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What Does Haiti Have to Show for $13 Billion in Earthquake Aid?

Five years ago a deadly earthquake ravaged Haiti. Dr. Nancy Snyderman returns to document its recovery.
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Americans texted tens of millions of dollars in donations and governments gave billions, but five years after an earthquake left corpses and rubble piled across Haiti, 85,000 people still live in crude displacement camps and many more in deplorable conditions.

The disconnect between the massive amount of private and public aid and the poverty, disease and homelessness that still plague the country raises a question that critics say is too difficult to answer: Where did all that money go?

In Coralia this week, father of two Serafin Jean Rose, 33, said he has benefited from the American dollars that have poured in since Jan. 11, 2010.

After his home was destroyed, he was moved to one of the tent camps. A year ago, they were given enough money to move out and build a tin house. He works as a carpenter and has been able to feed his family of four.

"I'm one of the lucky ones," he told NBC News.

Image: Jean-Louis Wilner stands on the rubble of his demolished neighborhood in central Port-au-Prince, Haiti.
Jean-Louis Wilner stands on the rubble of his demolished neighborhood in central Port-au-Prince, Haiti, July 7, 2014David McFadden / AP

Ninety-five percent of the 1.5 million people who were in camps in 2010 have been moved, but many of them are still not in permanent housing. At least 200,000 people are in new hillside slums, known as Canaan-Jerusalem, where there are wooden and tin homes but no running water, electricity or sanitation yet.

A high-profile celebrity-backed charity is being probed for its use of funds, and some U.S.-backed projects have been scaled back or scrapped.

"You have donors disburse money, but that doesn't mean all that money is spent on the ground," said Jake Johnston of the Center for Economic and Policy Research.

"If the expectation was to build back better and transform Haiti's public sector, then yes, by any measure it’s been a failure," Johnston told NBC News. "But that isn’t to say there have not been successes."

In the immediate aftermath of the 7.0-magnitude quake, heart-rending images beamed in from the island to U.S. homes spurred Americans to open their wallets for victims in the poorest country in the Western hemisphere.

They gave $1.4 billion to relief and recovery efforts over the course of the next year, according to an analysis by the Chronicle of Philanthropy. Of that, $32 million alone came in the form of $10 text messages to the American Red Cross.

At a donors conference in New York three months after Port-au-Prince and much of the south was wrecked, nations from around the globe, led by the United States, pledged billions more for the short and long term — to be managed by a commission co-chaired by Bill Clinton and the Haitian prime minister.

The United Nations said that in total $13.34 billion has been earmarked for the crisis through 2020, though two years after the quake, less than half of that amount had actually been released, according to U.N. documents. The U.S. government has allocated $4 billion; $3 billion has already been spent, and the rest is dedicated to longer-term projects.

Some global development analysts say that the spending structure — with the vast majority of money being funneled through foreign contractors instead of the Haitian government or local outfits — has built-in inefficiencies, compounded by a lack of accountability and transparency.

The U.S. Agency for International Development, which oversees the aid program, says using experienced Beltway-based firms that could move quickly in the beginning was a necessity, but acknowledges that more should go to local entities. The new goal is to put 17 percent of funding in Haitian hands.

The American companies relied on a maze of subcontractors, increasing overhead and obscuring whether the money was being spent wisely, critics said.

"It was really hard getting our hands around this," said Rep. Barbara Lee, D-Calif., who authored a bill signed into law last month that requires more robust reporting of how aid is being spent going forward.

Still, there is no doubt many lives were saved and good work was done, under daunting circumstances and in the face of overwhelming destruction.

"Our successes far outstrip our failures," said Beth Hogan, an administrator for USAID. Tom Adams, the State Department's special coordinator for Haiti, conceded "it has been a challenge to implement certain parts of our assistance package," but pointed to progress in job creation, health, security and agriculture.

Image: Haiti Continues To Struggle Two Years After Devastating Earthquake
A man walks past a camp for people displaced by the earthquake on March 4, 2012 in Port-au-Prince.Spencer Platt / Getty Images

The USAID list of expenditures includes: emergency food for 4 million, temporary shelter for 1.5 million, 2.7 million cubic meters of rubble removed, 600 classrooms created, construction of a power plant for a new U.S.-brokered factory park, support for 160 health clinics, funding to arrest a cholera outbreak that killed nearly 9,000, better technology for farmers, and the creation of permanent housing.

The housing program can hardly be branded a success, though. A government audit in 2013 found that USAID underestimated how much would be needed for settlements, ballooned the budget from $59 million to $97 million while cutting its goal from 15,000 houses to 2,649. It's put up about 900 so far.

"We realized we are not going to come anywhere close to building the kind of housing stock Haiti requires," said Hogan, saying the focus has shifted to financing so Haitians can build or improve homes themselves.

In the meantime, there are still 85,000 people in displacement camps — half of which did not have latrines, according to a 2014 UN report. Development plans for Port-au-Prince meant some downtown renters were evicted, their buildings demolished, earlier this year.

"I'm worse off than after the earthquake," said Jean-Louis Wilner, 32, who spent two years in a tent camp before scoring a rental apartment in the capital that was recently taken down to make way for a government center.

"It's humiliating," he told The Associated Press.

USAID also scrapped plans to build a new port in northeastern Haiti after delays mounted, projected costs skyrocketed, and it became apparent shippers would not use it — and, as the Miami Herald reported, after it spent $4.5 million on feasibility studies.

Audits of other contracts have also highlighted problems with small projects. A North Carolina company that was paid $12.9 million to develop a Creole-based school curriculum got poor grades from US AID's inspector general, who noted that some team members didn't even speak French.

Image: Wyclef Jean greeting the crowd before officially registering as a presidential candidate in Port-au-Prince
Haiti hip-hop star Wyclef Jean greets the crowd before officially registering as a presidential candidate at an office in the Delmas neighborhood of Port-au-Prince in 2010. Reuters file

The private sector — which accounts for $3 billion to the aid bottom line — has seen its own share of funding successes and pitfalls.

The American Red Cross released a breakdown of spending and plans for $488 million in donations collected in the last five years — from solar-powered street lights and mountains of mosquito nets to 5,300 units of blood and $10 million to reconstruct St. Michel Hospital. A $22 million, 300-bed teaching hospital in Mirebalais, built and run by Partners in Health, is often cited as a bright spot.

Then there's the troubling case of Fugees rapper Wyclef Jean's Yele Haiti charity, which took in $16 million in 2010 on the strength of his star-power, and spent more than $4 million on internal expenses like salaries, consultants, travel and office and warehouse expenses. Sean Penn’s J/P Haitian Relief Organization spent just 10 percent of its revenue on those kind of overhead costs.

Yele dissolved in 2012 amid questions about its bookkeeping and payouts, and the New York attorney general's office said this week it is still investigating the group's finances. On a smaller scale, North Carolina authorities yanked the license of a charity called Share Our Shoes after finding more than $50,000 in questionable expenses.

To Jonathan Katz, author of "The Big Truck That Went By: How the World Came to Save Haiti and Left Behind a Disaster," the aid story is one of good intentions and bad policy, short-term fixes without a ground-breaking long game, Band-Aids over self-sufficiency.

"If you gave $10 to the American Red Cross, eventually, 90 percent of that money would have gotten spent on something — part of a tarp to go over a family's head, part of a bag of rice to feed a couple of people, salary or transportation for American aid worker. That money would have been spent very, very quickly," Katz said.

"But there's no practical connection between putting a tarp over someone's head on Day 3 or 7 and putting a roof over someone's head five years later."