NGOs must not abandon disaster zones too soon

27 Oct 2011 Voices

Almost two years since the earthquake that saw Haiti crumble, the country is still reeling and in desperate need. So why are charities abandoning a country which can not yet fend for itself? Andrew Chaggar blogs from the frontline.

A Haitian boy receives aid after the 2010 earthquake, copyright Logan Abassi, The United Nations

Almost two years since the earthquake that saw Haiti crumble, the country is still reeling and in desperate need. So why are charities abandoning a country which can not yet fend for itself? Andrew Chaggar blogs from the frontline.

Last week, five months after Haiti’s President took office, the country’s new government was finally formed. As a result many will hope that the still stuttering recovery process can now finally begin in earnest. However Mr Martelly’s new government is facing a huge task.

With the second anniversary of the earthquake now less than three months away, more than 500,000 people are still living in displacement camps and 50 per cent of the original 10 million cubic metres of rubble remains to be cleared from the capital.  

While the government is not alone in the on-going work there are concerns that many NGOs are withdrawing before the state is able to takeover.

Over recent months I’ve personally said goodbye to many colleagues at other organisations as they’ve either scaled back or ended their operations entirely. However, I wasn’t entirely sure if this trend was representative of the situation overall or just within the circle of NGOs I’m familiar with. To try and answer this question I recently emailed the public information department of the UN’s Office for the Coordination Office of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA). Their reply was startling.

Between February and September of this year the number of groups providing water, sanitation and hygiene services across Haiti overall dropped from 53 to 15. While exact numbers for other sectors are not yet available it is fair to assume that trends are similar.

As a result of these NGO withdrawals service provision is already falling. For example between March and August of this year the number of people in camps with regular access to drinking water fell from 48 per cent to 7 per cent. Many fear the situation will deteriorate further as more organisations close their doors.

With so much need remaining, many may wonder why so many charities are scaling back or ending operations?

Reasons for leaving

There are several reasons and one of the most obvious is funding. Almost two years have passed since the earthquake and the disaster has inevitably faded from people’s minds.  Haiti has effectively become “old news” as more recent disasters, such as the ongoing food crisis in the Horn of Africa, have become prominent.

The subsequent lack of funding is forcing many groups to withdraw. As a result, OCHA reports that in only one NGO will be working in Haiti’s most south-west department after October and that group’s funds will run out by December.  This means that a population of almost 750,000 will be served by just one NGO that is itself likely to leave soon after.

Another reason for withdrawal is that some NGOs are trying to hand over projects to local partners, including the state, in the interests of long term sustainability and capacity building.  

Such transfers of responsibility are a key part of reducing dependency and ultimately in the best interests of Haiti.  However, while all transitions inevitably involve some short-term upheaval, if too many NGOs withdraw too quickly there is a danger that local capacity may be overwhelmed, rather than improved, by the rising demands placed on it.

This may happen if service gaps in one area start to interfere with progress made in others.  For example while over 700 schools have been rebuilt or rehabilitated since the earthquake education will still suffer if teachers or students succumb to cholera because safe water and latrines are lacking. Recovery is the sum of many interdependent parts, and if those parts are unable to work together, then recovery as a whole will fail.

Whether it is due to dwindling funds, or a genuine desire to handover responsibility, it is inevitable that NGO activity will decrease as time passes following a disaster.  Generally speaking this is a good thing as dependence on charities is not a natural state of affairs.  

Sadly, in the case of Haiti, the earthquake was followed by drawn out political battles which have left the nation virtually without a government until now. Only time will tell how the newly formed government responds to the challenge of rebuilding a nation but as more and more NGOs withdraw the situation for many survivors is likely to get worse before it gets better.


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