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Canadian relief agency reassures donors after Red Cross criticised on Haiti

Posted on: November 2, 2016 1:42 PM
A blind Haitian woman and her friend seek shelter in a church as Hurricane Matthew hits Haiti on 4 October.
Photo Credit: Khodabande / UNICEF

[Anglican Journal, by Tali Folkins] The Anglican Church of Canada’s international development arm, the Primates’ World Relief and Development Fund (PWRDF), has a number of safeguards in place to ensure donations are well-spent. PWRDF said that the safeguards include on-the-ground assessments and regular inspection of partner agencies’ documents.

A report by radio network NPR and news organisation Pro Publica in the US in June raised questions about the efficacy of the American Red Cross’s efforts to help Haitians stricken by the catastrophic earthquake that hit the island country in 2010. The story reported that, although the organisation had received nearly half a billion US dollars [approximately £406 million GBP] in donations for Haiti earthquake relief, it had succeeded in building only six permanent houses. It claimed the American Red Cross had “repeatedly failed on the ground in Haiti,” for a raft of reasons, including, but not limited to, language barriers; high overhead costs, both internally and with partner organisations; difficulties working with the Haitian government; and a lack of expertise in housing reconstruction.

For its part, the American Red Cross responded that the notion that “internal issues” had “delayed” its delivery of services was simply false. The agency said it had, among other things, provided “safe and durable housing” for more than 132,000 Haitians, and helped more than 4.5 million with its disease prevention programs.

The news stories appear to have stirred up concern among some Canadian Anglican parishioners about the ability of PWRDF to make good use of their donations, says PWRDF executive director Will Postma. Donors to PWRDF can be confident that their money will be put to good use, he says.

One thing the agency has learned from past experience, says Postma, is the importance of “staying smaller, staying focused and working with local actors” when it comes to disaster relief. In Haiti, this has meant working more proactively with the Haitian government, and partnering with some especially highly regarded, locally-based civil society organisations, he says, as well as Haitian churches.

In general, says PWRDF communications co-ordinator Simon Chambers, church-based aid agencies are likely to be especially responsive to the needs of people on the ground, because their relationships with churches in disaster-stricken areas allow them to form closer and more lasting connections to communities.

“Churches are part of the fabric of the community before, during and after disaster response,” he says. “They’re going to be really helpful in terms of those decisions and conversations that need to happen in the communities. And we also know that the churches will be there long after the disaster is over. So it’s not a question of an NGO parachuting in, building a whole bunch of buildings and disappearing again.”

Since 4 October, when Hurricane Matthew struck Haiti, PWRDF has sent $40,000 [CAD, approximately £24,300 GBP] to Haiti for food, medical aid, shelter, clean water and other forms of aid. PWRDF is working through ACT Alliance, a coalition of church-based aid agencies, of which it is a member.

In fact, Postma says, PWRDF has been doing “state-of-the-art” relief work in Haiti with its ACT partners, particularly when it comes to “prepositioning” disaster response materials—stockpiling hygiene kits, water purification tablets, construction materials, food, seeds and blankets— on the ground in Haiti so that they can be quickly drawn upon when emergency strikes.

To ensure transparency and accountability, ACT releases regular situation reports, prepared by officials on the ground, updating how money is being spent. For Haiti, these are expected to be released every two weeks for the first month or two after Hurricane Matthew, and monthly thereafter, Postma says.

In Haiti and elsewhere, Chambers says, PWRDF staff make regular visits to the offices of their partner agencies to assess how projects have been administered, discuss the programs with officials from these agencies and inspect their books for receipts and other important documentation, including doing spot audits. Proof of how money is being spent in the field is also required by the Canadian government when it agrees to fund PWRDF projects, he adds.

This summer was not the first time that news stories have emerged critical of Haitian earthquake relief. In early 2013, around the time of the disaster’s third-year anniversary, articles claiming little had improved for Haitians since the earthquake spurred Chambers to list some of the main accomplishments of PWRDF and its partners in helping Haitians recover. These included, for example, the construction of 70 semi-permanent houses, the providing of a hot lunch to 8,000 children for a full academic year and the ongoing reconstruction of 89 schools. A two-year, $35 milllion [USD, approximately £28.4 million GBP] post-earthquake appeal by ACT (with $750,000 of this contributed by PWRDF) benefited a total of about 400,000 Haitians, Chambers says.

Postma, who says he has been to Haiti many times over the past decade, says Canadians should also remember that relief work in Haiti is unusually challenging because of the country’s history.

For example, at one time Haitian farmers were growing enough rice to feed the country, he says. But the impoverished country now imports 80 per cent of its rice, much of it from the US, which subsidises rice farming. Haiti once had tariffs against rice imports, but these barriers have come down after US and French requests, he says. In the past, many foreign states have also effectively encouraged the existence of dictatorial governments in Haiti, he adds. As a result of these and other factors, government and infrastructure are weak in Haiti and the country has what Postma calls an “inbuilt extreme vulnerability” to disasters.

“When people are concerned about Haiti, they have to be factoring that in,” he says. “Our response needs to be one of compassion, because we are trying to help Haitians who have suffered far too much, and for reasons not of their own making, [struggle] just to cope, and survive, and hopefully get back on their feet for better days ahead.”