Quake aid bypasses the Haitian government

PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti — The world's bill for the Haitian earthquake is large and growing — now $2.2 billion — and so is the criticism about how the money is being spent.

A half-million homeless people received tarps and tents; far more are still waiting under soggy bed sheets in camps that reek of human waste. More than 4.3 million people got emergency food rations; few will be able to feed themselves anytime soon. Medical aid went to thousands, but long-term care isn't even on the horizon.

International aid groups and officials readily acknowledge they are overwhelmed by the scale of the disaster. Haitian leaders — frustrated that billions are bypassing them in favor of U.N. agencies and American and other non-governmental organizations — are whipping up sentiment against foreign aid groups they say have gone out of control.

In the past few days, someone scrawled graffiti declaring "Down with NGO thieves" along the cracked walls that line the road between Port-au-Prince's international airport, the temporary government headquarters, and a U.N. base.

Ahead of a crucial March 31 post-quake donors conference in New York, many are taking a hard look at the money that's flowed in so far.

First the good news: Assistance has indeed been pouring into Haiti, sometimes from unexpected places.

Donations from Americans for earthquake relief in Haiti have surpassed $1 billion, with about one-third going to the American Red Cross, the Center on Philanthropy at Indiana University said Friday. Other major recipients include Catholic Relief Services, the U.S. Fund for UNICEF and the U.S. wing of Doctors Without Borders, according to a separate report by the Chronicle for Philanthropy.

An analysis of U.N. data shows that private donations make up the bulk of the total, accounting for more than $980 million of what has already been delivered or that donors have promised.

The United States leads all countries with its commitments of $713 million in government aid — with Canada, France, Spain, the United Kingdom, Japan and the European Union among other top donors. Saudi Arabia poured $50 million of its oil wealth into the U.N. Emergency Response Relief Fund. Even countries with their own troubles rushed to Haiti's aid: Afghanistan provided $200,000.

A Nevada real estate developer agreed to send $5 million worth of circus tents formerly used by Cirque du Soleil. Leonardo DiCaprio and Coca-Cola are each sending $1 million. Dollar General is donating $100,000. Hanesbrands is shipping 2 million pairs of underwear.

But leaders including Prime Minister Jean-Max Bellerive are not happy with the way the aid money is being delivered.

"The NGOs don't tell us... where the money's coming from or how they're spending it," he told the Associated Press. "Too many people are raising money without any controls, and don't explain what they're doing with it."

Haiti wanted aid organizations to register with the government long before the quake, a goal identified as a priority by former U.S. President Bill Clinton when he was named U.N. special envoy in 2009. But it was never completed.

U.N. and U.S. officials said there is close monitoring of NGOs who receive funds. The U.S. Agency for International Development requires recipient groups to file reports every two weeks on how their activities are lining up with their planned programs, said Julie Leonard, leader of the agency's Disaster Assistance Response Team.

Governments tend to give funds to agencies from their own countries.

USAID paid at least $160 million of its total Haiti-related expenditures to the Defense Department, the Federal Emergency Management Agency, two local U.S. search and rescue teams and, in at least two instances, itself.

Tens of millions more went to U.S.-based aid groups. While much of that bought food and other necessities for Haitians, it often did so from U.S. companies — including highly subsidized rice growers whose products are undercutting local producers, driving them out of business.

One cent of every dollar has gone to the Haitian government.

Saudi Arabia's donation is essentially a blank check for the U.N. fund to spend on Haiti relief as it sees fit. So is Afghanistan's. DiCaprio's million is going through the Clinton Bush Haiti Fund, while Coca-Cola and Dollar General's donations are headed for the American Red Cross. The underwear is going through the Atlanta, Ga.-based aid group CARE.

The circus tents are for the Haitian government.

In the days immediately after the quake, this is exactly what many Haitians said they wanted. Distrustful of leaders they said were corrupt, some went so far as to say they hoped the U.S. would annex the country.

But the top U.N. official in Haiti said the country's leaders are right: For half a century, the international community has kept Haiti's government weak and unable to deal with disaster by ignoring officials and working with outside organizations.

"We complain because the government is not able to (lead), but we are partly responsible for that," said Edmond Mulet, U.N. assistant secretary-general of peacekeeping operations.

The government estimates the quake killed 230,000 people — though without a civil registry or accurate means of counting, nobody really knows how many died. More than 1.2 million lost their homes, about half of those fleeing the capital to the even harder-to-track-and-reach countryside.