The devastating earthquake that struck Haiti five years ago was followed by a flood, as billions of dollars were poured into a reconstruction effort largely led by private non-governmental organizations.
Almost immediately, Haitians, activists, and well-wishing donors the world over began to ask: “Where did the money go?”
This summer, ProPublica and NPR released a report
on exactly where some of that money went. The headline — “How the Red
Cross Raised Half a Billion Dollars for Haiti and Built Six Homes” —
neatly summed up the beloved charity’s big-picture failures in the
country. But perhaps the most damning parts of the report concerned the
Red Cross’ over-reliance on non-Haitian employees, who were highly
compensated despite often not even speaking the local Creole or French.
While many Americans were rightly shocked, most Haitians just nodded
knowingly. “The Red Cross has always been like that,” my mother said to
me the day the report was released. “They pay people a lot of money so
they can vacation.” International organizations that go to Haiti to
“help” often spend a lot of aid money on overhead that doesn’t go toward helping anyone.
For example, ProPublica and NPR unearthed internal budget documents
for a Red Cross housing project in Campeche. The project manager
position, which is reserved for an expatriate, received allowances for
housing, food, home leave trips, four vacations a year, and relocation
expenses. All of these totaled a whopping $140,000. The top local
position, by contrast — a Haitian senior engineer — earned just $42,000.
The Red Cross isn’t alone in hiring expensive expatriate staff. According to the Center for Global Development, high overhead costs
are par for the course for many international NGOs. A single staff
member at an organization in Haiti can earn $200,000 each year in
With an estimated 10,000 non-governmental organizations operating in
the country, it’s no surprise that Haiti is often referred to as the
republic of NGOs. Among Haitians, expatriates who work for these
organizations have become known as the “NGO class.” They live
comfortably in the well-to-do suburb of Petionville in the hills above
Port-au-Prince. Expensive grocery stores and restaurants cater to their
tastes. Down below, many Haitians struggle to survive.
Among locals, widespread unemployment cripples economic growth and
further exacerbates poverty. According to the CIA World Factbook, 40.6
percent of Haitians are unemployed, although there’s wide participation
in the informal economy. With the jobless epidemic in Haiti, job
creation should be a priority for NGOs. Instead, they’re often part of
After the earthquake, for example, many aid organizations outsourced
the rebuilding of homes — which might have presented good work
opportunities for poor Haitians — to international firms. “Outsourcing
the construction drove the price up,” explained Jake Johnston in the Boston Review,
“since international companies had to fly in, rent hotels and cars, and
spend USAID allowances for food and cost-of-living expenses.” The U.S.
government also gave contractors and employees danger and hardship pay,
which increased their salaries by more than 50 percent.
The bonanza paid big dividends for for-profit firms as well as NGOs.
The CEO of Chemonics International — a for-profit development firm that
received the largest Haiti contracts from USAID — received a $2.5 million bonus last year.
By spending exorbitant sums on incentives for non-locals, NGOs
effectively undermine the work they’re supposedly trying to do in Haiti.
Shelim Dorval, a Haitian employee for the Red Cross, explained to
ProPublica and NPR the problem with hiring expatriates. “For each one of
those expats, they were having high salaries, staying in a fancy house,
and getting vacation trips back to their countries. A lot of money was
spent on those people who were not Haitian, who had nothing to do with
Haiti. The money was just going back to the United States.”