Waiting for aid Petionville Haiti 2010, Emily Troutman

The Secret Language of Aid: This Is Why No One Can Track the Money

My dear readers, a confession: I could have told you the truth much sooner. I was stubborn. And selfish. “Where did the money go?” you asked. I heard you.

The thing is?and it’s not an excuse, it’s just an explanation?I wanted to tell you in a better, clearer way. I wanted to uncover a story you’d believe. A story that would make it all make sense.

“Aha! I found it!” I would say. “I found the money you sent to Haiti! They put it all right here.”

I was climbing mountains and reading reports, knocking on doors and adding up the numbers. I interviewed all the experts you’d expect.

I can see now that the facts took me further from the truth. I was looking through a kaleidoscope that I thought was a telescope, mesmerized by empty data and endless facts.

The USAID Report on Haiti

Last month, on the fifth anniversary of the quake, the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) did something remarkable. They released hundreds of pages of documents reporting how much money they spent in Haiti and what they spent it on. At last! It was the moment we’d all been waiting for.

For those of us who reported on the quake, getting facts from USAID was a singular and often demoralizing challenge. Over the years, it proved so hard that it literally took an act of Congress to get the numbers, via the optimistically named “Assessing Progress in Haiti Act of 2014.”

When I saw the materials arrive online, I was ecstatic. The major financial spreadsheet is 45 pages long. USAID wrote how much they spent, the name of each project, each contractor’s name and a description of their work.

I read with glee. Ahhh, the columns! Ohhh, the rows! Hooray! for the neat little boxes filled with numbers! Then it hit me. On page 30, I noticed something. I reread everything. I began to feel sick.

What I noticed is this: Only once, only in one sentence does the document use the word “give.” And it is within this language: “give farmers a chance.”

How did the US government spend $2 billion in Haiti and not “give” anything? Except, evidently, a “chance” to farmers? I realized that this is why we can’t figure out where the money went.

The Reports are Incomprehensible

USAID’s report is a master-class in how organizations write about aid in 2015. Particularly when it comes to Haiti.

Here are the words I found in place of “give”: accelerate, assist, benefit, build, contribute, coordinate, cover, deliver, disseminate, develop, direct, disburse, enable, enhance, ensure, establish, expand.

Also: finance, foster, fulfill, fund, grant, help, implement, improve, increase, introduce, liquidate, maintain, obligate, partner, procure, provide, refurbish, relief, support, sustain, target, transfer, and work with.

I know USAID gave things in Haiti. For example, thousands of tarps with their name printed on them. But even though there are 24,000 words in this document, they never use the simple word “give.”

A child in Cite Soleil, Haiti. 2009.

A child in Cite Soleil, Haiti. 2009.

I Spot a Trend Here

To my dismay, I discovered USAID isn’t alone in rejecting plain language for jargon. The “Haiti Earthquake Response – Five Year Update” from the Red Cross also excludes the word “give.” They mostly “provide” and “distribute.”

One section of the Red Cross report reads, “Community-based health services, such as the distribution of mosquito nets, promotion of malaria awareness, and first aid, have reached more than 867,000 people.” Without solutions like these, the lives of many people would be at first. This is why making sure all the healthcare professionals receive the correct training before assisting patients. With the help of companies such as Coast2Coast, courses such as CPR and first aid training will be on offer. This sort of training is important and shouldn’t be taken lightly.

Sounds great. Sounds like a lot was done. But what are they actually saying? How many people were given mosquito nets? People were “reached.” But were they given 867,000 mosquito nets? What exactly did the Red Cross give?

Even the Catholic Relief Services, a clearly charitable organization, doesn’t say “give.” Their mission is to “assist the poor and vulnerable overseas.” Their Haiti documentation says that they “provided” meals, “supplied” equipment, “supported” water distribution and “improved” health care.

I looked everywhere to find an exception to the “give” rule. I looked at dozens of organizations’ reports. I even googled “give” and “Haiti” to see if these two words ever collide. Maybe I’m mistaken, I thought. Maybe charities don’t believe in “gifts” anymore?

A Different Trend in Appealing to Donors

With further research, I saw that charities do still use the G-word. Organizations often implore donors to give to them for Haiti.

Donors can “give back” or “give clean water.” They can make a “gift of property” or a “gift of stock.” There are “one-time gifts” and “recurring gifts.” And “matching gifts” and “gifts in kind.”

There are endless variations. You can “give now” or “give hope.” There are “monthly gifts” and “gifts that keep on giving.”

For a word that doesn’t exist in USAID reports, when it comes to donations it plays a key role. To respond to the 2011 famine in Somalia, USAID ran a big campaign, telling Americans to “Just text ‘GIVE’ to donate $10.”

Whenever disaster strikes, we run to the Red Cross so we can “give blood.” These days, the big trend is to help people to give after they die. This is called “planned giving.” You can even “give your body to science.”

Give Us Plain Language, Not Jargon

My dear readers, let me give you some advice. If you can’t understand what an organization’s report says, stop reading. And by all means, don’t give if you don’t know where your gift is really going.

If organizations can use plain language to ask for money, they can use plain language to tell us what they did with it.

It’s true, I could have told you all this sooner. But would you have understood? You asked, Where did the money go? It went exactly where they said it went and nowhere at all.



This story is part of an Aid.Works series on ethics. You can read the previous story here.

There are 2 comments

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  1. Edison Kiela

    Bravo Emily, for uncovering the real truth in giving. It is too much to hope that these aid organizations will wake up and be truthful with the millions of dollars they have been entrusted to GIVE to help those in need? Sadly that won’t happen without us givers demanding to know. Your article is a must read for anyone who contemplates giving in the future…if no one gives then the aid organizations will have to change their business model and come clean. This is so long over due.

  2. Viv

    Hi Emily, I agree that it is a big problem that we can’t trace the money as easily as we should be able to. I also agree that organisations should use simple language that is easy to understand. However, I don’t quite see why it is a problem to use ‘distribute’ rather than give? Using the word give as in giving a gift (as you refer) means the other person should be grateful. It is much harder to complain about a gift. So I could imagine that not using the word ‘give’ has something to do with the trend to not want to be seen as the ‘giver’ in order to try and create less dependency (I’m not saying that this works).
    I do hope that things become more traceable and more accountable!

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