How The Government Used Our Money In Haiti: FOIA Request

Part 1 of a 3-part series of posts based on our FOIA query.

This summer, Beltway chatter about Haiti crystallized around one question: where did all that reconstruction money go?

We decided to find out. We submitted a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request to USAID. The goal was to learn 2 things about our post-earthquake spending in Haiti: 1) whom USAID had given money to, and 2) for what purpose.

USAID gave us information about aid from 3 government agencies: USAID, the State Department, and the Department of Defense[1]. It covered $1.1 billion of aid, all allocated in 2010 after the earthquake.

The first graph shows spending by “mechanism.” Think of the mechanism as the purpose for the aid in question.

For instance, the OFDA mechanism was for basic disaster relief: health, shelter, search and rescue, etc. The OTI mechanism was for programs focused on reconstruction (“Building Back Better”) rather than relief.

Calculated based on data provided by USAID through our FOIA Request

Food For Peace: Ignoring the Consensus on Aid Practices

Two parts of this graph merit further comment. More than 75% of FFP funds ($173 million) were used for “Public Law 480 Title II food assistance”. That’s the technical description for buying surplus produce from US farmers, and giving it to NGOs who work in poor countries.

An incredibly common misconception is that Title II food aid all goes to food distribution. In fact, NGOs “monetize” much of it by selling the food in local (in this case, Haitian) markets to fundraise for their own operations.

Aid experts agree that monetization harms “beneficiary” populations for a range of reasons. Even the US Government Accountability Office urged Congress to stop giving NGOs food aid for monetization.

Even the NGOs who monetize aid admit it’s a bad practice. The two biggest NGO recipients of post-earthquake Title II food aid were World Vision and Catholic Relief Services (CRS). World Vision is regularly criticized for its extreme lack of transparency (and here), so it’s difficult to determine their stance on monetization. CRS, however, has this disclaimer on the FAQ section of its website:

CRS recognizes that selling commodities, also referred to as monetization, is an inefficient method of obtaining funding.

We don’t know how much of the Title II aid was monetized vs. distributed as food. The last time a researcher pushed NGOs to disclose budgetary details through an FOIA request, the response looked like this (see below). Thus, it’s unlikely we’ll ever know the breakdown of how the Title II aid was used.

Past FOIA requests when researchers push for NGO budget details.

However, we’ve argued before that sending food for distribution is harmful as well. More recently, Beverly Bell captured the dismay of Haitian farmers who watched “Miami Rice” stream into Haiti after the quake.


Military: Haiti’s Biggest Post-Quake Need?

The other issue that requires comment is that the biggest chunk of aid went to the Department of Defense (DoD). The primary purpose for DoD funds is described, vaguely, as “Logistics and Relief Commodities.”

The US has repeatedly been taken to task for “militarizing” its aid. While many defend the need for US military in Haiti to secure our aid delivery, the enormous DoD allocation raises questions. For instance, was military presence the most direly needed contribution the US could make to post-earthquake Haiti?

Who’s The Intended Beneficiary?

The money allocated to Title II food aid and the DoD accounts for more than half of the FY2010 funds for Haiti. Yet, as we’ve discussed, neither mechanism is supported by aid experts as a good way to give. So why do we do it?

The likely answer can be found in our recent post on aid tying: food and military aid are two of the primary ways the US ties its aid.

Part 2 of this series will consider the individual recipients, while Part 3 will consider alternatives. In the meantime, we invite you to check out the document USAID sent us yourselves.

Part II and Part III.

[1] USAID is only one of 21 US agencies that report aid spending annually. It accounts for 52% of US aid spending (OECD 2011:43). For more, see:,3746,en_2649_34603_48366978_1_1_1_1,00.html.

5 Responses to How The Government Used Our Money In Haiti: FOIA Request

  1. Sharon Kaiser Miller says:

    Great research and insight into our country’s altruistic attempts at charity.

  2. Nathan Yaffe says:

    Thanks, Sharon! It’s a bit depressing, but the only way to create pressure to change it is by bringing it out into the open.

  3. […] publishing the third installment in our FOIA series about how the government used US money in Haiti, here’s your annotated Haiti reading […]

  4. […] The first post revealed that most of our money went to two forms of aid – militarized aid and “tied” food aid – both of which the US is chastised for using because they’re either ineffective or harmful. The second post showed that most of the rest of the money went to the UN – followed by private contractors – and that within the UN, it was allocated in a manner that neglected Haiti’s biggest post-quake challenge. […]

  5. […] Alliance has just undergone such a research effort. Last week, we concluded a series of posts about US post-quake aid choices. Before that, we wrote on how some of USAID’s worst practices are artifacts of decades-old laws […]

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