Q&A: Rethinking effective aid and partnerships in Haiti

Hurricane Matthew destroyed an estimated 90 percent of homes in Haiti's Grand'Anse. Photo by: European Commission / CC BY-ND

American Jewish World Service is giving $800,000 to Haiti this year, on a “slow and steady spend-down” from its annual $2 million funding level in 2010 that followed the devastating earthquake that hit that year.

The international nonprofit supports 450 local human rights and poverty-fighting groups worldwide with a unique funding approach that is deliberately light on direct oversight, says Amber Lynn Munger, an AJWS senior program officer overseeing grant-making work in the Dominican Republic and Haiti.

Devex spoke with Munger on the sidelines of the third Annual Haiti Funders Conference in New York. The event brought together Haitian diaspora, politicians, local civil society and international development workers to talk sustainable development after Hurricane Matthew hit Haiti in early October. The U.N.’s $120 million emergency flash appeal to deal with the disaster remains unfunded by more than $76 million.

Munger outlined AJWS’ unconventional approach to backing local organizations. “How we fund is really developing these trust relationships with organizations and doing a lot of pure institutional funding. What that means is we don’t require them to say what project are they going to do, how many people are they going to hire, etc.,” Munger explained.

Munger detailed how this funding strategy works in a country like Haiti, where there may be a potentially acute need to help get human rights activists “back on their feet” following a natural disaster so that they can help hold governments and institutions more accountable.

How is Hurricane Matthew and recovery efforts impacting your funding and work in Haiti?

As soon after the hurricane hit and I could get a flight over from the [Dominican Republic], I went straight to the south. We went to Grand’Anse, Nippes and communities in the north that were affected. Everyone said that everything was completely destroyed.

The government needs the support of some of these local organizations in assessing damage, in identifying who has what needs, etc. and even sometimes in bringing things in, because the local government is so weak. We have a variety of things that we are funding. The most important thing we do is we give money. We are not saying, “Maybe you should be thinking about building houses.” They decide what they have the capacity to do, what they deem is the need and what they want to do. Some of them [the partner organizations] directly get cash transfers, and, in fact, we love cash transfers. But you have to have a methodology to do this.

What’s involved with actually delivering these cash transfers? How does it work?

There are different means to do it, but usually through telephones and they [local organizations] have direct relationships with the banks. So there are local banks where people can get the text, the confirmation code, via their telephone [informing them of a transfer], that they can then take to the bank and retrieve in cash.

We really like cash transfers for so many reasons, first being, who are we to decide what people’s needs are? For this person over here, maybe what they are prioritizing is not a sack of rice. Maybe they need to send their daughter to go live with their aunt for a little while and figure it out from there. It also gets around this problem of aid convoys getting attacked, which we are seeing so much of in the south.

With cash transfers, it can work like organizations choose to prioritize membership in the case of women and girls who are in shelters, for example, and are vulnerable to abuse there. So their number one priority can be to get them out and into houses of some kind.

Not everyone has the expertise to do cash transfers … it depends on the individual organization, what they are choosing to fund and it depends on the capacity, also. We have issued about $400,000 in grants since Matthew and I think only two of the organizations are doing cash transfers. Most of them have not learned the approach yet. One of the things we are working to do is increase the number of organizations doing cash transfers, because, let’s face it, this is not the last disaster Haiti is going to see.

You spoke today about the “NGO-ization of Haiti.” How do you think this is influencing the direction your funding and partnerships are moving in Haiti?

There are two concepts, both contributing to the same problem. One is where international NGOs scoop up the best leaders of the social movement because they are confident they know the communities. But what happens there is it neutralizes their activism and they are often removed from their communities. And then the second is this proliferation of NGOs. The only way to get resources in Haiti is not by lobbying the government, but by lobbying one of the international organizations. And the way that you do that is by having an organization. And this creates more problems, right, because which organizations are legitimate? In every community there are all of these organizations vying for attention. Oftentimes international organizations don’t really take the time to understand who is doing what.

So what we look to do in our development work, as well as humanitarian work, is work directly through local organizations that have social movement goals. So if you just look at the organization with the best administrative practices … if they are just going to work in a silo, it is never going to create any kind of greater change.

Read more international development news online, and subscribe to The Development Newswire to receive the latest from the world’s leading donors and decision-makers — emailed to you FREE every business day.

About the author

  • Amy Lieberman

    Amy Lieberman is the U.N. Correspondent for Devex. She covers the United Nations and reports on global development and politics. Amy previously worked as a freelance reporter, covering the environment, human rights, immigration, and health across the U.S. and in more than 10 countries, including Colombia, Mexico, Nepal, and Cambodia. Her coverage has appeared in the Guardian, the Atlantic, Slate, and the Los Angeles Times. A native New Yorker, Amy received her master’s degree in politics and government from Columbia’s School of Journalism.