Haiti: Dalberg vs Rolling Stone

By Felix Salmon
August 24, 2011
article on what's happened to Haiti -- and vast amounts of development aid -- since the earthquake.

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Dalberg, the self-styled “Global Development Advisors”, are unhappy at the way they were portrayed in Janet Reitman’s Rolling Stone article on what’s happened to Haiti — and vast amounts of development aid — since the earthquake. They’ve just put out a press release on the subject, three weeks after the article appeared; they also sent me a document written by Dalberg’s Dan Altman and sent to Rolling Stone, in which they ask for corrections to the article. (Both are in PDF form, sorry.)

Dalberg’s main argument — they have lots of silly little ones — is that when they were looking at the cost of resettling people to a given site, they had no mandate to stop and wonder whether that site was actually habitable — whether, for instance, it was situated next to an open-mined pit, a 100-foot vertical cliff, and ravines. Their job, they say, was just to “compare the costs and amounts of time needed” to settle people at that site compared to some other site. They even “reiterated the need for additional assessments”! So you can’t really blame them for simply making cost comparisons, rather than saying that most of the sites they were looking at were non-starters.

This is telling enough in and of itself. But it’s another response, from Altman’s letter, which really jumps out at me. Responding to a quotation in the article from Glenn Smucker, Altman says that “in fact, Smucker is a competing consultant and has a clear conflict of interest when commenting on Dalberg’s work”.

This I think encapsulates exactly what Reitman is talking about in her article: a culture where Haiti is overrun by consultants, all of whom are competing with each other for juicy million-dollar mandates. Dalberg even goes out of its way, in its press release, to say that when it got interns to work on the Haiti project, their work “was provided free of charge in excess of Dalberg’s contractual obligations”, as though Dalberg’s first duty is to their contractual obligations, as opposed to, well, the people of Haiti.

Dalberg then inserts this dig at Reitman:

Since the Rolling Stone article’s publication, questions have arisen about the credibility of its sources and its use of reported material. For those seeking a more accurate account of the current situation in Haiti, Dalberg recommends the book Haiti After the Earthquake by Paul Farmer of Partners in Health and the article “Eighteen Months After the Earthquake: A Return to Haiti” by David Weiss of CHF International on The Huffington Post.

The “questions have arisen” formulation is mealy-mouthed and unhelpful: I asked Dalberg’s PR person, Lucy Mele, what exactly it meant, but I can’t tell you what her response was, because she made sure to tell me it was off the record.

And what about Dalberg’s preferred sources? Well, one of them is David Weiss of CHF, described in Reitman’s article thusly:

Although CHF has been meeting on the project since June 2010, the rebuilding progress in Ravine Pintade has been painstakingly slow. Lee admits that the organization, a vast NGO with relief operations in 25 countries around the world, has never done “micro-urban planning,” as she calls it — nor have the half dozen or so other NGOs planning similar projects in Port-au-Prince. “It’s a complete learning experience for all of us,” she says. All that’s needed to make the project a reality, she adds, are more funds.

Critics regard such claims with amusement: CHF, which works out of two spacious mansions in Port-au-Prince and maintains a fleet of brand-new vehicles, is generally considered one of the most ostentatious NGOs in Haiti. It is also one of the largest USAID contractors in Haiti and enjoys a cozy relationship with Washington: Its president and CEO, David Weiss, is a former State Department official and lobbyist. “There is a shocking lack of transparency and accountability in aid, and it’s crystallized in this relief effort,” says Schwartz, the anthropologist. “For an NGO in Haiti, the criteria for success is raising money, filling out paperwork and making sure the money is ‘accounted for’ — meaning they can show donors that they spent the money. But nobody goes out there and judges the project, or even verifies that the project exists. In the majority of the cases, nobody even talks to the community.”

The other source recommended by Dalberg is the universally-admired Paul Farmer. But his view of Haiti is, I think, closer to Reitman’s than it is to the professional-aid-consultant nexus of Dalberg and CHF. Farmer recently told NPR that “if you look at Haiti, many billions of dollars have gone into development aid there that have not been effective”.

And what about his book? Well, I happen to have it on my desk right now. Open it up to the introduction, and he starts talking about the reconstruction effort: “the relevant knowledge needed to be historically deep,” he writes, “because the damage caused by the quake and the responses to it were rooted in Haitian history”; he continues by saying that the recovery commission in Haiti, “good intentions aside, has become another obstacle to Haiti’s recovery”.

Later on in the book — and I’ve only given it a very brief scan — Farmer talks about how “there was little evidence to suggest that the tsunami of goodwill that crashed over Haiti after the quake could effectively address” its layered afflictions:

Whether one looked at job creation, health, education, potable water, or safe and affordable housing, similar conclusions could be drawn. First, great weakness in the public sector made it difficult to deliver even basic services at a significant scale; second, not enough of the pledged earthquake relief reached those in need through mechanisms that might address this central weakness. In other words, existing development and reconstruction machinery did little to mitigate Haiti’s acute-on-chronic problems in spite of many good intentions and extraordinary generosity.

Elsewhere, Farmer echoes Reitman (or maybe it’s more correct to say it’s the other way around) when he says that Sean Penn “had better ideas and more commitment to implementing them than did many of the self-described experts”. One can’t help but suspect that he’s thinking of the likes of CHF and Dalberg here. While Penn gets three mentions in the book, Dalberg and CHF get none.

While Dalberg and CHF are good at getting US government money and spending it, then, I’m inclined to trust people like Reitman and Farmer when it comes to the realities of Haitian reconstruction or the lack thereof. And Dalberg’s response to Reitman hasn’t changed my mind on that in the slightest.

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