The elephant in Haiti: Collaborating with a crippled, historically corrupt government ain’t easy

Kudos to Washington Post reporter William Booth — International charities fall short in Haiti — for shining a light on the elephant in the room (in this case, Haiti): When disaster strikes a barely functioning country with a government that “struggles with a legacy of corruption,” what should the international community’s role be? How can help and support best be administered to those who need it most?

Like so many individuals, NGOs and international agencies around the globe, HelpAge International was struck by the raw needs in Haiti, including the “desperate sight” of the municipal nursing home. They stepped in to provide support to the city government, getting older people the food, water and medical care they desperately needed. Now the Washington Post is highlighting HelpAge as just one of many NGOs whose “effectiveness is now being questioned.”

A year ago today I was getting shots and ordering a mosquito net & water filter in preparation to go to Haiti. The day I arrived, HelpAge International signed the memorandum of understanding with the city government to provide support to the municipal nursing home. What would a better approach have been?

Here’s two Haitians’ take on HelpAge’s role, as quoted in Mr. Booth’s story:

At the municipal nursing home, Joseph Saintime, a young security guard, said that “when the NGO was here, the old people ate better, they had better care, a doctor came. But I don’t think the NGO will ever come back. We are now alone.”

Emmanuel Jean, a manager of the nursing home, sat in a barren office tallying figures. “The NGOs come and go, they don’t have time to learn from us, the way we do things in Haiti. They don’t know what we really need. They tell us what we need. This is why they can’t work with us.”

For the next earthquake, shall we stay home? What is the best role for well-intentioned donors and workers? I still am literally losing sleep over this unanswered question.


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Kojo Nnamdi, on Washington DC’s local public radio affiliate, today did a show on “Our Graying Globe.” I’m afraid I’m at least partially to blame for this phenomenon as I failed to reproduce. Apologies!

It’s a startling statistic: By the year 2050 the world will contain more people aged 60 and older than children under 15. Some scholars say a graying globe could produce a more peaceful planet. But an aging population also provokes fears of skyrocketing medical expenditures, social security deficits and untold human and financial costs. We explore the ramifications of an aging planet, and the surprising innovations it could bring.

Michael Gusmano, Research Scholar at the Hastings Center in New York; Co-director of the World Cities Project at the International Longevity Center-USA
Phillip Longman, Senior Research Fellow, The New America Foundation; author of “The Empty Cradle: How Falling Birthrates Threaten World Prosperity and What to do About It.”

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Happy anniversary, Haiti “news you can use” radio show

Internews, an international development group that strengthens local journalists’ capacity, has a lot to celebrate this week. Last Jan 21st, only nine days after the devastating quake killed over 250,000 and displaced more than 1 million others, Internews launched a radio program to get critical life-saving info out to Haitians. “Enfomasyon Nou Dwe Konnen” (ENDK, or “News You Can Use” in English) is still going strong today. It’s a USAID program (U.S. Agency for International Development), one that the agency could (and should) use as a model in other disaster zones around the world. Heck, in any area where USAID has development programs.
What’s really great is that the program is based on audience input and feedback. Focus groups have been conducted regularly for a full year, headed up by Jennifer Mandel, Ph.D., a Northern Virginia gal I met when I was there last Feb/March. She just published an Internews report about these focus groups and how the research has been used.
So much is good here, I don’t know where to start. I’m passionate about reporting as a profession and the critical role it plays in any society. I’m so glad some smart, savvy, ambitious Haitians are getting mentoring from Internews. And while we at US News & World Report used the term “news you can use” (we might have even trademarked it), Internews has taken the slogan to the next level. They are asking listeners: “What news would be helpful for you to hear?” And then, they go back and check in to see if that answer has changed. From finding fellow survivors to getting a tarp, from food distribution info to cholera prevention and treatment. Haiti’s been through a lot and this radio program is responding to demand from its listeners.

Internews has tracked the changing information needs of the affected population by interviewing more than 11,000 people in and around 9 areas of metropolitan Port–au-Prince, as well as Petit-Goâve, and Léogâne, the town at the epicenter of the earthquake. In addition, the research team analyzes SMS texts sent to ENDK. The program receives an average of 50-100 a day, some of which are answered directly in the “mailbox” portion of the program. As with the audience survey, these also serve as a source of information about the affected population’s information needs.

The results of these studies feed directly into the newsroom planning for ENDK’s daily programming which reaches up to 70% of the Haitian population via approximately 40 radio station partners. Very unusually, the ENDK radio program, as a humanitarian communications project, responds directly to the affected population’s articulated needs, representing a true two-way information flow.

And my little heart was all aflutter to see that the one NGO mentioned in Dr. Mandel’s report that uses Internews’s focus group data and information to inform its own programming was my alma mater, HelpAge International:

The research reports are distributed widely on a fortnightly basis to the UN clusters and to all agencies working on the relief and recovery process including the Haitian government and local NGOs. The fact that they are compiled with statistical rigor has led to their use as the basis for the communications strategies by a range of organizations, such as HelpAge International, that have come to value the power of audience research. As a consequence, several, including United Nations Office of Project Services (UNOPS), International Federation of the Red Cross (IFRC), and International Organization for Migration (IOM), have been working collaboratively with the Internews research team to implement a survey on the affected population’s understanding of key cholera prevention messages, which is informing current messaging strategies on the epidemic.

Bravo! Check it out. Great stuff, Dr. Mandel and the Internews team.

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Haiti makes top-5 social media stories list for 2010!

Social media blogger Geoff Livingston just issued his 2010’s 5 most engaging social media stories, and Haiti made the list — not only the American Red Cross text-your-donation phenomenon, but also using crowd sourcing to allow disaster victims to tell aid workers where the need is greatest.

The Red Cross, Ushahidi and other nonprofits using social media to get the word out about the Haiti earthquake and taking donations via text message. The moment-in-time togetherness of the global online community was amazing. But a great deal of the aid never made it to Haitians in need, and subsequent disasters in Chile and Pakistan were met with much less enthusiasm. This is an area where we’ve made great progress, and I can’t wait to see more.

And check out Livingston’s original post here: 5 Social Media Lessons From the Haiti Earthquake Relief Effort

He’s right. A huge step in the right direction and much, much progress to be made. Stay tuned, philanthropy/disaster/comms communities.

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WSJ on the “Republic of NGOs” – Great article

This Wall Street Journal article from last Friday just about sums up my feelings about Haiti interventions — the “Republic of NGOs.” Heartbreaking. NGOs may be perpetuating the very problems they seek to solve by “infantilizing” the country and its own government.

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Debrief on Haiti and disaster communications – Highlights of Wednesday’s panel

Wednesday’s panel discussion here in Washington DC about Haiti and Disaster Communications was stupendous. Here’s the follow-up email I sent participants, which summarizes some main points discussed and has lots of relevant links throughout.

Thank you again so much for attending Wednesday’s panel discussion about Haiti and Disaster Communications. What a stimulating and wonderful discussion. I’ve heard from many of you and am delighted that others, too, found the substance of the conversation so interesting. This follow-up email includes just a few links and attachments, some of which were sent to me by different participants.

I would like again to take this opportunity to thank the three panelists — Sandra Bunch of ACDI/VOCA, Mat Morgan of American Red Cross, and Kate Conradt of Save the Children — for serving as panelists and sharing such interesting observations and insights into their Haiti experience so far this year. And I appreciate how involved attendees were in the discussions. Thanks for chiming in with such thoughtful questions and new angles/perspectives.

Here are some highlights of themes touched upon at the panel:

• Haiti earthquake generated an unexpected and relatively sustained level of media interest, compared to past disasters there (e.g., hurricanes, etc.). NYT still has an editorial writer devoted to Haiti: Most recent post was June 18, Basics for Haiti. NPR’s still sending reporters down (hear a June 3 story here by Jason Beaubien) and is working on a big six-month report asking for NGO’s financials now.
• NGOs had to strive for a balance in how they spent their resources – meeting basic needs and delivering services to those in need vs. spending money or resources to generate and handle media interest. Save the Children chose to send a comms professional, ACDI/VOCA for a number of reasons chose not to (focus of mission & positioning is about longer term development rather than humanitarian relief).
• Level of media scrutiny and skepticism of how NGO resources are being spent waxes and wanes in any disaster and this one was no exception. Many journalists – particularly American ones — who covered the quake have tended toward advocacy journalism as the disaster seems to have touched them very deeply. Perhaps due to Haiti’s proximity to USA. Many journalists, US ones in particular, were very willing to give a “pass” early on. And were willing to listen to explanations of why aid was not reaching an NGO’s target group as quickly as we all would have liked (e.g., CNN Anderson Cooper’s producer sat with to Save the Children’s Kate for over an hour, which shifted the story line). European journalists tend to be more hard core on this front than American, less protective of NGOs & aid groups.
• Disaster-affected communities experience “media fatigue” and many show resistance or even backlash to reporters and NGO communications staff recording the problems rather than helping solve them.
• Media is so hungry for visuals early on that almost any photo or footage provided will get used and will highlight your org (e.g., American Red Cross photos early on).
• Social media and blogosphere offers opportunities but also major potential PR challenges as bloggers openly criticize aid efforts and much traffic can result.

Some relevant links based on Wednesday’s discussion:

• Blog — Good Intentions Are Not Enough: An honest conversation about the impact of aid, by Saundra Schimmelpfennig
As a leading expert in the post-2004 tsunami recovery efforts in Thailand, I have seen the impact of aid from all perspectives: villagers, government officials, religious leaders, aid agency staff and directors, the United Nations, and various donors. Through these interactions I found that donors are key to improving the delivery of aid, yet they lack the knowledge necessary to make funding decisions that positively impact that delivery.

Haiti’s botched reconstruction by the numbers: Over $5 billion of aid pledged, but only 2 percent delivered. Five months after the earthquake, Haiti’s reconstruction appears stalled, The Week magazine, 24 June 2010.

NPR’s This American Life stories from Planet Money, 21 May 2010. Unprecedented amounts of money have been pledged to Haitian relief in the last few months. American households have given over $1 billion and in March, 120 countries pledged over $9 billion(!) to rebuild. The only problem is that – historically – blanketing a country in aid and money has never really worked so well. Is there a chance this time things could be different? Prologue: Four months after the earthquake in Haiti, Ira Glass talks to Haitian reporter Joseph-Romuald Felix while Romuald tours a tent camp in the Petionville suburb of Port au Prince. Romuald talks to four children — two of them have eaten this day, two have not. Nan Buzard, who heads the American Red Cross effort in Haiti, tells Ira that relief agencies have to walk a thin line between helping too little and helping too much.

Lockheed Martin launches Twitter research project: Will focus on social media’s role in disasters and crises,, 25 June 2010

• American Red Cross’s You Tube video posted 11 pm EST on Tuesday, Jan. 12, just five hours after the quake. 1.2 million views within 24 hours, according to Mat Morgan. Tracy Reines, Director of Response Operations for the American Red Cross, discusses the latest for the disaster response to Haiti as of 11 PM EST on Tuesday night.

Thanks again to all who came and contributed to this great conversation. With great enthusiasm to keep the conversation going or have another panel, a smaller subset of us will be getting together to start plans. Stay tuned!

Meanwhile, have a great weekend and a very happy 4th. I hope to see some or all of you soon!



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Join us TOMORROW for panel about Haiti and Disaster Communications

There are still a few seats left for this brown-bag lunch event on WEDNESDAY JUNE 23 sponsored by Progressive Communicators of Washington, DC (PCDC). New panelist — Mat Morgan, an American Red Cross communications officer, has jumped on board to join Save the Children, ACDI/VOCA and yours truly:

Format: Panel discussion, bring your own brown-bag lunch
Date & time: Wed., June 23, from 12:15 to 1:30 p.m.
Location: World Wildlife Fund, 1250 Twenty-Fourth Street, NW, Washington, DC
Event sponsor: Progressive Communicators of Washington, DC (PCDC),
RSVP: Email with “Haiti Lunch” in the subject line – Space is limited,* so reserve today!

A disaster the magnitude of the Haiti earthquake, and in our own hemisphere to boot, drew unprecedented media attention. Donations poured in. Some NGOs – including Save the Children, ACDI/VOCA, American Red Cross, and HelpAge International – realized that having strong, on-the-ground communications support could make a tremendous difference in getting word out about the disaster’s impact. Home offices thirsted for stories on how individual lives were affected.

Disaster communications can play a critical role in supporting an organization’s advocacy, fundraising, donor communications and even program (PSAs, messages to disaster-affected populations). Humanitarian relief organizations are more aware of this potential than ever since the January quake. What function do emergency communications professionals play on the ground? What are the opportunities for freelance communications professionals?


Kate Conradt, Director of Media and Communications, Save the Children – Kate, a former journalist and a five-year veteran at Save the Children, was in Haiti the day after the earthquake. She was interviewed as early as Day 2 by many media outlets, including NPR, CBS News and The Guardian. She started at Save just before Hurricane Katrina, so can compare/contrast the two disasters from a comms perspective.

Sandra Bunch, Senior Director, Public Relations & Communications, ACDI/VOCA – An RPCV with a decade of experience in international development communications, Sandra can discuss ACDI/VOCA’s comms strategy given the organization’s long-term presence in Haiti working on food security.

Cindy Powell, Principal, CP Knowhow LLC, was in Haiti during Month 2 after the quake serving as a consultant to HelpAge International, an NGO that advocates for and serves older people in developing countries. Media placements include The New York Times, The Washington Post, Associated Press, Miami Herald, and more.

Mat Morgan, Communications Officer, American Red Cross, will join us on the panel. Mat was on the ground in Haiti for roughly 4 weeks from mid-February to mid-March. For a video clip of Mat speaking from Port-au-Prince, click here. He’s worked at the American Red Cross national headquarters for roughly a year, and has volunteered with the organization since he was 14 years old.

*IMPORTANT: If you have RSVP’d and your plans change, please notify us 24 hours in advance as it is important to have an accurate head count to organize this event. No-shows may mean we unnecessarily turn away people who would have liked to attend.

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