Jan 6, 2014
As the fourth anniversary of the massive, January 12, 2010, earthquake in Haiti approached, I
invited CGD senior fellows Vijaya Ramachandran and Michael Clemens, experts respectively
on disaster relief and labor mobility, to join me on the Wonkcast to discuss the role of outsiders
in trying to assist Haiti’s recovery. The record is not reassuring on either count. But it does offer
valuable lessons for future efforts in Haiti and for attempts elsewhere to help poor countries
struck by disasters.
Vijaya’s research on Haiti found that in the aftermath of the quake there was an outpouring of
international support, with some $6 billion in public and private contributions from the United
States alone. Vijaya explains that such a large sum, if distributed directly to citizens, would have
doubled the income of the average Haitian for a year. But reconstruction has been painfully slow
and there has been little sign of improved living conditions. What happened to all that money?
“Nobody knows,” Vijaya says. “There is so little tracking of what happened to these funds.
We know from the available data that money was disbursed to organizations in the US and
elsewhere--nongovernmental organizations, for-profit organizations, some public organizations,
including various agencies that were implementing programs in Haiti--but after that the trail goes
Much of the relief and reconstruction money initially passed through USAID, the leading US
development agency. USAID reports on disbursements to its primary contractors but these firms
and NGOs typically then subcontract to others. And while the primary contractors are required
to collect data on their subcontractors’ activities, they are not required to disclose it. Usually they
don’t--and neither does USAID.
“The information is likely somewhere in USAID’s system, but it’s not being aggregated or
released in any understandable way to the public,” Vijaya says.
This way of doing business is increasingly at odds with a global push for greater transparency,
including in foreign assistance. The International Aid Transparency Initiative (IATI) has created
an online toolset that makes it easy for aid donors, NGOs and for-profit contractors to disclose
their activities on a common platform in a consistent digital format.
Vijaya explains: “IATI basically creates a very simple accounting format where different
organizations can report what they’re doing. And this format is standardized, so we can
compare what one organization, say Save the Children, is doing in comparison to Oxfam … and
these organizations themselves can see what the other players are doing.” Subcontractors can
use the system just as easily--and likely would if USAID encouraged them to do so, Vijaya adds.
“There’s no reason why this data cannot be uploaded quickly and easily,” she says.
The issue is not going away. Vijaya and I recall how after Typhoon Haiyan devastated the
central Philippines last November a blog post that she wrote with Owen Barder urging the
United States and other donors to be transparent about their assistance received thousands
of Facebook likes from Filipinos in the Philippines and overseas. The Philippine government
launched its own Foreign Aid Transparency Hub (FAiTH) and is looking to the United States and
other donors to support this effort by disclosing more detailed data on their own activities in the
Of course, aid can only do so much. Michael Clemens argues that the benefits of increased
labor mobility potentially dwarf aid, in Haiti, the Philippines, and elsewhere.
After a short break I turn to Michael to discuss the potential for increased labor mobility to raise
incomes and reinforce recovery in Haiti. It’s an issue on which he has been actively involved, as
one of the world’s top researchers on such questions and as a policy entrepreneur, pushing for
Haitians to receive the same opportunities that many other poor developing countries have to
send temporary workers to the United States.
Increased labor mobility for Haiti “could help enormously,” Michael says. “Something like 10
percent of Haitians live outside Haiti, and about a quarter of the economy in Haiti is sustained by
people sending money home, so really a huge feature of the economic landscape.”
The United States did slightly modify migration rules for Haitians after the quake: those already
in the country were temporarily protected from deportation. But Michael discovered that Haiti
was not included on the list of countries eligible for temporary work permits known as H2 visas,
which allow people to work in seasonal agriculture and service industries, such as tourism.
Under Michael’s leadership, CGD pushed for Haiti to be included.
“We recommended to the Department of Homeland Security that they undo that ban and allow
Haitians to access these visas,” Michael explains. They did that, but since then, nobody has
taken the next step of building a program that would allow Haiti to really use this program for
The next step Michael refers to would be the creation of a guest-worker program, similar to
successful programs in New Zealand and Canada, that help to ensure mutual benefits through
activities such as pre-departure training, collaboration and information sharing, and selection
of workers. In the absence of a broader national program, Michael suggests a US-Haitian
partnership that could effectively and cheaply help Haiti recover and grow its economy.
Such a partnership, he says, should include Haiti's labor ministry; an international organization to provide technical assistance, showing Haiti
how other countries manage such programs; and private sector recruiters to recruit, train, and monitor the workers.
Michael estimates that such
a program, which could unleash hundreds of millions of dollars in remittances from Haitians
working in the United States, could be set up and run for less than a million dollars. That’s less
than a tenth of one percent of foreign assistance provided to Haiti since the quake.
We end the discussion concluding that there are two “stroke of the pen” changes that could
make a world of difference to Haiti, even four years after the quake. 1) USAID Administrator Raj
Shah should announce that primary contractors are strongly encouraged to begin using IATI to
disclose data on subcontractor activities and 2) a philanthropist involved in trying to help Haiti
should step forward to sponsor the creation of US-Haitian labor mobility partnership.