Eight years after Haiti shook: where has all the money gone? by Avagay Simpson

UntitledAbout the author:

Avagay Simpson is a recent graduate of the International institute of Social Studies with a Master’s degree in Development Studies specialising in Governance and Development Policy. Prior to studying at the ISS, she worked with Office of the Contractor-General, one of Jamaica’s key anti-corruption organisations. She also worked for several years in project implementation focusing on enhancing governance locally and nationally in Jamaica and the Caribbean. She also holds a graduate degree in International Relations.

Eight years after the earthquake that in 2010 crippled the small country of Haiti, scores of Haitians still have not been able to rebuild their lives despite billions of dollars pledged in the form of humanitarian aid. Recent research on the dynamics of the Dutch partnership SHO for humanitarian assistance in post-disaster Haiti shows that an overreliance on trust within partnerships decreases operational effectiveness and transparency, and that more checks and balances are needed to ensure that financial aid reaches those Haitians still in need.

The struggle continues

Eight years have come and gone since an earthquake measuring 7 on the Richter scale on 12 January 2010 devastated Haiti and ripped apart its community. The earthquake caused the displacement of millions of Haitians and the death of over 300,000 people, although this number remains inconclusive. It was labelled as the first major urban disaster in recent history, leading to humanitarian aid pledges totalling over US$13 billion.

While eight years have passed since this tragic event, the United Nations reported that by 2017, many Haitians were still residing in camps and more than 2 million people were still in need of humanitarian assistance. Given the disjuncture between the total amount of aid pledged and those Haitians still requiring help, a burning question that scholars, journalists, and humanitarian practitioners have sought to answer is: “Where has all the money gone?”

Partnerships: Too untransparent?

Multiple explanations have arisen for why responses to the Haitian disaster were ineffective and produced a chaotic post-disaster environment. One of the many views is that the coordination of international relief efforts posed a major challenge to relief efforts, in addition to the lack of accountability in the disbursement of received donations. Partnerships forged between NGOs and international organisations have become commonplace particularly in the humanitarian relief sector due to the belief that such partnerships could maximise economic benefits for partners and strengthen organisations’ individual efforts through collaboration.

However, a number of scholars, such as David Lewis in his book Non-Governmental Organisations, Management and Development, have suggested that civil society partnerships receive less respect than intended due to the degradation of the term ‘partnership’ following extensive scrutiny over the past years. Considering this tainted image of partnerships, Lewis argues that the management of NGOs and the inter-agency partnerships they create need to be reviewed.

With this in mind, my recent research* attempted to provide some answers to questions pertaining to this ‘black hole’ of humanitarian aid in Haiti by reviewing partnerships among civil society NGOs and organisations, with particular attention paid to partnership dynamics such as transparency and accountability. It comprised an analysis of the Dutch NGO emergency relief efforts in Haiti during 2010 by exploring the collaborative processes of Dutch NGOs through the Stichting Samenwerkende Hulporganisaties (SHO) partnership. Network governance theory allowed for a closer look at the governance of this network and the effect of governance dynamics on upward transparency and accountability.

The SHO: Too large to handle?

The SHO is a Dutch platform comprising nine development organisations such as Oxfam Novib, UNICEF and Save the Children that calls for and manages public donations for humanitarian aid following disasters. Following the Haitian earthquake, the SHO raised €112 million through public donations following extensive media campaigns. The Dutch Ministry of Foreign Affairs donated approximately €41 million, or one-third of the total, to the SHO for disaster relief efforts.


However, the Dutch public and government, like the international community, questioned the efficiency and effectiveness of the use of donated money for the benefit of disaster-affected Haitians. The Netherlands Court of Audit (Algemene Rekenkamer) with its mandate of checking the efficient and effective spending of public funding in its 2010 expenditure report found that “the funding flows in Haiti are not sufficiently clear and it cannot be determined what part of the aid funds is received by which international umbrella organisations, fellow aid organisations and the organisations’ own field offices” (Court of Audit 2011: 5). This report, alongside the IOB Evaluation Assisting Earthquake Victims: Evaluation of Dutch Cooperating Aid Agencies (SHO) Support to Haiti in 2010 by the Policy and Operations Evaluation Department (IOB – Inspectie Ontwikkelingssamewerking en Beleidsevaluatie) of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, were the key foci of this study.

The research found that the SHO in its relief efforts in Haiti made use of a network of 36 organisations that excluded local Haitian civil society organisations, NGOs and government organisations. The member organisations operated in five different modalities. This resulted in a number of issues related to the coordination and implementation of programmes and relief efforts, including: extensive management chains; increased transaction costs; the duplication of activities; value clashes resulting in operational challenges; and multiple accountability disorder due to the presence of multiple principals and agents. This made it difficult to trace the funds and to assess whether they were effectively and efficiently expended.

Overreliance on trust

The SHO network and the independent functioning of each participating organisation in implementing their activities created a complex system that resulted in major challenges related to oversight and a lack of transparency regarding the spending of public funding.

The SHO and its member organisations relied on trust in each other to ensure that each activity was implemented in accordance with the principles of transparency and accountability and to the standards governing emergency humanitarian aid. This strong level of trust ignored the fact that individuals are rational beings that in group settings will not necessarily act in the common interest of the group, but may pursue certain objectives based on self-interest.

The study found that the interests of not only individual actors is of concern, but also those of the individual organisations in the extended network, as their interests may differ from that of the SHO and its members. The lack of strong oversight mechanisms by the SHO to determine if there was a breach and its inability to hold actors accountable or apply sanctions weakened the veracity of the reports and work done, resulting in the questions of transparency and accountability of the aid given in Haiti.



The SHO’s example shows that heavy reliance on trust is a major issue requiring a thorough review by all organisations working in the humanitarian aid sector. The recent disclosure in October 2017 by the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC) of instances of fraud by officials involved in combating the Ebola outbreak in West Africa from 2014-2016 amounting to €5.2 million heightens the need for NGOs as well as international organisations to review their approaches and to recognise the need for adequate checks and balances.

In an emergency humanitarian relief context that is complex, uncertain, and often political in nature, sound policies and transparent processes contribute to sound governance. Such measures also control unintended meanings and consequences while simultaneously acting as barriers against the purposeful exploitation of resources that ultimately prevents aid from reaching those in need.

Picture credit: RIBI Image Library

*In partial fulfilment of a recently attained MA degree in Development Studies at the ISS.
Dutch Court of Audit (2011) ‘Accounting for Haiti Aid Funds 2010’, November 2011, The Hague: Netherlands.

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