In the outpouring of generosity since Haiti’s earthquake last month, donors, investors, and charities have all made big moves to help. Key countries pledged assistance at a January summit in Montreal. At the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, which fortuitously convened the private sector just a few weeks after the quake, there was also a new seriousness toward unlocking economic opportunities. Even individuals — nearly half of U.S. households — have donated to the Haitian relief and reconstruction effort in unprecedented amounts.
The influx of money will provide immediate help for the profound suffering on the ground. But Haiti will need more than just relief: To transform this unfortunate and collapsed country, the whole system of aid needs a complete transformation, too. The failure of past efforts at reform is due in part to shocks like this recent disaster and the hurricanes before it. But donors, international businesses, and NGOs also share the blame. Today, as NGOs see unprecedented amounts of private donations streaming in, it is critical that they respond to the earthquake not just by expanding, but by decisively changing their approach.
Part of the problem is accountability, a serious issue in a country with such a weak central government and so many well-funded NGOs. Even before the earthquake, NGOs provided most of Haiti’s health care and education, yet they have been accountable neither to users nor funders. Donors have been schizophrenic about the dominance of NGOs, trying instead to build Haiti’s public sector in the image of a 1950s European state, with government ministries planning and financing all the country’s clinics and schools and directly employing all the medics and teachers who staff them. Their concern about a key role for the state is well-founded; without it, NGOs would be unaccountable and uncoordinated, and ordinary Haitians would continue to see their government as irrelevant. Yet even before the earthquake, building a European-style state was a forlorn ambition. So alongside rhetoric about shoring up Haiti’s government, donors have bypassed it altogether by funding the NGOs.
Meanwhile, without oversight or competition from the public sector, the NGOs become inconsistent in performance. NGO workers are largely dedicated and serious, but individual dedication does not guarantee organizational quality, and the groups vary in ability and cost-effectiveness. Nor is there any serious mechanism for coordinating NGO activities: The level of service, community by community, reflects neither market forces nor evidence of need.
Getting the government involved in a financially sustainable way would add oversight, coordination, and increased accountability to the NGO landscape in Haiti. Here’s how it could work: Although it’s true that the Haitian state cannot run mass service provision, the government could realistically allocate the funding for it. So, instead of donating to NGOs, donor money would all be streamed into a common pool. A new government agency would be charged with overseeing the common pool, setting clear criteria for NGO performance, monitoring the NGOs, and giving out money from that pool based on the set standards and community needs. In return for funds, the new agency would require NGOs to co-brand their services with the government, giving it much-needed visibility.
To ensure a decisive break from current public-sector culture, the new NGO agency should be co-managed with donors. Not only would this give the donors the confidence to increase funding to the level needed to transform Haiti’s social services, but it would also gradually build and entrench the good practices that would become essential for viability. As the agency became more professional, the donor presence could gradually be withdrawn.
Professional monitoring of NGO performance would be good for everyone. New information technology could be harnessed to empower ordinary users. For example, users of the NGOs’ services could send text messages to the new agency to rate the impact and quality of what they have received. Money could be poured into those NGOs that demonstrated efficiency, encouraging them to expand from boutique operations to scalable organizations.
Of course, such a scheme will be resisted: Current practices are there because they suit everyone except ordinary citizens. But those same old practices have failed to change Haiti many times — and they will fail once again. Now that Haiti commands global attention, NGO failure would happen in the full glare of global public scrutiny. It would be the death of business as usual. Change is inevitable: The question is whether it will be the response to failure or whether it will prevent it.
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