Auditors verdict on EU aid to post-earthquake Haiti: Not effective enough

From right to left: European Court of Auditors press officer Damijan Fišer, team leader Piotr Zych, member Hans Gustaf Wessberg and Peter Eklund, attaché at Wessberg's office during the press briefing for the special report, “EU support for rehabilitation following the earthquake in Haiti.” Photo by: European Commission

The European Court of Auditors gave a critical assessment of relief efforts undertaken by the European Commission following the January 2010 earthquake in Haiti.

Based on the lessons learned during the intervening period, Devex has learned that the European Union’s executive arm is currently reviewing the design of its humanitarian and development operations in the Caribbean island state.

While recognizing the difficult circumstances in which aid operations took place, the ECA — the watchdog that supervises expenditure from EU institutions — pointed at a number of shortcomings in the provision of aid to the victims of the disaster.

“There were serious obstacles, but several factors could have been better anticipated and remedied by better planning,” ECA representative Hans Gustaf Wessberg said Sept. 23, during the presentation in Brussels of the watchdog's latest report.

The 2010 earthquake, whose epicenter was located near the capital Port-au-Prince, killed between 230,000 and 265,000 people and rendered 1.3 million homeless. The EU stepped up as one of the main donors responding to the crisis, providing up to 1.23 billion euros ($1.55 billion) through the Commission, EU member states and the European Investment Bank.

By the end of 2012, public sector donors had disbursed some $2.23 billion, while private donors contributed an estimated $3 billion to United Nations agencies and nongovernmental organizations.

Identifying risks, creating solutions

Overall, EU aid programs in Haiti were well-designed, according to the ECA, but Wessberg said that in the future the Commission “could and should ensure that EU support in the field is implemented more effectively.”

The auditors found that the Commission correctly identified the main risk factors, but did not sufficiently assess the potential impact of these risks on its operations.

“We’ve seen this before,” Wessberg said. “The European Commission is good at identifying risks, but less so at creating solutions. In other words, it’s better at risk assessment than at risk management.”

Up to 11 out of the 13 programs examined by the ECA were not implemented on time, and three did not deliver the planned outputs. Further, implementing partners were not aware of local restraints and lacked knowledge of the language and local situation.

“Several of these factors could have been better anticipated and remedied by better planning,” Wessberg said.

Staff woes

A major problem for the EU institutions was the lack of skilled staff to handle the support provided by Brussels.

The EU delegation in Port-au-Prince was itself hit hard by the catastrophe: The head of mission was badly injured, staff members were traumatized, and most officials were evacuated. In this critical phase, the Commission and the European External Action Service — the EU’s then fledgling diplomatic arm — did not take timely measures to send sufficient staff with relevant skills and experience, the ECA noted.

Although the EU programs were designed to provide Haiti a smooth transition from relief and rehabilitation to development, it was not all plain sailing. This was due to a lack of a clear country strategy shared by the main European aid actors: humanitarian arm ECHO and its development counterpart, EuropeAid.

“This cannot be solved by initiatives on the ground,” Wessberg said.

As a result, divergent views among ECHO and EU delegation staff members on housing needs, for example, led to the construction of temporary shelters instead of permanent houses — some three years after the earthquake.

“Since Haiti is a crowded place, this caused a delay in the construction, while the shelters risked turning into slums,” Wessberg said.

Recommendations

In its conclusions, the ECA issued four broad recommendations for EU aid to post-earthquake Haiti:

1. The Commission should make a better assessment of risks.

2. EuropeAid and ECHO must adopt a common strategy to link relief, rehabilitation and development.

3. Budget support must be better coordinated and safeguarded against waste.

4. Better provisions should be introduced for the deployment of emergency personnel.

The Commission accepted these recommendations, although it contests some of the criticisms. It says that most projects have achieved their intended results, while some were pursued despite the risks “in order to contribute to the benefits of the population.” The EU's executive branch also maintains that relief, rehabilitation and development were sufficiently linked.

Nevertheless, the EU has already taken steps to address failings identified in the report. “We have put in place risk-mitigating measures that include, among others, targeted activities to build capacity in the national administration, as well as regular and structured sectoral policy and political dialogue,” a Commission source told Devex.

The Commission is also implementing a strategy that links relief, rehabilitation and development in the framework of the resilience agenda. Meanwhile, ECHO and EuropeAid are currently developing a joint humanitarian and development framework for Haiti aimed at ensuring strengthened resilience of the population and securing an exit from humanitarian activities in the coming years.

Better coordination required

Frédéric Penard, director of operations for French NGO Solidarités International, is familiar with some of the problems raised in the report. Among the EU-funded projects scrutinized by the ECA, two were implemented by his organization.

“Some of these questions go way back, even before Haiti,” he said. “For example, LRRD is always a challenge, and it requires better cooperation between ECHO, EuropeAid and their partners.”

Penard however recalled that in Haiti the process was remarkably smooth.

“I don’t know whether the EU had a strategy, but in practice there was good operational dialogue,” he explained. “This allowed us to execute two successive projects: First, a shelter coordination project including cash-for-work activities and disaster preparedness, followed by a project to strengthen food security by improving living conditions and access to employment and community services.”

Penard said his organization is now busy with a third project, a EuropeAid-funded integrated construction program in Port-au-Prince’s Christ-Roi neighborhood. “This could only have been done thanks to the basis that had been laid out in our first two EU-funded projects,” he noted.

According to the ECA, there is a need for clearer risk evaluation, but the French expert is nuanced. “Of course this is necessary, but it’s a complex matter as the context in a crisis situation such as Haiti is constantly changing. It is impossible to exclude all risks, because this would make it impossible to do any humanitarian work. You always have to reinvent everything, and this requires a lot of flexibility,” he said.

'Extremely complicated situation'

Wessberg also acknowledged the difficult task the EU had to face in Haiti. “We are auditors. We look at problems and therefore we sound rather critical,” he noted. “But on the whole, a hell of a lot of good things were done here. It was an extremely complicated situation, Haiti being such a fragile society.”

A recent report by EuropeAid confirms the challenges to its operations in Haiti. In its evaluation of EU cooperation with Haiti in 2008 to 2012, for example, the Commission finds that its strategies encountered difficulties due to recurrent emergency crises and the weakness of state institutions.

Development and emergency aid coordination was “rather successful,” but disaster and risk management activities were “scattered” and required a stronger strategic framework. On this, one recommendation that emerged from the report was that state building must be put at the heart of the EU’s strategy in Haiti.

Meanwhile, the Commission will continue to support Haiti to the tune of 420 million euros between 2014 and 2020.

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About the author

  • Diederik kramers

    Diederik Kramers

    Diederik Kramers is a freelance correspondent in Brussels covering EU and NATO affairs. A former spokesperson and communications officer for UNICEF and UNHCR, he previously worked as foreign desk and Eastern Europe editor for the Dutch press agency ANP and as editor-in-chief of the Dutch quarterly Ukraine Magazine.

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