June 03, 2015

The Conundrum of Measuring Whether Disaster Aid Works

Carl De Souza, AFP, Getty Images

When Ebola struck Africa, governments, foundations, and charities raced to provide money. But just as in other disaster zones, tracking what happened to the money and discovering whether it was put to good use can be nearly impossible.

To understand the nature of the problem, Tiny Spark’s Amy Costello discussed the challenges two researchers faced on the money trail, one seeking answers about the Ebola aid and the other about Haiti’s earthquake recovery.

Vijaya Ramachandran, of the Center for Global Development, spent years tracking Haiti money and tells Ms. Costello, "There is very little transparency around how this money is spent."

Ms. Ramachandran says the federal government releases few details beyond the names of nonprofits and private contractors that have received aid money.

"We don’t know who the NGOs or the private contractors have given the money to, what kinds of services they have delivered to Haitians. We don’t know whether these programs worked," she tells Ms. Costello.

When Amy Maxmen, a freelance journalist, traveled to Sierra Leone to track donations to Ebola-stricken areas, she struggled to get reliable numbers but found a bit more information about how money was used. Frontline health workers, she discovered, were receiving less than 2 percent of the $3.3 billion sent to fight Ebola in West Africa, even though many had been promised a weekly hazard pay of $115. Throughout the country, many health workers including doctors, nurses, lab technicians and more, remain unpaid or underpaid.

(See her findings in a story she wrote for Newsweek, which was supported with money from Tiny Spark and the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting).

Ms. Maxmen learned about the problem when she interviewed a nurse. "[The nurse] paused the conversation and said, ‘You know, reporters love talking to us, people love hearing our stories, but we’re not being paid at all.’ And then I said, ‘That’s what I want to hear about.’ "

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