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Project Jacmel

Keeping aid from going renegade Add to ...

Amid the maze of ruins that is now Port-au-Prince, two office workers arrive at their desks each morning to face a mammoth task: keep track of the thousands of development-aid groups that have recently rooted themselves in the country.

Haiti was already home to the highest number of non-government aid groups per capita in the world before January's earthquake. The catastrophe pushed the number further skyward: Planeloads of new aid personnel touch down daily carrying teams of volunteers, including the requisite missionaries wearing specially screened fluorescent T-shirts in impossible-to-miss yellows and greens.

While some stay in Port-au-Prince, others fan out across the country to destinations of their choosing - to ruined churches, orphanages and various town sites - following aid plans they drew out at home in California, Massachusetts and New York.

Current estimates place the number of groups providing some form of development-related aid in the island nation at between 8,000 and 10,000.

Experts have to estimate that figure because there is no complete record of how many aid groups are in Haiti, or who there is doing what.

In the initial panic to pull the collapsed country out of the emergency state that claimed several hundred thousand lives, efforts to co-ordinate the disparate organizations that rushed to join the international move to rebuild were overwhelmed. Many groups clamouring to reach needy Haitians began circumventing both government officials and the bureaucratic United Nations "cluster" system designed to manage the flow of aid. The guerrilla trend continues - many groups prefer to reach out independently to the population regardless of whether their provisions overlap with those of other sanctioned groups.

While the cowboy-style aid is well-intentioned, paired with the broader deluge of aid providers, it's creating a tidal effect that is particularly acute in regions outside Port-au-Prince. Beyond the reach of the two-person NGO co-ordination office, bewildered local government officials have been struggling to impress order on the influx of charity in an effort to optimize its impact on their communities.

If they don't, leaders fear aid groups will pull out without having done much more than build temporary latrines and fix orphanages.

"There is a tendency not to work with the government because they say it's corrupt … they're going straight to the people," said Frantz Magellan Pierre-Louis, a spokesman for the mayor of Jacmel. "But they don't know the city as well as the mayor's office. They don't know every corner of town."

In an effort to keep track of the NGO projects in Jacmel, Mr. Pierre-Louis recently began compelling each group to attend one-on-one weekly update meetings. "We need better co-ordination to filter aid … but we don't have the structures in place," he said.

No one here does - not the massive United Nations apparatus in Port-au-Prince or the tiny, two-person NGO co-ordination office, a joint initiative between U.S.-based InterAction and the International Council of Volunteer Agencies, funded by USAID.

But with the emergency phase of the disaster now over, donor worries are mounting over the efficacy of the $2-billion in civil society dollars that have been channelled toward rebuilding Haiti. So is the in-country awareness among independent aid organizations - none of whom are legally compelled to co-ordinate with each other - that maintaining a spot on the international non-government aid radar and continuing to attract public donations will require a renewed commitment to spending efficiency.

In response to this, a host of efforts aimed at helping to corral the ongoing stampede of aid efforts in Haiti - and help organizations maximize their impact on the ground - are taking root.

One of the most promising is led by Tiffany Keenan, a Canadian-born medical doctor who set up a medical clinic in northern Haiti several years ago. Having expanded southward, she found herself co-ordinating all aid groups entering Jacmel via its tiny airport in the aftermath of the earthquake. In that role, she developed an understanding of how critical effective co-ordination - or lack of it - can be to the provision of aid.

"We end up having a lot of people coming down, they've never worked in Haiti before, they're spending money on flights to get people down whose roles are not that effective on the ground," she explained.

Dr. Keenan is currently in the midst of trying to get funding to form a national co-ordination network for all medical aid groups, large and small, working in Haiti.

"I hate to see organizations having to start from scratch. In the beginning, I wanted to have a mentor, someone who could guide me through the process," she said. "I'm hoping through an NGO-co-ordination network we can do that for smaller organizations … so we can channel them and get them working more efficiently.

"If we can share that information it would avoid reinventing the wheel," she said.

It would also enable a more equitable spread of aid to needy people.

Tempers flared at a recent UN meeting of shelter-focused organizations in Jacmel after one well-known group secretly gave out 1,000 tents stamped with their logo in an area of the city where handouts were supposed to have wrapped up.

"The problem is they're duplicating efforts," said Hikara Kitai, a Red Cross employee who runs the shelter cluster. "Donors aren't going to be supportive … we have to be responsible and not duplicate and not waste their money."

Donor money could be put to far more efficient use if agencies establishing a new presence in Haiti linked up with pre-existing Haitian development groups to piggyback off their cultural and local knowledge. The connections local groups have can expedite a range of activities, from procurement of safe food and fuel to translators, lodging and vehicles. They can also smooth access to ground-level powerbrokers - connections that are indispensable for groups working in Haiti.

"The only way to be successful here is to partner with other NGOs," said Danny Pye, an American pastor with the Florida-registered Joy in Hope Ministries.

He and his wife, Leanne, moved their family to Haiti in 2003 and now oversee 16 schools with 3,300 children and run an orphanage of more than 20 children. When the earthquake struck, Mr. Pye's organization ran the Jacmel airport until the Canadian military arrived; staffed with locals and Creole-speaking Americans, it continues to be a first stop for international organizations aiming to work effectively in Jacmel.

Still, Mr. Pye said he's been frustrated by the overly independent approach some organizations have taken, and surprised by the lack of due diligence done by teams streaming in for the first time.

"Most people come here with an agenda - with a box of things they want to do," he said. "I wish every organization would make their first stop the mayor's office and the United Nations. Ask questions - what does Jacmel need - rather than saying, 'Here's what I have to offer.' "

If international aid groups adopted that approach it would likely help to quell the undercurrent of mistrust around NGO work in Jacmel, where suspicions run deep over whether organizations are motivated by altruism or business interests.

"All the organizations that come to Jacmel want to stay in Jacmel. They fight over projects," complained Germaine Pierre-Louis, head of the Haitian Red Cross Society. When she attempts to direct foreign aid groups to underserved rural areas outside the city, she is often met with resistance, she said. Why?

"They have more visibility in Jacmel," she said.

Marika MacRae, the Canadian-born director of Pazapa, a school for deaf and disabled children that lost its main building in Jacmel, said three organizations fought over who had the exclusive rights to help her - even though she could have used help from all three.

"They all want to be the ones to have their logos up," she said.

As that culture endures, there is reason to be skeptical of pledges to join in co-ordination efforts, argues Paul Collier, an Oxford University economist and former special adviser on Haiti to UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon.

"NGOs depend not upon satisfying their users, but upon appealing effectively for donations from aid agencies and ordinary citizens in rich countries. Neither has much knowledge of comparative cost-effectiveness," he wrote in a recent op-ed published in Britain's The Independent. "Everyone talks the talk of co-ordinating, but few want to be co-ordinated."

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