Billions of Aid Dollars Spent: Why Isn’t Haiti Ready for a Hurricane?

As Hurricane Matthew barrels toward Haiti, millions of Haitians are at risk of death, displacement, injury or illness. Sustained wind speeds inside the storm are up to 138 mph, making Matthew a Category 4 hurricane. In the past, Category 1 storms have caused significant deaths in Haiti, so this storm may be one of the worst ever to hit the island nation.

Haiti is no stranger to hurricanes. Since 1980, there was Allen, Gilbert, Gordon, Georges, Ivan, Dennis, Gustav, Hanna, Ike and Tomas. Hurricane Jeanne in 2004 killed thousands. The threat is known. So why do hundreds of people die each time a major storm hits? Why isn’t Haiti better prepared? What happens to the money we donate?

1. Very little aid money goes to disaster preparedness and prevention.

Globally, the humanitarian sector took in $28 billion last year, the highest amount ever recorded. With climate change on the horizon, disaster preparedness should be a priority spending area. It’s not. On average, only about four percent of all humanitarian aid is dedicated to preparedness. This holds true for Haiti, where prevention received only 3.5% of funding from 2009 to 2013. Funding is a serious issue in Haiti but the safety of residents should always come first! Since Haiti is so prone to storms, surely all citizens should know how to prevent storm damage? If people don’t know how to minimize the damage made by the storm, it’s going to cause lots of problems.

Only about four percent of all humanitarian aid is dedicated to preparedness.

In reality, we have no idea how much money goes to prevention and preparedness. “Following the money” in humanitarian aid is currently impossible. Preparedness, as a subset of aid, is even more opaque. Despite the reams of data and reports generated by aid groups, there is no universal tracking code for prevention projects.

2. Most aid money doesn’t go to local governments or local groups.

Real disaster preparedness requires long-term investments and local cooperation. But aid organizations and foreign governments routinely refuse to fund local governments or groups that they perceive to be corrupt or incompetent. Unfortunately, corrupt countries with incompetent governments are usually the most in need.

Foreign groups often sidestep locals, even the very skilled and non-corrupt, because it is faster and simpler. As a result, projects either don’t get off the ground or they fail. In 2015, local and national organizations received only 0.4% of all direct humanitarian assistance. Domestic authorities in recipient countries received only 1.2% of international funds.

This funding pattern sets in motion a destructive cycle as year after year, the big money is spent on foreigners and consultants while locals are no better trained or positioned to take over when they leave. In Haiti, the classic example is deforestation, which contributes to flooding. Organizations spend millions on efforts to plant trees, but the real trick is convincing people not to cut them down. Most environmental aid projects in Haiti last less than five years and have no follow-up.

3. People don’t donate to prevention.

Humanitarian response is reactive, in part, because funding is reactive. Giving is emotional and irrational. If people can’t see the problem, it isn’t likely to garner support. In the recent Syrian refugee crisis, people were motivated to donate only after they saw photos of Alan Kurdi, the drowned baby who washed up on a Turkish beach.

Consider the slogan, “Build Back Better.” The emphasis is on what is already broken.

Similarly, governments give more to countries who are nearby, speak the same language or with whom they have a colonial relationship. We give money because of headlines or politics. We don’t give based on the efficiency of our donation.

Disaster preparedness is too abstract for people to take out their wallets. Even when someone says, “Hey, if you give $5 now, you’ll save more lives and money in the long run…” people just aren’t inclined to do it. Consider the slogan, “Build Back Better.” The emphasis is on what is already broken. A more pragmatic slogan would be, “Build Better.” It’s not likely to catch on.

4. Aid organizations spend massive amounts of money on emergency response, much more than people imagine.

Because giving is impulsive, donors typically don’t ask for rigorous explanations of how their donations were spent after disasters. They give money and then forget about it. When they do follow-up, donors are satisfied with a few photos and metrics showing evidence of “impact.” As a result, most aid organizations take on tasks that are imminently achievable. They spend their money on emergency response, which is very expensive.

Spending money is the best way to make money because big aid organizations raise most of their funds in the midst of crises, not ahead of them. Imagine how much it costs to go to the emergency room for a chronic disease instead of getting a vaccine. The problem is, disasters sell. Not being prepared is a waste of money, but ultimately the humanitarian aid sector doesn’t operate off any sort of logical model of cost vs. benefit.

5. The voices of aid recipients aren’t being heard.

Right now, the concept of “accountability” is almost entirely driven by organizations’ interactions with their donors, not aid recipients. Most organizations say, “What can we give?” instead of “What do you need?” Local people want preventative solutions to their problems, but their voices aren’t being heard. Aid recipients are poor, they are not politically influential, they have little access to the media and therefore, they are invisible. Often, it is only through their death that they are noticed at all.

Ethicists suggest that the humanitarian industry start thinking of “donations” as “investments” because donors, at their core, do want their money to improve many lives, instead of saving just a few. These ongoing cycles of death and desperation, followed by a manic humanitarian response, erode trust in the system.

When disaster preparedness finally gets the attention it deserves, it won’t be because prevention makes more sense or is easier to sell. Humanitarian organizations must shift their ethical commitment to focus on local communities simply because it is the right thing to do.


  • Put ethics first. For some issues, financial and practical arguments will never sway the marketplace. Aid organizations need to focus on prevention and local communities because their value systems demand it.
  • Donors need to give more, sooner. If we wait for babies to wash up on beaches, it’s too late.
  • Give to groups who have a long-term track record in the country. And not to groups who are planning to leave when the journalists do.
  • Listen to local voices. In surveys during the Ebola response, the organization Ground Truth Solutions found more than 80% of aid recipients felt their needs weren’t met. In Nepal, they found similar negative perceptions. People want sustainable solutions.
  • Dedicate a fixed percentage of aid funding for disaster prevention and preparedness. Every organization, large or small, can do this.
  • Track the money so that communities know where aid dollars are going. This means using universal codes like IATI for the type of response and sharing that data publicly.
  • Give more money to local groups and governments.



There are 3 comments

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  1. Marc

    Nice piece Emily. Two comments. The snarky me thinks it would be possible to prevent hurricane damage by gathering all the reports about Haiti — consultancy, NGO, UN, donor, academic — and building an anti-hurricane wall out of them.

    The curious me wonders how development agencies and funding streams treat prevention. I can be accused of thinking like a traditional humanitarian on this issue. Meaning, I can easily champion the idea of investing in prevention as a top priority, but I wouldn’t see it as core humanitarian business. It’s a well-worn argument — ambulance teams should be treating people with heart attacks, not campaigning for better fitness, diets or against smoking.

    Given the development setbacks caused by these sort of disasters — blowing away a decade of progress — wouldn’t disaster prep and prevention fit well into development thinking? And be better served by development modalities? That isn’t to say humanitarians should ignore it, but what role?

    • Emily Troutman

      Hi Marc, Great questions. I think overall we are seeing that the line between humanitarian aid and development is blurring. And in fact, bringing them together is one of the goals of the UN, as stated by the Sec Gen at the recent World Humanitarian Summit. In reality, lots of organizations do both. What’s really fascinating is that development funding seems to give LESS money towards prevention, at least according to experts who’ve studied the money. They say when it comes to development, only 1% of the money on average goes to prevention. I agree with you in theory, the development people would be better positioned to do this type of work. However, since most funding for humanitarian aid comes after disasters and not before it, the “aid” people have access to much more money, and therefore more power and influence.

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