Foreign Policy Blogs

High risk in times of crisis

As millions of dollars in aid and other resources flow to Haiti, it is inevitable that someone will raise the specter of waste through corruption. Often such words come from those who oppose aid on ideological grounds, swaying public opinion by exploiting our natural aversion to corruption. But genuine abuses unfortunately do occur, and their impact on public relations can multiply their ill effects.

Humanitarian aid is especially prone to corruption for a number of reasons. Most significantly, when people’s lives are in danger, worrying about a few dollars here and there doesn’t seem to matter much. It is hard to argue against this, although that does not mean that measures should not be put in place to prevent, monitor, and hold those responsible to account for waste and abuse. A second reason for a high corruption risk is the sheer amount of money that often ends up flooding countries when disaster strikes. Many of these places may previously have had very little, and that money’s exodus is often inevitable, precipitating turf battles and hoarding. Meanwhile, all of this is happening in countries whose mechanisms for accountability have likely been severely damaged by whatever crisis has occurred.

Haiti essentially fits the mold of a high-risk corruption situation. Perhaps most strikingly, Haiti is a country where accountability mechanisms were lacking even before the crisis. It perpetually falls to the bottom of the annual country ranking by Transparency International. Former president Aristide fled the country amid severe corruption allegations, and the political system remained shaky before the earthquake. On the other hand, in contrast to a country like China, where much aid after the Szechuan earthquake was funneled through the government, aid in Haiti is delivered directly through foreign governments and nongovernmental organizations (NGOs).

And what about allegations against the latter two? Foreign aid agencies like USAID have made much of their efforts to identify corruption risks and mitigate wherever possible. This involves both care in who receives aid and how it is delivered as well as internal controls to minimize corruption within their administrations. NGOs have done likewise, but some have been caught in misconduct that infuriated the public. When people give their own money to a cause, they want every cent to go to something they believe in; few people believe in corruption.

It is probable that the earthquake in Haiti will spark renewed anti-corruption efforts. In fact, given the need to rebuild not just what was recently lost but what in some locations never existed to begin with, there is the possibility for new foundations that might safeguard against the abuses the country has seen in the past. This is a hope not just for accountability, but for an end to all Haiti’s abuses.