FAILURE IN 'THE REPUBLIC OF NGO's
(Toronto Start) - Kenneth Kidd, Feature Writer
PORT-AU-PRINCE - Eric Klein is downing his first beer of the evening and smoking cigarettes as if the rapid injection of sugar and nicotine were all that stood between him and a torpor he's in no mood to embrace.
It's only 7 p.m., although that always feels like 10 p.m. in Haiti, and the effect of this quick consumption is all but intravenous in its effect.
Klein talks quickly, angrily, his language sometimes ripening with words not generally considered polite, but scarcely out of place for an exhausted guy in khaki wearing a Red Sox cap with a Boston accent to match.
He's dappled with pools of sweat after a day spent delivering water to the camps, ahead of another day ferrying food to orphanages in a hired tap-tap, one of the converted pickup trucks that normally serve as private buses.
It would be easy, and mostly wrong, to dismiss Klein as just another Hollywood type trying to share a bit of the glory that has attended the likes of actor Sean Penn, another guy who has forsaken home comfort to do God's or someone's work in Haiti, what cynics might see as a kind of moral atonement but with marketing potential.
So, yes, Klein has appeared on Oprah.
But what's really fueling Klein is, in his words, “anger, frustration,” mostly directed at all the mainstream aid groups, the non-government organizations or NGOs.
To Klein, they're bloated with money and staff, and yet daily life for the 1.3 million homeless Haitians hasn't much changed in the 10 months since the earthquake. “You see these kids who are emaciated and there's food two miles away,” he says.
“I'm so sick and tired of these NGOs coming up with excuses. There's no excuse for this.”
So Klein is in Haiti, delivering water and food to camps and orphanages that have somehow fallen through the cracks, untouched by all the major NGOs.
He's been doing that around the world since 2005, after watching television footage of two Sri Lankan kids fighting over a coconut, even though hundreds of millions of dollars had been raised for tsunami relief. Klein says he was seized with one question: “Where did all the money go?”
Armed with $10,000 (U.S.), he and a buddy flew to Sri Lanka to see what they could do to help.
“Ten days turned into four months and I think we spent $80,000,” says Klein, who used up the compensation money he'd got after a car accident.
Ironically, that experience helped birth a mini-NGO, Can-do.org, the non-profit organization he now runs with his actress girlfriend, Carolyn Neff (Raquel Dion Santos on television's All My Children; Savannah Miller in the movie Absolute Evil).
His view of the big NGOs has scarcely improved in the interim, since their collective efforts still don't get to everyone in need. “If you've been around for that many years, don't you have some knowledge?” he asks. “They roll in with 50 paid staff.
“I think they don't show results because maybe if they show results, people will demand results. It's a total business. They've been doing it for years.”
Even before the earthquake, Haiti was often called “The Republic of NGOs,” with more aid groups and charities per capita than any place on the planet.
Former U.S. president Bill Clinton, co-chair of the Interim Haiti Reconstruction Commission, regularly says there are 10,000 NGOs in Haiti, but some estimates put the number at twice that.
The real tally is anybody's guess, since there is no central registry covering all the NGOs, from religious missions and Klein's virtual one-man show to such aid giants as Care International.
What is certain is that, in Haiti, the NGOs have become a vital fact of everyday life. In the absence of a viable government — the new leader of which may become clearer Tuesday with the announcement of preliminary results from last month's election — the majority of local services are delivered by NGOs, from water, vaccinations and clinics to schools.
“The work they're doing is life-saving and necessary, no question about it,” says Mark Schuller, an anthropologist and assistant professor at the City University of New York who has worked extensively in Haiti.
But NGOs have also come under compounding attack.
One of the harshest critics is Timothy Schwartz, an American anthropologist whose book, Travesty in Haiti, is both a damning and saddening account of the way aid groups operate.
As Schwartz wrote in a recent blog entry: “My own research on this matter suggests that at least 90 per cent are rife with corruption, functionally inert, or give money intended for the poor to people who do not need it.”
There is, in Schwartz's book, much moral outrage about aid workers not blowing the whistle when they encounter inefficiency and corruption.
But Schuller argues the problem is more systemic than individual.
“They're not bad people,” he says. “They're people who are following quite rationally the reward structure that is set out in front of them.”
No matter how lofty and charitable their aims, the NGOs are effectively private businesses, competing with one another. They all rely on donations, and in places like Haiti they must also bid on contract work financed by outside government agencies, such as the United States Agency for International Development (USAID).
Since the mid-'90s, virtually all USAID spending goes through NGOs.
Schuller says that puts much more emphasis on financial reporting — documenting that the money has been spent — rather than critically quantifying the results of that spending.
Nor do those working for NGOs have much real incentive to voice any criticism, especially if they're Haitian. At an NGO, they typically earn three times as much as they would with the Haitian government. “NGO jobs are the most lucrative jobs in Haiti, so people are afraid to speak for fear of losing their jobs,” says Schuller.
Concerns about the efficiency of using NGOs to deliver aid are scarcely new. In the past two decades, more than 20 major reports have all come to virtually the same conclusions: The NGOs need to start collaborating, submit to the authority of the state and actively encourage input from the people they're meant to be helping.
But who or what entity would enforce this? The central problem, says Schuller, is the international community's insistence in recent decades that virtually all aid should be delivered by NGOs rather than directly by governments.
“The aid system is privatized,” he says. “It's the NGOs, not the government, and it creates parallel structures.”
So entrenched are the NGOs that many reports by the United Nations mission include maps with symbols and colour coding to show what parts of Haiti are dominated by which NGO, as if they were states within the state.
Even efforts simply to list the NGOs active in Haiti have been laughably ineffective. Nearly 30 years ago, the U.S.-financed Haitian Association of Voluntary Agencies managed to list fewer than 100 of the thousands of NGOs before being wound down.
Some change, however, may be in the offing. At the recent G20 conference, a so-called Seoul consensus emerged around South Korea's proposal that aid to the developing world should concentrate on infrastructure and education, not just ameliorating hunger with food and water.
This is hardly a new idea. But if the Seoul consensus were to gain any traction, it would mark a significant shift in priorities. And a daunting one: By some estimates, NGOs now employ 9 million workers around the world and spend $1.1 trillion (U.S.) annually — four times what Canada's federal government will spend this year.
The Blessed Child Orphanage is essentially the bare, concrete shell of a house in a little courtyard surrounded by high fences.
This is Klein's last destination on this day, in the Chateau Blanc neighbourhood, reached by overburdened tap-tap bouncing along back alleys as rugged as a mountain riverbed.
Klein is soon unloading bags of rice and beans, tins of vegetable oil and condensed milk, along with a big plastic bag filled with little packets of a Cheezie-like snack.
The latter is a special, instant treat for the 27 orphans who call Blessed Child home, and it doesn't take long for their little fingers and mouths to turn orange.
The kids all laugh and smile as if this were the finest thing ever to have happened.
The orphanage is run by Jean Alexandre and his wife. He spent 25 years working in the United States, but on a trip home to Haiti in 2004 he was so struck by the sight of begging children that it overwhelmed his retirement plans.
“I came to the airport and saw the kids at the fence,” says Alexandre, who was soon setting up his little orphanage. “I really want to stay here.”
But it's also an orphanage on the cheap. Until Klein stumbled on to him, Alexandre didn't have a food supplier.
Now Klein is talking about helping to make the concrete shell of the orphanage more livable, having some walls finished, doors installed.
To his mind, Haitians are “the most patient people I've ever met.”
They have so little, need so much, and have been suffering for months despite all the promised largesse, the presence of so many giant aid organizations.
“The system is definitely broken,” says Klein. “It shouldn't be like this.”
NEW YORK—UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon warned Friday that the cholera epidemic in Haiti could affect as many as 650,000 people over the next six months.
Speaking to an informal meeting of the General Assembly, Ban also said the current toll could be twice as high as the official numbers of 1,800 deaths and nearly 81,000 infected, because of difficulties in reporting.
He called on the international community to provide more and faster aid to fight the epidemic.
A UN appeal launched three weeks ago for $164 million has raised only 20 per cent of its goal.
“Admirable as they may be, these collective efforts are simply not sufficient. Without a massive and immediate international response, we will be overwhelmed. The lives of hundreds of thousands of people are at risk.”