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.
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.