Aid Groups Fret As Haiti Giving Slows Down



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Bags of rice donated by the United States are thrown off a truck and handed out to women standing in a food distribution line at the main soccer stadium in Port-au-Prince. (NPR)
Bags of rice donated by the United States are thrown off a truck and handed out to women standing in a food distribution line at the main soccer stadium in Port-au-Prince. (NPR)

A new study calls last month's Haitian earthquake the most destructive natural disaster in modern times. The report by the Inter-American Development Bank puts recovery and rebuilding costs as high as $14 billion.

The United Nations has tripled its aid appeal to $1.4 billion — its largest disaster request ever. In the United States, private aid groups have already raised nearly $1 billion.

Just 10 days after the Jan. 12 earthquake, the peak of the public's outpouring of support came through the Hope for Haiti telethon. It aired on dozens of networks and cable channels nationwide, and raised more than $65 million. The first installment of funds went out to six groups, including the disaster relief powerhouse the American Red Cross.

The Red Cross received $6 million from Hope for Haiti to add to the more than $255 million it has raised on its own since the earthquake.

Questions About Fund Distribution

Women wait in a food distribution line in Port-au-Prince.
Women wait in a food distribution line in Port-au-Prince.

In past disasters — Sept. 11 and Hurricane Katrina — the group was heavily criticized for the way it raised and distributed funds. So, it's only natural that questions are now being asked about how the Red Cross is responding in Haiti.

Some bloggers have asked why the Red Cross only spent or committed $80 million; they're wondering what happened to the rest of it.

"We're doing a great job of using a lot of money in a very responsible way, reaching as many people as possible," says Nan Buzard, senior director for disaster response at the American Red Cross.

Of the $80 million spent so far, she says about 20 percent has gone toward temporary shelter — tarpaulins, tents and kitchen supplies provided to an estimated 400,000 people. Most of the rest is going to provide food and water to people living in Haiti's many tent cities.

Buzard says it's neither smart nor practical to expect groups like the Red Cross to use all of their donations immediately. But she acknowledges it's an understandable reaction to images showing ongoing suffering in Haiti.

"I think that really what it reflects is people's own frustration and desire for everything to be better," Buzard says. "And Haiti is not going to be better right away."

Switching Gears To Transitional Housing

The Red Cross and most other aid groups in Haiti are now turning from emergency disaster response to the next great need: transitional housing. These are temporary structures that will get families out of the rain while the Haitian government and aid groups determine how best to rebuild Port-au-Prince.

Partners in Health is another aid group that received money from the Hope for Haiti concert. The group has been active in Haiti since the 1980s. Since the quake, the group has raised some $44 million, but so far it has spent about $6 million.

Ted Constan, the group's chief program officer, says much of that money will be used to help rebuild Haiti's medical infrastructure, including its hospitals and medical and nursing schools. He believes donors should be looking to provide Haiti with help for the long term.

"The only way Haiti will ever recover from the situation they were in before the earthquake and now from this is by building up the kind of institutions that sustain civilization — health care, justice, agriculture, all of these," Constan says.

Reduced Donations

After a record January, aid groups say donations for Haiti have slowed to a trickle.

Rich Stearns, president of World Vision, a Christian charity in the U.S., says the group is approaching $100 million in contributions from around the world. That's far less than the $360 million it raised after the Asian tsunami. Stearns says this is a worrisome sign that could hamper plans to rebuild Haiti.

"We're concerned that there won't be enough private donations to do the job," Stearns says. "And the question we have is about what kind of rebuilding plan and funding the donor governments will come up with."

In Haiti, as in past disasters, the burden of rebuilding the country's infrastructure and public buildings will fall to the international community under the auspices of the U.N. But even John Holmes, who heads the U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, concedes that the U.N. effort has been inadequate during the first emergency relief phase.

In an e-mail last week, Holmes called on U.N. agencies to improve their coordination and get more resources on the ground to provide shelter and sanitation soon, before Haiti's rainy season starts.

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