How many aid groups are too many?
For Haiti three years after a jarring and catastrophic earthquake, that question has been tough to answer.
Many have criticized the country’s handling of thousands of organizations that rushed to its aid. But some Haitian government reps have shot back that more than a few aid agencies used the country’s devastation to their own advantage.
A recent event in Atlanta laid bare the fact that aid groups, including many around the metro area, walk a fine line between preserving their own sustainable work and duplicating efforts of similar groups.
The World Affairs Council of Atlanta evening briefing was held in a fitting setting: the packed Decatur headquarters of Global Health Action, which has been training nurses and working on rural development in Haiti for more than 30 years. The event was meant to provide positive answers to the burning question of how agencies could use partnerships to optimize their work.
Thodleen Dessources, director of the Haiti program at the United Methodist Committee on Relief, said it’s “impossible to work in silos in Haiti,” where the number of multilateral organizations and charity groups has been estimated at more than 10,000.
In the relief rush after the quake, the United Nations had a cluster program to facilitate conversations among organizations in related fields – health, housing, hunger and more. While that system has become less relevant during the recovery period, UMCOR is still seeking ways to share costs and ideas with like-minded groups, including local organizations.
“We have found that it is possible and there is more time to really invest in supporting and working in collaboration with local organizations and service providers to advance our work,” said Ms. Dessources, whose agency is working on a new program to fund female micro entrepreneurs and has developed a curriculum to train them on running sustainable businesses.
Other panelists also revealed a variety of successful partnerships crossing multiple sectors.
The Atlanta-based Centers for Disease Control and Prevention ramped up its Haiti presence in the aftermath of the quake, with nearly 1,000 people devoted to working on the country. About one-third of those were deployed for longer than 30 days, initially to help deal with a deadly cholera outbreak, said Jordan Tappero, director of the CDC’s health systems reconstruction office.
Thanks to an ongoing partnership with the Ministry of Public Health and Population, the CDC has helped administer drugs to more than 2 million people in Port-au-Prince, a feat never completed before but vital to the elimination of lymphatic filariasis and prevention of diseases like measles. The two agencies recently began sharing a new office building in the capital.
MedShare, an Atlanta-based nonprofit also focused on health, has found success by coordinating a network of entities to accomplish its mission of shipping surplus medical supplies to ill-equipped hospitals around the world, said Nell Diallo, vice president of corporate and international relations.
The group is the nexus between donors (mostly manufacturers), funders like the Coca-Cola Africa Foundation, volunteers who pack supplies at a Decatur warehouse and hospitals that use an online order form to outline their needs. MedShare has shipped 76 containers to Haiti, nearly 10 percent of the 800 it has shipped in all.
In Haiti, MedShare made a connection between the office of Haiti’s first lady and Northside Hospital, resulting in the delivery of incubators to a maternity hospital in one of Port-au-Prince’s poorest areas.
Ultimately, though, aid agencies should be looking to work themselves out of a job, Ms. Diallo said.
“In order for any country to move forward, you must have capacity for people on the ground, so the ideal would be for all NGOs to work on making their life in Haiti ended as quickly as possible by enabling Haitians to take on the responsibility that they leave,” she said.
UPS Foundation, with its focus on humanitarian logistics, sees its role as facilitating efficient movement of the right goods to people who need them when disaster strikes, said Joe Ruiz, director of the foundation’s humanitarian relief program. That has meant partnering with aid agencies like CARE and Salvation Army and understanding their needs in heat of the moment.
The process has led to technology innovation that should help in future catastrophes. After the Haiti quake, UPS developed a system of barcoded cards to replace manual rationing systems that were leading to inefficiencies and conflicts at distribution points. That technology could potentially be rolled out at refugee camps operated by the U.N. High Commission on Refugees, Mr. Ruiz said.
“They’re not efficient. They don’t know where their supplies have gone,” he said, noting that pilot programs are being put in place to remedy the problem.
He added that UPS been involved in creating the AidMatrix network, an online system that allows donors to match contributions of goods with the expressed needs of relief organizations to avoid clogging the supply chain with unnecessary items.
Still, as many positive developments as were pinpointed, the seemingly intractable nature of Haiti’s problems were evident in questions asked by the attendees.
Some were skeptical of the real appetite for collaboration among aid groups, while others wondered why less than half of the $11 billion raised to help Haiti has been disbursed to date.
The mood was equal parts pleasant and serious, revealing that despite the goodwill among Atlantans, turning that into sustainable change is a work in progress.