News and analysis
April 24, 2015

HBO's 'Vice' Report Slams Aid Efforts in Haiti

Joe Raedle, Getty Images

Kids stand outside the camp where they live with their families built on land where their homes once stood before the 2010 earthquake struck, destroying their homes and killing as many as 316,000 people in Port-au-Prince, Haiti. Five years later many tent camps and shantytowns that once sheltered some 1.5 million people now hold about 80,000 as the government tries to move them into permanent homes.

Despite billions of dollars and earnest promises, living conditions for many Haitians remain deplorable five years after the devastating earthquake there. The culprit is a broken U.S. foreign-aid system, with no easy fixes.

That is the grim takeaway from an investigation conducted by the news program Vice, to air Friday on HBO.

Vice reporter Vikram Gandhi spent two weeks in Haiti in September visiting urban refugee-camps-turned-slums in the capital, Port-au-Prince. Missing were running water, electricity, and toilets.

"When you moved here, how long did you think you were going to stay?" Mr. Gandhi asks one resident of the tent city Delmas 33.

"Well, I didn’t think I would be here for even a year," the resident responded. "Now it feels like forever."

Mr. Gandhi also takes his audience to the outskirts of the city to the Canaan settlement, populated by thousands of Haitians with nowhere to go after the 2010 earthquake. They have put down roots, building modest shelters, and eking out lives, far from the services of foreign nonprofits.

"What is odd is the Haitians who receive little to no foreign aid actually seem to be doing better than those in the designated relief areas," Mr. Gandhi concludes.

The Canaan settlement is home to one permanent structure — an $18 million soccer and recreation facility built by the International Olympic Committee.

On January 12, 2010, Haiti was brought to its knees when a 7.0 earthquake struck. It killed more than 100,000 people and leveled Port-au-Prince. The disaster triggered an outpouring of global support to the tune of $10 billion — the Red Cross raised $21 million by text message in eight days — and declarations from the world’s wealthiest nations that they would help Haitians rebuild.

There are some examples of good work being done in the country, Mr. Gandhi said.

"What was positive is when you really saw Haitians involved in community programs," he said in an interview with The Chronicle earlier this week. "There are leaders there. There are people who are really invested and have devoted their lives to rebuild the country."

But those cases are few and far between, he said. Less than one penny per U.S. aid dollar ends up with Haitian organizations or businesses. Instead, the money is funneled through foreign organizations, experts, and construction companies, a sort of parallel economy in which the locals play no part.

One never-fulfilled promise highlighted in the episode was the U.S. government’s plan to build 15,000 houses at a cost of $53 million. That price tag later climbed to $93 million for the construction of 2,600 houses.

Meanwhile, the U.S. embassy issued a $70 million contract to build townhouses with pools for U.S. government personnel working in the country.

"Do we understand what aid is, for real? And is there really a system of accountability that is out there?" Mr. Gandhi told The Chronicle. "I think the answer is no, after being in Haiti and seeing how money was spent there."