medical facilities that put at risk the lives and well-being of millions of people who rely on medical assistance for survival and reminded those conducting the hostilities of their obligation to protect civilians from the devastating effects of war.
“The best humanitarian relief that can be provided is an end to the conflict. I urged the authorities, as I urge other parties to the conflict, to return to political negotiations without delay to reach a negotiated solution”.

Jens Laerke
Deputy Spokesperson
UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs
Phone: +41 22 917 11 42
Mobile: +41 (0)79 472 9750
Twitter: @JensLaerke
Skype: jens.laerke

Billions of Aid Dollars Spent: Why Isn’t Haiti Ready for a Hurricane?

As Hurricane Matthew barrels toward Haiti, millions of Haitians are at risk of death, displacement, injury or illness. Sustained wind speeds inside the storm are up to 138 mph, making Matthew a Category 4 hurricane. In the past, Category 1 storms have caused significant deaths in Haiti, so this storm may be one of the worst ever to hit the island nation.

Haiti is no stranger to hurricanes. Since 1980, there was Allen, Gilbert, Gordon, Georges, Ivan, Dennis, Gustav, Hanna, Ike and Tomas. Hurricane Jeanne in 2004 killed thousands. The threat is known. So why do hundreds of people die each time a major storm hits? Why isn’t Haiti better prepared? What happens to the money we donate?

1. Very little aid money goes to disaster preparedness and prevention.

Globally, the humanitarian sector took in $28 billion last year, the highest amount ever recorded. With climate change on the horizon, disaster preparedness should be a priority spending area. It’s not. On average, only about four percent of all humanitarian aid is dedicated to preparedness. This holds true for Haiti, where prevention received only 3.5% of funding from 2009 to 2013.

Only about four percent of all humanitarian aid is dedicated to preparedness.

In reality, we have no idea how much money goes to prevention and preparedness. “Following the money” in humanitarian aid is currently impossible. Preparedness, as a subset of aid, is even more opaque. Despite the reams of data and reports generated by aid groups, there is no universal tracking code for prevention projects.  

2. Most aid money doesn’t go to local governments or local groups.

Real disaster preparedness requires long-term investments and local cooperation. But aid organizations and foreign governments routinely refuse to fund local governments or groups that they perceive to be corrupt or incompetent. Unfortunately, corrupt countries with incompetent governments are usually the most in need. 

Foreign groups often sidestep locals, even the very skilled and non-corrupt, because it is faster and simpler. As a result, projects either don’t get off the ground or they fail. In 2015, local and national organizations received only 0.4% of all direct humanitarian assistance. Domestic authorities in recipient countries received only 1.2% of international funds.

This funding pattern sets in motion a destructive cycle as year after year, the big money is spent on foreigners and consultants while locals are no better trained or positioned to take over when they leave. In Haiti, the classic example is deforestation, which contributes to flooding. Organizations spend millions on efforts to plant trees, but the real trick is convincing people not to cut them down. Most environmental aid projects in Haiti last less than five years and have no follow-up.

3. People don’t donate to prevention.

Humanitarian response is reactive, in part, because funding is reactive. Giving is emotional and irrational. If people can’t see the problem, it isn’t likely to garner support. In the recent Syrian refugee crisis, people were motivated to donate only after they saw photos of Alan Kurdi, the drowned baby who washed up on a Turkish beach.

Consider the slogan, “Build Back Better.” The emphasis is on what is already broken.

Similarly, governments give more to countries who are nearby, speak the same language or with whom they have a colonial relationship. We give money because of headlines or politics. We don’t give based on the efficiency of our donation.

Disaster preparedness is too abstract for people to take out their wallets. Even when someone says, “Hey, if you give $5 now, you’ll save more lives and money in the long run…” people just aren’t inclined to do it. Consider the slogan, “Build Back Better.” The emphasis is on what is already broken. A more pragmatic slogan would be, “Build Better.” It’s not likely to catch on.

4. Aid organizations spend massive amounts of money on emergency response, much more than people imagine.

Because giving is impulsive, donors typically don’t ask for rigorous explanations of how their donations were spent after disasters. They give money and then forget about it. When they do follow-up, donors are satisfied with a few photos and metrics showing evidence of “impact.” As a result, most aid organizations take on tasks that are imminently achievable. They spend their money on emergency response, which is very expensive.

Spending money is the best way to make money because big aid organizations raise most of their funds in the midst of crises, not ahead of them. Imagine how much it costs to go to the emergency room for a chronic disease instead of getting a vaccine. The problem is, disasters sell. Not being prepared is a waste of money, but ultimately the humanitarian aid sector doesn’t operate off any sort of logical model of cost vs. benefit.

5. The voices of aid recipients aren’t being heard.

Right now, the concept of “accountability” is almost entirely driven by organizations’ interactions with their donors, not aid recipients. Most organizations say, “What can we give?” instead of “What do you need?” Local people want preventative solutions to their problems, but their voices aren’t being heard. Aid recipients are poor, they are not politically influential, they have little access to the media and therefore, they are invisible. Often, it is only through their death that they are noticed at all.

Ethicists suggest that the humanitarian industry start thinking of “donations” as “investments” because donors, at their core, do want their money to improve many lives, instead of saving just a few. These ongoing cycles of death and desperation, followed by a manic humanitarian response, erode trust in the system. 

When disaster preparedness finally gets the attention it deserves, it won’t be because prevention makes more sense or is easier to sell. Humanitarian organizations must shift their ethical commitment to focus on local communities simply because it is the right thing to do


  • Put ethics first. For some issues, financial and practical arguments will never sway the marketplace. Aid organizations need to focus on prevention and local communities because their value systems demand it.
  • Donors need to give more, sooner.  If we wait for babies to wash up on beaches, it’s too late.
  • Give to groups who have a long-term track record in the country. And not to groups who are planning to leave when the journalists do. 
  • Listen to local voices. In surveys during the Ebola response, the organization Ground Truth Solutions found more than 80% of aid recipients felt their needs weren’t met. In Nepal, they found similar negative perceptions. People want sustainable solutions.
  • Dedicate a fixed percentage of aid funding for disaster prevention and preparedness. Every organization, large or small, can do this.
  • Track the money so that communities know where aid dollars are going. This means using universal codes like IATI for the type of response and sharing that data publicly.
  • Give more money to local groups and governments.



One Year After the Nepal Quake and Zero Houses Rebuilt: Why I’m Not Surprised

1. Some international aid organizations are misleading donors to make it seem like they build houses. They don’t.

We saw it after Katrina, after Haiti and now after Nepal. When groups raise money after disasters they often implore donors to help “rebuild.” They mean it metaphorically. And it’s false advertising.

“The American Red Cross continues to help the people of Nepal rebuild their lives,” says their website.

It would take a savvy donor to read between the lines and realize they aren’t actually building houses. The American Red Cross did not issue a one year report on their activities, they issued a blanket report for all of the activities of the global Red Cross. But it’s clear from their six-month report that the money they raised, almost $40 million, is pretty much gone and they didn’t rebuild any houses.

2. If the government was capable of building safe houses, then the houses wouldn’t have collapsed in the first place.

Earthquakes don’t kill people. Poorly built houses kill people. Nepal didn’t have a safe housing code until 1994 and didn’t make it legally binding until 2003. The 500,000 houses that collapsed during the quake were constructed informally with mud and rocks. More than 8,000 people died in the quake, but every year in Nepal, more than 2,000 people die from landslides.

Aid groups can fill the gap between what people need and what governments can provide. But that means taking a more active role as ongoing advocates in at-risk countries. International organizations who fly in and fly out following a disaster have no financial incentive to stay after the emergency phase is over.

More money needs to go to local groups who will be still be there five, 10 and 15 years from now. My reporting on Nepal after the quake found that only 0.8% of funds from the UN Flash Appeal went directly to Nepali organizations. That is an unacceptably low number.

3. Governments almost never cooperate. But we always act surprised!

If a government is incapable of protecting people before a disaster, then chances are, they will do just as poorly after the disaster. Humanitarian response typically happens in the most corrupt places in the world because cities and countries with dysfunctional governments suffer more after a natural disaster. Nepal is no exception.

Nepal’s government did about ten things really, really wrong after the earthquake. They held up imports for political reasons, failed to resolve a fuel embargo, failed to initiate a reconstruction authority for almost a year, and slowed aid because of perceived political favoritism. They only got their Reconstruction Authority up and running a couple of months ago.

Given that Nepal has suffered from years of political turmoil, none of that should have come as a surprise. The window on politics-free aid is often brief. The aid community needs to anticipate that. And instead of spending precious weeks driving around and conducting “assessments,” they should make every effort to deliver durable solutions right away.

4. Emergency disaster response, as it is implemented now, is insanely expensive. And often unnecessary.

Aid organizations spent most of their donations on temporary measures. One of the things aid groups did after the quake was install a lot of tent and bucket latrines and teach people how to wash their hands. Many of these remote, mountain communities in Nepal didn’t have bathrooms to begin with. It was a known problem.

But the distinction between ongoing problems and emergency problems is often unclear and in the shadow of a natural disaster, everything can be reframed as an “emergency.” We end up spending emergency money on non-emergency needs. Aid groups with good intentions can raise lots of money to address issues that already existed. They spend millions of dollars really fast, count up the numbers of people they “helped,” take some pics, publish a nice report and then leave.

Why do so many organizations spend money on emergency solutions to non-emergency problems? Because it’s easier! They don’t know the country and they don’t have time to get to know it. In some cases, they are contractually obligated to spend money quickly. The UN Flash Appeal, a common financing mechanism, actually requires organizations submit proposals for projects that will be completed within three months.

We could avoid this outcome if more money went to local organizations and international organizations with long-term, ongoing community relationships. After the Nepal quake, millions of dollars went to high-profile global organizations with zero history in Nepal and no one on the ground. By giving more to the right groups, we could also avoid the excessive overhead expenses that come from subcontractors and duplication of effort.

5. Humanitarian aid groups need to make a sincere commitment to honoring both donor intent and the preferences of people in need.

The gap between what aid recipients say they need and what they actually get is unacceptable. Millions were spent in Nepal on Temporary Learning Centers, which are very expensive tents. When a school can be rebuilt for a few thousand dollars, why are we spending money on tents? If we truly need both, how can more emergency funds be put away, in trust, until local communities are ready to rebuild?

From a structural point of view, Secretary General Ban ki Moon calls this the “gap between humanitarian aid and development.” It is one of the key problems in disaster response. The UN reports that aid groups have spent about $331 million since the earthquake in Nepal. More money was probably spent but not tracked by the UN. “Where did the money go?” is an important question. But equally important is: “How can we give better next time?”

Suggestions to improve the response:

  • Aid groups need to stop using the word “rebuild.” Even if they think they will build houses, promising to do so isn’t fair when reality shows how unlikely it is. Tell us about it after it’s actually done.
  • The UN needs to change the Financial Tracking Service and require NGOs to identify the country where they are based when they apply for funding.
  • Aid groups need to make an ethical commitment to report their activities in clear, plain language. They should not report guestimates of how many people they “helped.” They need to tell donors exactly how many tarps or buckets they bought and delivered and what that activity actually cost per item.
  • Aid groups need to accurately identify what percentage of their costs go to plane tickets, rent, cars, salaries and other administrative expenses.
  • The international aid community needs to make clearer definitions of what constitutes an “emergency” in countries already suffering from extreme poverty.
  • Local aid groups need to be identified and vetted in disaster-prone countries before disasters happen.


Syria: Nearly US$8 billion urgently needed in 2016 as humanitarian needs grow

Source: Syria: Nearly US$8 billion urgently needed in 2016 as humanitarian needs grow

Source: UN Development Programme, UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, UN High Commissioner for Refugees
Country: Syrian Arab Republic
UN humanitarian and development agencies appealed today for a vital new funding to help 22.5 million people in Syria and across the region, as the conflict remains the world’s largest protection crisis.

NEW YORK (12 January 2016) – With Syria’s war heading towards a sixth year and with no end to the conflict in sight, UN humanitarian and development agencies today appealed to Member States for US$7.73 billion in vital new funding for 2016 to help 22.5 million people in Syria and across the region.

The appeal comprises two main elements: help for an anticipated 4.7 million refugees in neighbouring countries by the end of 2016 as well as 4 million people in communities hosting them, and support for 13.5 million displaced and conflict-affected people inside Syria itself.

The Regional Refugee and Resilience Plan (3RP) 2016 covers the activities of some 200 partners including UN agencies, inter-governmental organizations and non-governmental organizations in Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan, Iraq and Egypt. Amounting to $4.55 billion, the appeal aims to support people forced to flee Syria into the surrounding region and the communities in which they are being hosted.

“While the influx to Europe has finally focused the attention of the world on the Syria crisis and the epic levels of human suffering it produces, the biggest burden by far is shouldered by communities and governments in the region,” said UN High Commissioner for Refugees Filippo Grandi. “We must stop Syrian refugees sliding deeper into abject poverty, boost their hope in their own future and that of their country, and do more to help those hosting them,” Grandi added.

Key strategic directions in the 3RP this year include greater investment in education and increased opportunities for vocational training and livelihoods for refugees and host communities. The partners behind the programme are also calling for more support to the most vulnerable refugees to meet their food and other basic needs, alongside increased support to national capacities and systems for the delivery of health, education, water and other services.

“Conventional approaches of ‘relief now, development later’ will not work in Syria or in other protracted crises,” said UNDP Administrator Helen Clark. “Refugees, host communities and internally displaced people in Syria need livelihoods. They need basic services, like health, education, water, sanitation, electricity, and garbage removal. And they need hope for a better future.”

The 3RP partners urge donors to disburse funds earlier this year, provide multi-year funding and harmonize their humanitarian and development allocations to assist in better planning and predictability.

The Syria Humanitarian Response Plan 2016 warns that the conflict in Syria remains the world’s largest protection crisis. An estimated 250,000 people have been killed and around 1.2 million injured. This year the Syria Humanitarian Response Plan calls for nearly $3.2 billion to provide humanitarian support and protection to 13.5 million people inside Syria in 2016. These needs were calculated following a rigorous data collection and prioritization exercise throughout the country. The Plan focuses on saving lives, improving humanitarian access, enhancing protection and supporting long-term resilience for the most vulnerable communities.

“As we start 2016, millions of people need assistance inside Syria, and nearly 400,000 people are besieged by warring parties and are effectively obstructed from receiving any kind of humanitarian relief at all. After nearly six years of brutal conflict and political paralysis, the Syrian people need our help more than ever,” said Stephen O’Brien, UN Humanitarian Chief.

“The Syria Conference on 4 February will be an opportunity to shine a light on the human impact of the conflict, particularly on women, girls and young people. It will rally support for accountability for abuses against civilians and the failure to protect them. I urge Member States to send senior leaders to London to show the world that this crisis has our full attention and commitment,” added O’Brien.

The Syria appeals are part of the wider 2016 humanitarian appeal, asking for $20.1 billion to reach 87 million people around the world, launched last December.

For further information on the appeals, visit and

For further information, please contact:


Amanda Pitt in New York Tel: +1 212 963 4129, Cell: +1 917 442 1810
Jens Laerke in Geneva + Tel: +41 (0)22 917 11 42, Cell: +41 79 472 9750


Ariane Rummery in Geneva +41 79 200 7617
Firas Kayal on mission in New York +41 79 881 9160


Christina LoNigro in New York +1 212 906 5301 Mob: +1 917 607 9446


Michigan State Police to Deliver Water Door-to-Door in Flint

Source: Michigan State Police to Deliver Water Door-to-Door in Flint

(TNS) – Michigan State Police troopers and other state officials will start a door-to-door sweep of Flint on Tuesday to hand out bottled water and water filters, and the White House says it is monitoring the situation “very closely.”

The move, announced by the state Sunday, is intended to help address the ongoing water crisis in the city. Flint’s drinking water was contaminated with lead, and an unknown number of children were poisoned while the city was under the control of a state-appointed emergency manager in 2014 and 2015. The emergency  manager, to cut costs, switched Flint’s water supply source from Lake Huron, supplied by the Detroit Water and Sewerage Department, to the more polluted and corrosive Flint River.

The door-to-door distribution follows an announcement Saturday that water would be available free at fire stations throughout the city.

The state said that if no one is at home during door-to-door visits, a flyer with information on how to get free water resources will be left.

The announcement came as the White House said Sunday during “Meet the Press” that it was monitoring the situation as part of a discussion on growing mistrust in government. The chief of staff to President Barack Obama said the White House is watching the Flint situation “very closely.”

The discussion on the NBC News program hosted by Chuck Todd is the latest example of national media attention given to the crisis.  The Flint public health emergency has also been featured prominently in the New York Times and on MSNBC’s “Rachel Maddow Show.”

The ongoing controversy in Flint also drew the attention of Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton, who is traveling to Detroit for a fundraiser on Tuesday. She said Sunday evening that no parent should have to worry whether the water they and their kids are drinking is safe.

“Thousands of children may have been exposed to lead, which could irreversibly harm their health and brain functioning. Plus the catastrophe – which was caused by a zeal to save money at all costs – could actually cost $1.5 billion in infrastructure costs,”  Clinton, the former First Lady and Secretary of State, said in a statement.

Three liaison officers from the Federal Emergency Management Agency are in Michigan assisting state officials after Gov. Rick Snyder declared a state of emergency in the crisis Tuesday. The state asked for the help, but Snyder has not yet made a request through FEMA for federal financial aid, an official said Saturday.

On Sunday, Snyder spokesman Dave Murray said once the initial response phase is over, state officials will work with the federal government on what additional resources may be available.

Denis McDonough, the White House chief of staff, would not give a direct answer when Todd asked whether FEMA was going to intervene further.

The administration is “obviously very concerned about it, but I don’t have any news to make with you on that today,” McDonough said.

“We’re watching it very closely, but nobody has asked us anything yet.”

During a panel discussion, Todd said Donald Trump, a billionaire businessman and reality TV star who has been the front-runner  for the GOP presidential nomination “talks about distrust in political leaders.”

“And what do we have in Michigan?” he asked. “This Flint, Mich., where clearly the governor’s office — someone in the governor’s office — was too passive about it.”

Todd said Snyder, like Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel, who is under fire over failures of the police department, is not seen as overly partisan.

“They’re not ideological warriors, they’re technocrats who we thought, at a minimum, were the competent guys,” Todd said.

Panelist Helene Cooper of the New York Times said water is “so basic” that the Flint catastrophe “really feeds to this distrust people have.”

“This is from — this is not a third world country,” she said.

Residents with questions or who need to obtain water or other supplies should call 2-1-1.

Contact Paul Egan: 517-372-8660, or on Twitter @paulegan4. Staff writer Kathleen Gray contributed to this report.


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Five humanitarian crises largely overlooked in 2015

BOGOTA – From civil war and urban gang violence to drought, some humanitarian crises around the world receive less media attention and donor funding than others and are less visible.

Below are the top five humanitarian crises of 2015, in no particular order, which aid agencies say deserve more attention on the world stage:


Rampant gang violence, poverty and the lack of jobs push hundreds of people a month to leave the “Northern Triangle” nations of El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala and seek work and refuge in the United States and other Latin American countries.

In El Salvador and Honduras – which have the world’s highest murder rates – entire city neighborhoods are controlled by powerful street gangs, known as maras. They use extortion, sexual violence against girls and women, threats, killings and forced recruitment of children to exercise control.

“We have a situation that affects the lives of thousands of people because of widespread violence related to organized crime. What you have here is forced displacement,” said Vicente Raimundo, head of the European Union humanitarian aid department regional office for Central America, Mexico and the Caribbean.

“Our concern is for those who are fleeing their homes because they are under threat, their relatives have been killed or they fear they are next on the list. They need to be protected. This is a big issue and we need to do more,” he told the Thomson Reuters Foundation in a telephone interview from the Nicaraguan capital Managua.

To escape gang violence, families often first move from their homes to other neighborhoods or cities within their own country, then seek refuge abroad, increasingly in Panama and Costa Rica.

“This is a hidden and urban phenomenon that is invisible and difficult to see. But it doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist,” Raimundo said.

The United Nations refugee agency (UNHCR) said in October it had recorded a nearly five-fold increase in asylum seekers arriving in the United States from the Northern Triangle since 2008.


South Sudan, which gained independence from Sudan in 2011, plunged into civil war in December 2013 when a political crisis triggered fighting between forces loyal to President Salva Kiir and rebels allied with his former deputy Riek Machar.

The conflict has reopened ethnic faultlines that pit Kiir’s Dinka people against Machar’s ethnic Nuer. A peace deal was signed in August but the two sides have repeatedly accused each other of violations and clashes continue.

Two years of civil war have killed more than 10,000 people, forced 1.6 million to flee their homes, some hiding for long periods in the bush and swamplands to escape fighting, and 185,000 to seek shelter in U.N. bases.

Nearly 650,000 have fled to neighboring countries, according to U.N. figures.

The world’s youngest nation also faces hunger. An estimated 2.4 million people are severely hungry, and in Unity state, some 30,000 people are at risk of famine, largely cut off from aid that can only reach them by air drops.

“South Sudan is very difficult for several million people facing food insecurity and conflict. But it gets very little in terms of international spotlight,” said Shaheen Chughtai, deputy head of humanitarian policy and campaigns at aid agency Oxfam.

South Sudan’s refugee crisis is also one of the world’s most under-funded humanitarian crises. As of December, only 19 percent of a $659 million U.N. appeal for a South Sudan regional refugee response plan including Kenya, Uganda and Ethiopia, had been funded, the fourth least funded U.N. appeal.


The Central African Republic (CAR), a former French colony, descended into chaos in early 2013 when mainly Muslim Seleka rebels seized control in the majority-Christian nation, where its abuses led to reprisals by Christian anti-balaka militias.

Thousands of people have been killed in the ensuing inter-religious violence in the capital Bangui and across the country.

“The recent visit of the Pope put CAR on the map for an instant but few people know the name of its capital or where it is. The international community isn’t interested in CAR,” said David Cantero, head of the medical aid group Doctors Without Borders (MSF) for Spanish-speaking countries in South America.

An estimated 2.7 million people – over half the population – need food, drinking water, health services and medicine, the U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs says.

The number of people forced to flee their homes within the country to escape fighting has risen by nearly 20 percent, to 447,500 in November from 378,400 in September, the UNHCR says.

In addition half a million people have left the country, around half of them fleeing to neighboring Cameroon.

Many of the internally displaced people are trapped in enclaves, beyond the reach of state authorities and French and U.N. peacekeepers, some in fiefdoms controlled by warlords.

On Dec. 13 voters braved fighting and intimidation by armed groups to cast their ballots in a constitutional referendum seen as a crucial step toward ending the violence. Two days later a Seleka leader declared an autonomous state in his northeastern stronghold.


Yemen has been unstable since a 2011 revolt toppled veteran president Ali Abdullah Saleh, and plunged into civil war last year when the ex-leader joined forces with the Houthis to seize power, triggering a Gulf Arab military intervention.

The warring parties are expected to observe a ceasefire and start U.N.-sponsored peace talks in Switzerland on Dec. 15 in a bid to end months of fighting that has killed nearly 6,000 people.

“Yemen has struggled to get the kind of attention it deserves in the mainstream western media,” said Oxfam’s Chughtai.

Saudi-led warplanes began bombing positions of the Houthis and their Yemeni army allies in March. The U.N. says at least 5,800 people, nearly half of them civilians, have been killed since the air strikes began, and aid agencies say the humanitarian situation has got worse.

More than 21 million people in Yemen require some kind of humanitarian help to survive – about 80 percent of the population, including 2.3 million people who have been uprooted.

“The suffering that this conflict is inflicting on people is heartbreaking. I hear first-hand accounts of it whenever I speak with women, children and elderly people who have made the perilous crossing to reach Djibouti, Ethiopia and Somalia,” Claire Bourgeois, UNHCR’s regional refugee coordinator for Yemen, said earlier this month.


From Ethiopia, Malawi, Papua New Guinea to Honduras and Haiti, tens of millions of people around the world are suffering the impacts of a strong El Nino weather pattern.

El Nino – a warming of sea-surface temperatures in the Pacific – affects wind patterns and can trigger massive floods and devastating droughts in different parts of the world, reducing harvests and making it hard for people to feed themselves.

As the impact of El Nino is so dispersed across the world and has affected regions in different ways, it is difficult to capture and understand its true scale, aid agencies say.

Experts say the impact of the current El Nino, which will intensify into 2016, could be the worst on record since 1997-98.

Up to 50 million people across the world will face water and/or food shortages related to El Nino in 2016, Oxfam says.

“In reality this is not one crisis but many,” Oxfam said in a briefing paper published earlier this week. “The current international focus is understandably on hardest-hit countries but the international response needs to go much further to ensure other countries do not follow suit.”

Around 2.3 million people in Central America, mostly subsistence farmers and their families, will need food aid because of widespread damage to crops and rising food prices due to a prolonged drought made worse by El Nino, according to the U.N. World Food Programme (WFP).

More than 10 million Ethiopians, one in 10 of the population, will not have enough to eat next year due to the effects of a crippling drought made worse by El Nino, the charity Save the Children says.

In Southeast Asia, El Nino is typically associated with drought and has helped fuel wildfires in Indonesia, among the worst on record. Other southeast Asian countries, particularly India and Sri Lanka, face severe flooding caused by heavy rains in 2016, the U.N. says.