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Following Outcry, the Red Cross Is Shifting Its Priorities in Haiti

The Red Cross says it is adopting a better approach to help Haitians recover from the 2010 earthquake — but past mistakes might plague its future.
A hillside dirt road in Canaan, an improvised community in Haiti. (Photo by Rebecca Blackwell/AP Images)

When an earthquake decimated Haiti's capital and nearby cities in 2010, people around the world pledged $13 billion in aid, $488 million of which was donated to the American Red Cross — the largest branch of the world's largest relief charity.

In June, an NPR/ProPublica report alleged that the Red Cross had misused and wasted funds it devoted to housing, building only six out of 700 planned homes and failing to shelter anywhere near as many displaced Haitians as it had claimed. US Rep. Rick Nolan (D-Minn.) urged the House Oversight Committee to hold congressional hearings on the matter, calling the allegations "extremely disturbing," but none have yet been scheduled.


In a letter last month to Red Cross CEO Gail McGovern, US Sen. Charles Grassley (R-Iowa) said he was "deeply concerned" by indications that "the Red Cross failed to meet many of its objectives in Haiti," and asked for a detailed accounting of its programs.

Rather than assert that its spending information amounted to "trade secrets," as it did when it initially declined to detail its spending on Hurricane Sandy relief last year, the Red Cross replied that it had spent $76.5 million on temporary or provisional shelter, another $34 million on repairing damaged houses and helping families relocate, and $62 million on neighborhood renovation programs, which also included the repair of permanent homes. (Grassley's office told VICE News that he still wants the agency to disclose overhead costs and other spending details.)

Related: How the US Plan to Build Houses for Displaced Haitians Became an Epic Boondoggle

Five years after the earthquake, some 64,000 Haitians remain officially displaced, and tens of thousands more reside in temporary shelters or on land from which they face eviction. Roughly 150,000 of them live in a desolate stretch of land at the foot of the mountains north of Port-au-Prince that Haitians call Canaan — the biblical Promised Land.

Boys play soccer in a rare open patch in Canaan, Haiti, where a disorganized scramble to claim free land followed the 2010 earthquake. (Photo by Rebecca Blackwell/AP Images)

It is located just southeast of Titanyen, a settlement whose grassy plains have long served as a dumping ground for the bodies of political opponents and, more recently, for victims of the earthquake and a cholera epidemic, sourced to UN peacekeepers, that quickly followed.


With more homesteaders arriving each week, the Red Cross has partnered with USAID to invest $14 million in a series of projects over the next two years to support them as they build a permanent community. There is much work to be done: Canaan lacks paved roads, electricity, plumbing, and public services, while heavy rains and hurricanes make it vulnerable to severe flooding and landslides.

The Canaan projects are part of a $56 million investment that the Red Cross says it has committed to development and disaster preparedness in Haiti. It expects to spend most of this by the end of 2016, but will continue to sponsor various initiatives into 2017 and perhaps beyond.

The agency's adjustment of priorities in Canaan illustrates its evolving understanding of the infrastructural challenges that disaster recovery entails, but critics of its effort in Haiti insist that this does not absolve it of what they say were harmful mistakes.

'Helping people live more permanently in Canaan… is that a good idea?'

"They raised more money than they knew what to do with," Jonathan Katz, the Associated Press bureau chief in Haiti at the time of the earthquake and author of The Big Truck That Went By: How the World Came to Save Haiti and Left Behind a Disaster, told VICE News. He argues that the ineffective use by the Red Cross and other aid agencies of hundreds of millions of dollars in contributions shaped many of the problems the country faces today.


"When people criticize the Red Cross they say, 'We gave half a billion dollars to the Red Cross and five years later there are still some tent camps — where did the money go?' " he remarked, referring to temporary shelters for people whose homes had been destroyed or damaged. "Answer: into the tent camps. They built tent camps."

Habitat for Humanity estimated in 2013 that $500 million in total aid had been spent on emergency aid and transitional shelters, leaving just $200 million for reconstruction.By spending so much on temporary accommodation, charities left thousands of Haitians entrenched in precarious lodging conditions while allocating insufficient funds to permanent housing or services.

"If the response to the earthquake had been competent, Canaan wouldn't exist," Katz said. "The amount of work that would be put into making it safe to live in would be tearing it down and building it from scratch."

Related: In Photos: Life at the Largest Border Crossing Between Haiti and the Dominican Republic

Missing from this discussion is the role of Haiti's government. There was no one living in Canaan at the time of the earthquake, but after Haiti's government declared the area a public utility, government officials and some relief agencies began promoting the area as a viable location for Haiti's displaced masses. Many heeded the call, creating a disorderly sprawl of improvised housing.


Clement Belizaire, the head of the country's housing agency, agrees that the humanitarian response was chaotic.

"There was a lack of coordination," he told VICE News. "International agencies were not responding to the will of the Haitian government, and that was a shame."

Belizaire noted that the Red Cross closely aligned its spending with the government's wishes, however. If the agency misappropriated its resources, he suggested, it did so at the direction of Haiti's leaders.

A shack in Canaan. (Photo by Rebecca Blackwell/AP Images)

Leslie Schaffer, the American Red Cross's current Latin America regional director, told VICE News that this is why, apart from funding temporary shelters, the agency allocated millions of dollars to projects like Campeche, the urban housing project described as a major failure because only six houses of a promised 700 were constructed.

"The government of Haiti said, 'Listen, if you build new communities, there are land tenure issues, and we have to provide all the other services that accompany it. What would be better is if you would help us to reconstruct our inner cities,' " she recalled.

Belizaire believes that it is misguided to blame the Red Cross for not crafting a comprehensive housing plan when Haiti's government itself didn't have one. It took more than two years to create the housing policy agency that Belizaire now directs and for that agency to compose a national policy.

"You can't build houses when there's no housing policy," he said.


Meanwhile, he added, the government's preliminary plan contained what were in retrospect poor directives. Released two months after the earthquake, it urged swift and largely temporary solutions to shelter. The plan called for the immediate relocation of 100,000 people squatting in precarious Port-au-Prince locations, saying it had identifying five sites for relocation where "provisional shelters should be installed." But it did not name these sites, making it impossible to know if Canaan was among them.

By the time it formulated a national housing policy, Haiti's government had changed its tune drastically. "The construction of housing is the responsibility of families," it declared at the outset of the 72-page document. The plan called for increased loans and credit as well as incentives and support for Haitians to build or rebuild homes and communities themselves.

"That's what the Red Cross is doing now," Belizaire said.

'This is recognizing that this will be a massive city to come.'

Just three years after the disaster, homesteaders had already spent $90 million of their own money on construction in Canaan, according to an estimate by Habitat for Humanity.

Some of Canaan's areas have markets, schools of varying quality, and even two-story buildings and spotty, informal electricity. But newer arrivals must settle in areas with little more than dirt paths snaking between tiny structures made of sticks, tarpaulin sheets, and salvaged scraps of metal. The Red Cross and USAID have designed a series of projects to help change that. A nonprofit called Global Communities won the bid to implement the project, but it won't be building houses. It will instead lead from behind, working with the Red Cross to provide technical assistance for Canaan residents to accomplish their own goals.


Anna Konotchick, who is managing the Canaan program on behalf of the Red Cross, told VICE News that this strategy reflects the Haitian government's new approach to housing.

"Instead of 'get a government to build a house, get an NGO to build a T-shelter,' now it's shifted to providing communities support in leading the process," she said.

Related: Investigating a Mysterious Cholera Outbreak in Haiti: Correspondent Confidential

Red Cross funding will be used to help a Haitian bank set up microfinance lending and banking locations so that Canaan residents can benefit from long-term financial services and planning. People will receive loans to start small enterprises, ranging anywhere from wheeled coffee carts to cellphone charging stations. A second microfinance institution will extend loans to those who might not otherwise qualify — people without assets or who seem less likely to repay a loan.

Other projects are structural. The Red Cross will pay for a Haitian contractor to build Canaan's first paved road and fund its first water pipeline. (Residents currently buy water that is brought in on trucks.) It will also bankroll the construction of Canaan's first school to be approved by the Ministry of Education, and help establish a proper electrical grid.

Most importantly, the Red Cross will work with nearly a dozen different government agencies and utilities to coordinate Canaan's future development.


Watch Vikram Gandhi debrief the VICE on HBO episode about the "Haitian money pit":

"This is recognizing that this will be a massive city to come," Konotchick remarked. "It's not just trying to react to what this is now, but trying to react to what it will be years from now, knowing that it will double or triple in size."

From funding technical studies on soil quality, to ensuring that each part of the Canaan is accessible by road, to creating local governance structures, the Red Cross will support residents as they "plan what Canaan will look like five years, ten years from now," she said.

To everyday donors, that may not sound coherent or even measurable. But it's what the Red Cross, USAID, and Haiti's government agree is the best way forward.

"Infrastructure, roads, electricity — this is our vision, and the Red Cross is supporting this," Belizaire said.

But Canaan's fate remains uncertain. Some believe the land may be a flood zone, and that heavy rains or hurricanes could jeopardize the homes and lives of its residents. A study released in April warns that "large areas of the settlement are currently exposed to flood hazard." If those risks aren't properly mitigated, Canaan could be another disaster in the making.

Global Communities is currently drafting a proposal due in mid-September that will lay out how Red Cross funding can mitigate these risks — by supporting the planting of trees to reduce soil erosion, for example. Belizaire has also acknowledged that the government will likely have to resettle Haitians residing on steep hillsides and other hazardous zones.

Critics like Katz counter that the premise of assisting the development of a city in a disaster-risk area is ill-advised.

"Helping people live more permanently in Canaan… is that a good idea?" he asked. "If in five years there's a hurricane and 2,000 people are dead in Canaan, [the Red Cross] better not say that they had nothing to do with that and then try to raise more money."

But Belizaire says there's little alternative.

"Yes, the area has a very high risk of flooding," he said. "We are a natural disaster risk country."

Follow Jacob Kushner on Twitter: @JacobKushner