ISSUE 52 October 2011

Humanitarian Exchange Magazine

Local perspectives of the Haiti earthquake response

by Gregory Gleed , HAP International

UN Photo/Marco Dormino
 

This article is based on the ‘Voices of Disaster Survivors’ chapter in the 2010 Humanitarian Accountability Report, published by the Humanitarian Accountability Partnership International.[1] This section of the report looks at the perceptions of disaster-affected communities in relation to the quality and accountability of aid in their communities in the wake of the Haiti earthquake in 2010. Several common themes are identified, including the difficulties that agencies face in sharing information with intended beneficiaries, engaging with them at different stages of the project cycle and dealing with the concerns and complaints of people affected by the earthquake.

Research methods

A total of 19 focus group discussions (FGDs) and two semi-structured interviews were conducted over a period of seven days from 16 September 2010. These were held in ten different locations: six internally displaced (IDP) camps in Port au Prince, three communities in the hills around Port au Prince and one community in the hills around Leogane. The two semi-structured interviews were conducted in an IDP camp in the Port au Prince area. All of the communities visited had received humanitarian aid following the earthquake. Of the 261 participants, 137 were male and 124 female.

Four local people from disaster-affected communities were recruited to facilitate the FGDs. The local facilitators were briefed on the research topic and questions (16 in total), and how to facilitate group discussions. While some contextual questions were asked at the beginning of the discussions about the type of aid received and how long respondents had been living in the area, the majority of the questions were designed to generate information on the quality and accountability of programming as perceived by respondents. At the end of each focus group a participant was asked to summarise the main points and there was an opportunity for further questions and comments.

Main findings

The most pervasive problems identified during the research related to information sharing, participation and complaints handling. Overall, agencies that employed an integrated approach to communicating and engaging with disaster-affected communities were viewed more positively by beneficiaries than those that did not.

Managed versus unmanaged camps

During the course of the FGDs two types of camps were visited: managed and unmanaged. In managed camps an aid agency was recognised as facilitating overall activities in the camp. The lead aid agency established itself within the camp, had a sustained and visible presence (logos on clothing, tents and vehicles), and delivered the majority of the aid for that camp. Unmanaged camps had no long-term ‘resident’ NGOs and received aid sporadically from a variety of different organisations. Respondents from managed camps said that they got information about assistance at meetings organised by aid agencies. Unlike in unmanaged camps, they were also able to identify and distinguish between different aid agencies and the assistance they delivered.

Participation and representation

In the majority of locations, a committee had taken on the role of representing the community and interacting with aid agencies. FGD participants noted that these committees were not representative, but usually comprised middle-aged men in positions of authority who had formed the committee on their own initiative. In many cases these committees were the primary point of contact between the affected population and aid agencies, and agencies often delegated responsibility for managing the delivery of aid to them, including beneficiary selection and information dissemination. In some cases aid organisations found it difficult to ensure that aid was being distributed on an impartial basis because of poor governance or corruption within the committees. In some locations, FGD participants said that agencies had held consultations with the wider community, not just the camp committee. In these locations, the community felt involved in the work agencies were doing and were positive about them.

Several representatives of camp committees complained about inadequate responses to their demands from aid agencies, and the low priority that agencies gave to communicating and collaborating with them: ‘When there are meetings between the committee and agency staff members our demands are never accepted. It is the agency that proposes and at times imposes projects’. Camp committee representatives felt that aid agencies did not have an adequate understanding of the situation on the ground, and believed that committee participation could play an important role in facilitating this.

In several cases camp committees struggled to cope with the responsibility given to them. One committee member spoke about the difficulty of having to select only 25 individuals out of 500 for a cash for work programme: ‘I have been verbally threatened because an agency does not provide a sufficient number of cards for everyone surveyed’. Committee members also complained about being physically abused. ‘One day a member of a community who had a problem with a cash for work programme came into our tent and threw the desk on top of me.’

Information-sharing

People were generally happier with the aid they were receiving when agencies implemented coordinated information dissemination strategies. Beneficiaries were more frustrated and confused in locations where the implementing agency only gave out information through a committee or local representatives.

A lack of information about beneficiary selection fostered a range of opinions about why certain areas received certain forms and levels of aid. The numerous IDP camps around Port au Prince allowed affected people to observe the aid agencies across several locations. Consequently, in many locations people compared their situation with those in nearby camps. FGD participants in one camp believed that more aid was being delivered to a neighbouring camp because residents there were more aggressive in demanding it. Those who received less consequently felt neglected and believed that agencies were not impartial in their delivery of aid. ‘I think we are too peaceful. Maybe that is why NGOs are neglecting us. From what we can observe, aid is distributed more often in camps where people are more aggressive.’

In another location there were violent confrontations between neighbouring communities. ‘To get water we have to go down to the road to where the agency has placed three water tanks in the neighbouring camp. On our side the agency placed two tanks. But there was a problem and we never received any water. No one has told us why. As a result, we have to struggle to get water. Sometimes stones are thrown and there are fights. Why should we see blood run for a bit of water?’ The FGD facilitators raised the issue with the agency. Staff explained that the water tanks had been sited in such a way that water-delivery trucks could not access them easily. As a result, the tanks had not been filled. The agency’s failure to communicate information on water access arrangements clearly to both camps was the root cause of the confusion and resultant violence.

Quality and appropriateness of aid

Many respondents said that aid was inappropriate. In one FGD participants noted that the cash for work programme in their camp was a forest replanting scheme, yet at the same time they were given charcoal burners that required them to cut down more trees.

Beneficiaries with mobility problems and other disabilities said that none of the aid interventions considered their specific needs and circumstances. In many cases these people were dependent on their neighbours or acquaintances to secure basic necessities. Adolescent males also maintained that there were no specific programmes tailored to their needs, and noted that the majority of interventions were focused on children, adolescent girls and women. As a result, young people felt ignored and neglected.

In one camp FGD participants said that they had expressed concerns about the siting of toilets. However, the aid agency proceeded with their original plan anyway without explaining to residents why this decision had been made. The toilets then overflowed following heavy rain, forcing camp residents to use plastic bags that were then discarded around the camp. While there may have been a legitimate reason why the aid agency decided to place the toilets where they did, the lack of response to community concerns made people feel that they had been ignored.

Agencies were not able to respond adequately to the needs of communities because they did not involve them in the programme cycle and did not establish effective communication and feedback systems. ‘I appreciate the work of the organisation but would like it if staff members would be present to take into account our difficulties and worries, it is important for them to know our needs.’ Aid delivered by agencies that did not consult with communities or respond to their concerns was viewed as of little value by beneficiaries.

Complaints handling

According to FGD participants the most effective way to lodge a complaint was through a toll-free telephone number. In some communities people said that they had registered complaints in this way, which were then addressed by the agency concerned on the next visit to the project site. FGD participants from communities with this system had a better understanding of the constraints the agency was operating under.

In the other camps and communities visited, numerous FGD participants said that they had wanted to lodge complaints, but did not feel that they could because handling complaints was a committee responsibility, there was poor staff representation or there were no appropriate mechanisms in place.[2]

In four out of the ten locations visited aid agencies had set up complaints boxes. However, not a single participant in the FGDs and semi-structured interviews had attempted to use them, partly because people had not been told the purpose of the boxes. One participant noted that ‘the aid agency has not told us anything, I don’t know if it’s to give them money’. As the boxes were not locked, confidentiality was not guaranteed. One woman commented: ‘We were told to write a letter when we had a problem and drop it in the box. But the problem is that the letters are not secure, the boxes are not locked’.

Only once during the FGDs did beneficiaries mention that complaints could be lodged directly with an aid agency representative on site, and even when this was possible people rarely received a satisfactory response. On two occasions participants spoke of lodging complaints and securing redress by presenting themselves at the head office of the implementing agency.

Conclusion

The level of information sharing in all camps was minimal. Respondents noted that they rarely if ever participated in meetings with aid agencies. This led to frustration and confusion and had a negative effect on relations between agencies and communities. Where notice boards were used to communicate information about aid agency activities, and where community consultations were not limited to camp committees, focus group participants expressed positive views of those agencies. Overall, involving communities in decisions that directly affected them was rare in the larger camps, making people feel that aid agencies were not taking them seriously. In some cases this led communities to stop attending meetings.

Camp committees were criticised for failing to follow up on complaints, being biased and corrupt (mentioned in all but one of the IDP camps visited) and having limited capacity to carry out their duties. Where camp committees played a significant role in the delivery of aid agencies engaged in limited community consultation, information did not reach the most vulnerable people and there were no effective channels through which complaints could be lodged.

Although the situation in each location varied considerably in terms of the size of the camp and the geographical location, the local facilitators were consistently told that certain aid agencies were better at communicating than others. Effective engagement included coordinated information dissemination by aid agencies, opportunities for people to participate in the decision-making processes leading to immediate results and the ability to raise concerns and complaints. An integrated approach to improving accountability resulted in positive perceptions of aid agencies and in the delivery of aid that was valued by communities.

Gregory Gleed is Accountability Advisor and a member of the Roving Team at HAP International.


[1] The report is available at  http://www.hapinternational.org/projects/publications.aspx.

[2] Complaints dealing with sexual abuse and exploitation were not discussed in the focus groups.

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