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.
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).
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.
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.