“Haiti and the truth about NGOs” – then why don’t we just all go home?

It’s generally considered to be quite bad form for a media professional to be annoyed at journalists.

After all they get things wrong all the time so that you are glad  if the general thrust of the piece was accurate. Also, in defence of most journalists, you have to allow that  they normally don’t have the time or resources to research a complex subject, nor the column-space or air time to explain it properly. That might explain why listening to “Haiti and the truth about NGOs” for 45 minutes annoyed me so much!

Clearly the BBC’s Edward Stourton has had all the time and resources in the world to produce this piece. And he was given 45 minutes! An eternity! And he still manages to deliver a one-sided and biased anti-aid piece that seems to come down to this central message: NGOs have lots of money and know what needs to be done, but they have lost their souls and that is why they squander it all.

Hogwash!

I’m not saying that the problems he mentioned don’t exist. They do and they shouldn’t. And I agree that the Haiti response hasn’t been as good as it should have been. But producing a 45 minute piece that is basically saying that it’s all because the NGOs are sinisterly hoarding the money is just a waste of airtime. I’m not going to go through it minute by minute, but here are a few things that I found particularly annoying (quotes are not verbatim):

In a big disaster everybody expects the UN to take the lead.

Wrong! The government has the lead! The UN and NGOs have no legitimacy to, well,  “govern”.

The UN is unable to keep incompetent NGOs out of the country.

True. But again: that is not the UN’s role. It’s the government’s. Can you imagine what would happen if the UN would suddenly start kicking NGOs out of the country.  And you know what? People who be justifiably pissed off, because the UN is not a democratically legitimized institution of the host country. The UN is a service provider to the government.

What I find telling is that Stourton actually didn’t talk to anyone from the government for his piece.

The first thing that’s back up and running are the generators so that aidworkers can power their DVD players (Linda Polman).

Cheap jibe. The first things that these generators power are laptops and lights so that aidworkers can work deep into the night, as well as telecommunication infrastructure so that the people on the ground can tell their headquarters what is needed. And I’m sure Linda Polman knows that.

The UN is asking beneficiaries for their opinion.

It’s hard to believe, but he actually makes that sound like a bad thing!

There is no way to know what NGOs are doing with the money

Saying it’s impossible to know how the money is spent simply isn’t true. Every major organization has to report back to donors. Those reports are public. In addition, most project proposals or appeals include detailed financials as well. Nowhere in this piece did I hear him ask for any financial reports. Of course reading those and making sense of them is actually quite hard and tedious work.

I could go on to the police-scene and how he suddenly introduces some drama when driving past a couple of burning tires. Oh, the excitement! But I’ll stop here. Please go ahead and listen to it and let me know what you think. The piece will still be available online on the BBC website until January 18.

What annoys me most is that this is just lazy on the part of Stoughton: If you want to talk about the failings of aid, then also talk about the complexities of aid. If you talk about lack of programming, then also talk about whether pledges have actually turned into real money. If the money hasn’t been spent then ask the project people why. And if you really think that NGOs haven’t done any good in Haiti, then also mention what has been delivered over the last 12 months.

And why is there no mention, discussion or interview with the Haiti Interim Recovery Commission, the major body for assigning money and moving project forward, headed jointly by former US President Clinton and the Haitian Prime Minister Bellerive? I mean, how can you discuss the successes and failings in Haiti without looking at the commission that is supposedly in charge of the majority of the money pledged for reconstruction of the country?

Has enough progress been made in Haiti over the last 12 months? Absolutely not. Could things have been done better: Of course!

But if you are given 45 minutes of airtime and generous travel budget, then please spend you time to address concrete issues and then ask the people on the ground why these things are that way – instead of “aid experts” back in Europe!

Here are a few blog entries and articles I would like to  recommend:

  • Jacobo

    Brilliant Timo, spot on dude!

  • http://sm4good.com Timoluege

    There is a really interesting discussion about this piece on the ALNAP website, where by now the majority of the people quoted in the piece have commented. Highly recommended for a more in-depth discussion: http://www.alnap.org/blog/23.aspx

  • FrW

    Haiti's already ineffectual government was all but destroyed by the quake, both literally and figuratively. You really expected the Haitian government to take the lead?
    In the absence of any kind of working govt, the UN has more legitimacy to take charge than most.

  • JH Bahn

    Sorry Timo, but I think you are largely incorrect in your defense of Haiti NGOs. The Haitian government is definitely not in control and has, in fact been conspicuously excluded from donor meetings in country. The government is extremely limited in capacity both due to the extensive corruption over many decades, and to the brain drain of well monied donor organizations. I have never been in a place with so many NGOs running around doing a little bit of anything and everything. And with virtually no coordination and little cooperation, it's a wonder that anything gets accomplished.