Lessons From The FOIA Series

In the final installment of our Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) series, we explore different ways the US could’ve handled the relief effort.

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.

This time we peek under the hood of the USAID system to understand what led to those choices. This perspective is essential not only for explaining why the relief effort played out as it did, but more importantly, for pointing the way forward from here.

Countable or Accountable? Getting Aid Priorities Straight

USAID spends a lot of time counting, which is important because that allows it to justify spending to Congress. How well USAID can report what it counts has a direct impact on how credibly they can ask for money.

Because of this, USAID has incentives to make things easier to count. Two ways they’ve done this historically is through Indefinite Quantity Contracts (IQCs) and through financing inputs rather than outputs. While these are technical terms, we can steer clear of the jargon and still illustrate their importance using concrete examples.

In scenario 1, USAID uses an IQC and finances inputs. This scenario actually occurred. In scenario 2, we discuss what it would look like if USAID used grants and financed outputs.

Scenario 1

This input-focused IQC (see below) allows USAID to interact only with contractors: there’s no need to talk with Haitian groups at all. The contractor and USAID determine what the contractor will provide (in this case, hybrid seeds), but the contract itself is open-ended. Chemonics receives an “Indefinite” amount of money over an “Indefinite” amount of time (although IQCs are always multi-million dollar, multi-year deals).

When USAID uses IQCs, the dialogue doesn't include local groups. That means critical questions can't be asked. For example, what capacities do local groups have to address the problem themselves? How can USAID build on local efforts?

If anyone ever talks to local groups, it’s the contractor – not USAID. But even USAID admits this doesn’t actually happen. In a conference call last November, a USAID official said, “local partners have great difficulty working with… our large multimillion dollar projects.” Unfortunately, those projects consumed all of USAID’s post-quake relief money.

This approach makes USAID’s activities quite countable. The inputs – 505 tons of hybrid seed, divided between 40 distribution centers – are agreed on in advance and extremely easy to track and report. Unfortunately, these activities are not at all accountable. At least not to the right parties. That is, no Haitian partners had a stake in formulating goals or tactics, and therefore they can’t participate in ensuring the right outcomes are achieved. An IQC-funded contractor whose funding is tied to inputs may be directly duplicating, or maybe even working directly at odds with, local efforts – and more than likely they wouldn’t know until the project was well underway.

Scenario 2

During… most natural disasters, by the time the guys with sniffer dogs fly in, tailed by the TV cameras, local people and organizations will have already done most of the life-saving.

-Duncan Green, Head of Research for Oxfam Great Britain

Most UN plans don’t survive contact with the people they propose to help.

-Dan Murphy, CS Monitor

These quotes speak to the reality that local groups are most effective. Scenario 2 thus imagines a system where USAID first maps existing efforts at the grassroots level. Before contracting with NGOs or private companies, they strategize how external actors can complement existing efforts. This would involve focusing on specific goals (i.e. outputs) rather than inputs.

The advantage of this approach is obvious. Because of their size, IQC-funded contractors are almost structurally incapable of having dialogue with the communities they purport to serve. However, the exact opposite is true of internal aid actors and civil society groups. If USAID issues a grant to a local organization, there’s one thing they know for sure: the aid dialogue includes a local perspective.

This would have made an enormous difference in the relief effort. The internal aid actors we work with in Haiti are inherently more flexible, responsive, and likely to pursue appropriate solutions than external actors like private contractors or the UN. Moreover, by strengthening groups that will be there after the relief effort ends, USAID would make a lasting development impact.

Where Do We Go From Here?

The only way to ensure we start moving in this direction is for USAID to eliminate the IQC mechanism altogether. Last November – perhaps reflecting on the failures of the Haiti effort – USAID acknowledged that IQCs are “inefficient, ineffective, and high-risk.”

That sounds like a victory, except for the fact that Congress – not USAID – ultimately controls the purse strings. And predictably, private contractors formed a Congressional lobby to prevent aid from becoming more effective when USAID so much as proposed prioritizing grants to local groups over contracting.

But the IQC must go if we hope to one day see a US aid presence in Haiti that is helpful, not harmful. Such an effort simply requires strong local voices. And as researcher Mead Over of the Center for Global Development argued, supporting more local groups can only happen if “the overhead that previously went to IQC contractors is shifted into USAID’s administrative budget to oversee all these new contracts.”

This is a matter of moral clarity. Our FOIA series shows that the US behaved irresponsibly and arrogantly, brushing aside aid experts, Haitian civil society, and the Haitian government. The end result – deploying an army of private contractors to Haiti with little context or relevant local knowledge – is reprehensible. Eliminating IQCs won’t force USAID to adopt the best possible practices, but it could at least prevent them from adopting the worst.


Part I and Part II.

3 Responses to Lessons From The FOIA Series

  1. J. says:

    In general I agree with the things you’re saying here. Aid is political. Always. And so it should come as no real surprise to anyone that USAID and the larger US Government make foreign aid decisions that sometimes/frequently go against what anyone with any objectivity at all knows to be “good aid.” And sure enough, the highly politicized nature of aid spending (not just US) invariably means that local organizations have to scrap to be recognized and heard.

    However, and without wanting to quibble, it needs to be pointed out that there is a bit (a *bit*) more nuance than you’re allowing:

    There is a very wide gulf between IQCs and the supposed “reality that local groups are more effective.” The two most common USAID funding mechanisms are “contracts” and “cooperative agreements”, both of which are very different from IQCs, and both of which allow very substantial opportunity for competent local organizations, either as direct grantees of USAID or as sub-grantees within a consortia or partnership.

    I’d also question the statement “…that local groups are more effective.” More effective at what, exactly? Duncan Green’s quote speaks directly to the immediate life-saving potential following a big disaster. Pulling people from the rubble, etc. by their family and neighbors. They’re more effective because they’re there, not because they’re better at search and rescue necessarily.

    It’s common and trendy to raise the “but what about LOCAL?” issue in the humanitarian aid and development debates these days. While I agree that “local” is a “good aid” essential ingredient, it is important to define what we mean by “local groups” and to have realistic expectations based on a realistic understanding of their capacity vis-a-vis non-local groups, whatever one takes non-local to mean.

  2. Nathan Yaffe says:

    Dear J.,

    I really appreciate you taking the time to reply. I also both appreciate and respect the expertise you bring to your analysis as an experienced professional.

    I’ll be the first to acknowledge that this post could have gone a lot deeper into procurement policies – I intentionally chose not to even use the P-word because of the intended audience.

    However, I still think most of this post is more nuanced (with one exception) than someone who jumps on board the go-local bandwagon because it’s hip.

    First, the exception. I’ll acknowledge it was over-simplified to make the blanket assertion, “local groups are most effective.” To be fair, though, I went on to say, “The internal aid actors we work with in Haiti are inherently more flexible, responsive, and likely to pursue appropriate solutions than external actors like the UN.” By virtue of our partners’ size (small) and origin (community organizing), as well as direct observation, I’m confident making that statement. That being said, I should have made the explicit qualification (as I did in last Friday’s guest-post on the topic for View From The Cave…) that local groups aren’t most effective at all things.

    More generally, though, there are two big aid-system points that I think come out of this article, both of which I stand by (although would love to hear more pushback…).

    The first is that it’s always undesirable when outside orgs either (A) directly duplicate or (B) work directly at odds with what’s being done by local groups. Both of those things happened in Haiti. If you look at the most exciting innovations in aid and development research, they seem to reflect the principle that locally driven is preferable as far as it goes. I’m thinking of things like CLTS (http://www.oxfamblogs.org/fp2p/?p=5542) or any of the research from the Citizenship Development Research Center (http://www.drc-citizenship.org/pages/winning-policy-change). My stance, therefore, leaves room for a variety of non-local groups to manage complementary efforts, but not duplicative or opposing ones.

    The second is that IQCs as a procurement mechanism make it impossible to guard against (A) and (B) above. As far as I can tell, the contractors working under IQCs are the ones most likely to exacerbate the problem you discuss with US efforts in Haiti – that we can’t engage without imposing our will. Ari Alexander, the head of the Procurement Reform Group at USAID, was almost saying as much in the interview I linked to in the post (about IQCs, not about our Haiti effort). However, I might be on shaky ground with this one, because I’m self-taught on the subject of procurement policies and their consequences, and I’ve only started reading about them in the past several months.

    So, I didn’t intend to advocate for 100% local, because local groups aren’t well positioned to do everything. And I agree that discussing the capacity of and even the criteria for “local” is important, even if it was outside the range of this post.

    My over-arching goal can be summarized (with apologies to people who will be understandably alienated by the jargon) by something Robert Chambers wrote for AidOnTheEdge:

    “There is little doubt in my mind that the neo-Newtonian [i.e. top-down, structuralist] paradigm has become more and more dominant in development action, if not development thinking. It exerts a powerful influence – for better or for worse – on the way much of the system works. For balance, we need a countervailing pull.”

    I was trying to contribute to the countervailing pull.

  3. Paul Miller says:

    “Pulling people from the rubble, etc. by their family and neighbors. They’re more effective because they’re there, not because they’re better at search and rescue necessarily.”

    interestingly the United Nations had been in Haiti on and off since 1990 and as a military occupying force in Haiti since 2004 yet you are correct, J., that local people were left to their own resources for search and rescue of their loved ones in the immediate aftermath of the earthquake because they were “there” and the United Nations, while physically present in Haiti and menacingly patrolling the county for 6 solid years weren’t able to immediately assist in search and rescue, and food and water disbursement.

    How many Haitian people died because there was no one to rescue them from the rubble save for their Haitian friends and relatives? As friends were reporting no food and water on days 4, 5, 6 etc. the UN person I talked to on the phone couldn’t or wouldn’t tell me who was in charge of the relief efforts. If the United Nations “peace keepers” had bothered to interact with the Haiti population perhaps they would have been able to partner with grassroots leaders to be “there” in response to gouda gouda and it’s devastating toll.

    “Initial fears of large-scale looting and violence in the aftermath of the earthquake did not materialize.”

    but you can bet that they were “there” for that aspect of their mandate

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