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HAITI: Patchwork of Aid Groups Coming into Focus

Aprille Muscara

UNITED NATIONS, Jul 23 2010 (IPS) - Half a year ago, non-governmental organisations (NGOs) from around the globe flocked to Haiti to help pick up the pieces after a 7.0 magnitude earthquake shattered the fragile Caribbean nation. Many have since left, but hundreds remain, as does the logistical challenge of their coordination.

At the Caribbean Community (CARICOM) Summit at the beginning of this month, outgoing CARICOM Chair and Prime Minister of Dominica Roosevelt Skerritt criticised the NGOs in Haiti for lacking a “level of order” and “basically doing what they want”.

Ed Joseph, director of the NGO Coordination Support Office (CSO) at the U.N. Logistics Base in Port-Au-Prince, dismisses these kinds of assertions.

“The claim that there exists a lack of coordination is a very mundane criticism, a sort of tiresome cliché that doesn’t hold up to investigation,” Joseph told IPS.

While it is agreed that coordination is important – in order, for example, to prevent the duplication of services and to help ensure no one falls through the cracks – as Skerritt’s comments reveal, the question of whether coordination exists remains disputed, despite what Joseph calls “practical and demonstrable results”.

The Inter-Agency Standing Committee (IASC) report launched Jul. 15 on the response to the humanitarian crisis in Haiti noted this “perception of a coordination deficit” at the outset of relief efforts, but stated that since then, “huge” advances had been made to strengthen coordination between aid groups.

According to Joseph, the most recent “milestone in NGO coordination” took place Monday, when representatives from 11 non-governmental organisations were elected to an NGO Steering Committee after a “methodical and transparent process” involving over a hundred NGOs. The committee, Joseph told IPS, “will select and oversee the work of the NGO Representative to the Bellerive-Clinton [Interim Haiti Reconstruction] Commission, which works closely with the Haiti Reconstruction Fund.”

The NGO CSO – set up just days after the earthquake – is itself “unprecedented”, said Joseph, in that its sole purpose is not to provide aid or relief, but to coordinate the multitude of aid groups working in the country. The office was established by InterAction, an alliance of over 190 U.S.-based NGOs, and works closely with the U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA).

Last week, InterAction released a prototype for its Haiti Aid Map, which visualises existing humanitarian projects in an effort to improve coordination among aid groups.

However, the question of coordination is not only about coordination between NGOs, but also about coordination between the U.N.’s various clusters within which the NGOs operate.

The cluster approach organises U.N. groups, NGOs and other humanitarian actors according to roles and responsibilities pertaining to 12 distinct areas, such as food, emergency telecommunications, protection and water sanitation and hygiene.

One of the final recommendations of the IASC report, which evaluated the relief effort over the last six months, was the need to “counteract the ‘silo effect’, whereby each cluster focuses solely on sector-specific activities, to the neglect of critical cross-cluster and multi-sectoral thematic areas of need.”

“Everything is in order when you’re on the [U.N. Logistics] base, but when you go out into the world it gets frustrating,” said Igeoma Simon.

Simon, a Haitian-American grassroots organiser who has worked to set up mobile health clinics before the earthquake and is now focusing on initiatives to engage the youth in Haiti, finds inter-cluster communication to be lacking.

“When the health care cluster isn’t coordinating with the education cluster, it’s a problem,” Simon said. “You’re dealing with education, you go do the education thing; you’re dealing with shelter, you go do the shelter thing; you’re dealing with health, you go do the health thing. No, that’s not how it should be. We all need to coincide and be aware of what the other arm is doing.”

Jolanda van Dijk, inter-cluster coordinator for the OCHA Haiti, declined to respond to repeated requests for comment.

With the focus in Haiti having moved from disaster relief to recovery, and now shifting from recovery to reconstruction, the work of humanitarian groups is far from over, as reflected in the mass of NGOs that remain active.

Media reports have placed the number of NGOs operating in Haiti to be in the hundreds, and even as high as 10,000. Even before the January earthquake, the poverty-ridden Caribbean nation was inundated with humanitarian and aid groups, garnering the reputation of being a “Republic of NGOs”. But Joseph cautions against estimates, remarking, “No one has an exact count.”

The InterAction NGO CSO, OCHA Haiti, and the Unite de la Coordination des Activites des ONGs (UCAONG) in Haiti’s Ministry of Planning all register NGOs, but no agency claims to have a comprehensive directory, as groups sometimes depart without notification. UCAONG’s most recent list of active humanitarian groups contains 230 entries.

“Are there any unmet needs in Haiti? Yes, of course,” Joseph said. But “thank goodness that there are NGOs and dedicated people who come and sacrifice and work on the ground, and efficiently and responsibly allocate aid to the people of Haiti. Thank goodness there are so many.”

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