The Story of the Haiti’s Earthquake Camps

Timothy Schwartz’s Jan. 12, 2010 earthquake – a decade ago this week — was one of history’s great natural disasters. However, it was not as great as the world’s large humanitarian relief organizations and their allied media outlets would have us believe. It became a money-making tragedy.

That is the message of the following article by Haiti-based anthropologist Tim Schwartz. First published on his blog in May 2019, this piece is adapted from a chapter in his 2017 book “The Great Haiti Humanitarian Aid Swindle.” It has been abridged for Haïti Liberté.

Dr. Schwartz is probably best-known for scientifically estimating the quake’s death toll: 46,000 to 85,000, not the 300,000 often bandied about.

This article examines the charades surrounding the internally displaced persons (IDP) tent camps, which became the symbol of the quake’s aftermath.

Kim Ives

Part I

In the wake of the Jan. 12, 2010 Haiti earthquake, the world witnessed the growth of what would become the largest refugee crisis on the planet. If we can believe claims from the United Nations, the U.S., and the EU governments, and the humanitarian aid agencies that together received some $3 billion in donations from individual and corporate donors, the displaced population in Port-au-Prince reached 2.3 million people, 1.5 million of whom were in living in temporary camps located in the vicinity of metropolitan Port-au-Prince, the capital of Haiti.

That was six times the next largest complex of refugee camps in the world at the time, the 239,500 people in Dadaab complex of refugee camps in Kenya who had fled civil war in Somalia. But in the case of Haiti, people were not fleeing violence, they were supposedly displaced by the earthquake. Supposedly. The fact is that those organizations giving us the data could not be believed… The crisis was largely the creation of those very organization collecting the money on behalf of the “earthquake survivors.”

Specifically, the Haiti earthquake refugee crisis was the result of three forces:

  • First and foremost, the radical exaggerations and hype from United Nations, representatives of the U.S. and EU and NGOs bent on collecting as much donated money as they possible could.
  • Attempts on the part of impoverished Haitians to partake in the donations, aid they knew very well had been given in their names, as they had access to reports on the radio and to information from family in the U.S., Canada, and elsewhere.
  • The attempts by many of those impoverished Haitians to use the earthquake crisis as an opportunity to appropriate land legally in the hands of elites, a process that has been common for the two centuries of Haitian history, but the opportunity for which has been intensified with the post-earthquake aid tsunami and presence of international aid agencies.

Being an Earthquake “Viktim”

“When they see us coming they run out with their sheets, and they throw up a tent.” It’s Jul. 9, [2010], seven months after the earthquake, and I am talking to Maria who is working in the camps.

A U.S. soldier on guard at an IDP camp after Haiti’s Jan. 12, 2010 earthquake.

Maria is middle class, fiftyish, from Honduras. I haven’t asked her for this information, she’s volunteering it. We are in a restaurant having dinner. My Foreign Service friend, Joseph, is with us, as well as another aid worker, a woman from Rwanda. I asked Maria about her job and she started telling me about the camps. “Many of these people, they have homes,” she says with a tone of exasperation. “In some areas we work they were not even affected by the earthquake.” World Vision, her employer, has assumed responsibility for 15 camps. She describes what happens after the aid workers arrive. [1]

“When we take over a camp or move people to places like we did on the border, every week there are 100 more people. They have their bed sheets over their rickety little wooden frames… No one is living there. But when they see a World Vision vehicle, they come running.”

Maria is not telling me anything I don’t already know. But what is surprising to me is that it’s so obvious even to her. She speaks no Kreyòl and no French. She has no special insight that would help her see or understand anything about Haiti that anyone else cannot see and understand. She has not been out living in camps or doing hard core research to get this information. She just visits camps as part of her job. Yet, that very day Nigel Fisher, UN Resident and Humanitarian Coordinator for Haiti, had declared in the United Nations official ‘6-Months After Report’, “a staggering 2.3 million internally displaced persons,” of which 1.5 million were living in camps. That would have been 46% of all 3.375 million people in the entire strike zone; 58% of those living in urban areas. But Fisher didn’t say anything about the fake tents. Maria doesn’t understand why. “It is,” she’s telling us, “obvious.” And it bothers her. “It is like no one cares whether the recipients need aid or not.”

Lest Maria and I be misunderstood, let me step back for a moment and explain something. Maria was not talking about the tents and makeshift shelters where people moved all the possessions they could scavenge from their collapsed home. There were many of those shelters. Tens of thousands.

Maria was describing another kind of shelter and camp; the kind that, if any aid worker or journalist had done the math or a survey — and I’m getting ready to recount that we did both — they would have known there were even more of. And they would have known that most were bogus. These shelters had no clothes hanging to dry on a line, no charcoal fires, no pots and pans, no people sleeping in them. If you poked your head inside one of them, you would more than likely have found them empty, and you would often have found a surface on which no one possibly could or would sleep: rocks on the floor, tree roots sticking up.

These were what my Foreign Service pal Joseph called “aid bait.” They sprang up throughout Port-au-Prince and in a 40-mile radius around the metropolitan area and even in some towns and cities as far as 100 miles away from the earthquake strike zone.

Haitian Vilmond Joegodson, who grew up in Cité Soleil, one of Port-au-Prince’s poorest neighborhoods, and who moved into several of the camps, described the process:

All that was needed was eight long sturdy branches and some sheets to hang from them to represent walls… The NGOs decided to visit them and to distribute whatever tents or tarps they still had. To qualify for those donations, or other aid, Haitians needed to have a place etched out in one of the camps and to have demonstrated some proof of residence.

Everyone kept their ears open to find out where the NGOs were distributing the tents most generously. The objective was to go to that camp and demonstrate a presence. Then wait. Sometimes people squatted in a number of camps at the same time in order to cover all their bases. [2]

Absurdity of the Numbers

You did not have to take my or Maria’s or even Joegodson’s word for the fact that many of those people in the camps were not really “viktim” of the earthquake. By the time that Nigel Fisher was declaring 1.5 million people in 1,555 camps, it was already reasonably certain that it was not 70% of the buildings in Port-au-Prince that had collapsed. It was 7% of the buildings. Another 13% were damaged such that demolition of the structure was recommended. That meant that a total of 20% of the buildings were unfit for habitation. And that meant that no more than 29% of the population should have been what the authorities were calling IDPs (internally displaced persons); at least, not if the criteria for being an IDP was that the home you were living in was destroyed.

If we extend the definition of an unfit home to include the yellow houses — the 26% of houses that were damaged but still reparable — there could logically have been no more than 46% of the population homeless, which is closer to the 68% of the population the UN reported as IDPs. The remainder of the houses were “green” which meant that they had no significant structural damage. But there were still big problems with the calculations. [3]

For those of us who lived in Port-au-Prince, we knew that most homes abandoned after the earthquake had been reoccupied within a couple of months of the disaster. And once again, you didn’t have to take our word for it. In the BARR Survey, we found that at the height of the exodus exactly 68% of residents in the earthquake impacted region left their home. That extrapolates to 2,040,000 people. But not all of those people went to camps. The UN estimated that 24% of the IDP population had gone to the countryside or were living in the homes of family or friends. BARR, UN’s OCHA, and the University of Columbia working with Sweden’s Karolinska Institute all found similar figures. Others were living in the street in front of their home.

In short, less than half of the IDPs went to camps; or more precisely, 900,000 people or 30% of the total population in the earthquake strike area went to the camps. But they began returning home within weeks of the earthquake. BARR tells us that 70% of people who had left their homes had returned to them by July 2010, when IOM [the International Organization for Migration] — that organization that the UN had designated as responsible for coordinating aid to camps in Haiti — was estimating there were 1.5 million people in the camps. At the one-year anniversary of the earthquake, when IOM estimated there were still 1 million people in camps, BARR tells us that 85% of those people who had left their homes were back in them. Even the 78,000 red-tagged-structure residences — those recommended for demolition — had a re-occupancy rate of 64%. For the 100,000 yellow-tagged residences — those damaged but reparable — the reoccupation rate was 92%; and for the 206,000 green-tagged structures — those that were undamaged — the re-occupancy rate was 96% (see Figure 2 and Figure 3).

Even if we were to include all the missing variables from the survey for reasons of non-reporting, we had solid data that at least 80% of people had re-occupied their homes one year after the earthquake. So once again, even if we’re liberal about the estimate, at the one-year earthquake anniversary no more than 20% of the population —about 675,000 people — should have been IDPs. That’s not people in the camps; that’s IDPs, meaning people who had not returned home. Based on reports in the BARR survey, of the 1,356 residences with absentee members, only 15% of those absentees were still located in camps (see Figure 3). This meant that of people from the earthquake impacted area, no more than 101,250, people who had been living in Port-au-Prince at the time of the earthquake were living in camps. Yet, the camp counts from the government and IOM found – or claimed – that there were still 1 million people in camps. Some of these extra people could and certainly were from outside the earthquake strike area living in camps, but the point is that something was definitively out of whack with reality. In some Port-au-Prince area counties, there were more people claiming to live in camps than the total number of people living in the county when the earthquake hit. [4] [5] [6] [7] [8] [9]

Even Without the Numbers, They Knew

So those are the numbers. But the fact is that you didn’t even need the numbers. Everyone in any position of authority knew damn well that many people in the camps were only pretending to be IDPs. One of the first things USAID/OFDA [Office of U.S. Foreign Disaster Assistance] representatives told me when they briefed me for the BARR Survey was about the massive opportunism. The two women who briefed me, one from OFDA and one a consultant for the U.S. State Department, told me point blank, “We know that a lot of the tents are empty.”

Table 1: Populations of Camps vs. Communes/Counties

They explained that SOUTHCOM (U.S. Southern Command) had been into the camps at night with infrared goggles and many of the tents were empty. “And,” the woman working with OFDA added, “we know that people in the camps are splitting families to occupy multiple tents so that they can get more aid.” So when UN Resident and Humanitarian Coordinator for Haiti, Nigel Fisher, announced to the world that there were 1.5 million people living in camps, there is simply no way that he himself could have believed the figure was remotely accurate. Once again the leaders of the humanitarian aid effort were flat out lying to us. [10]


[1] “I don’t think they are really hungry.” Maria, the woman from Honduras also said, and she was not being insensitive. She understands that they are poor. She has already said, “they are so poor, they are desperate.” But she’s perplexed, “It’s like this is what they do, it’s like some kind of opportunity.”

[2] For quotes and accounts from Joegodson see, Deralcine, Vilmond Joegodson and Paul Jackson. 2015. Rocks in the Water, Rocks in the Sun: A Memoir from the Heart of Haiti (Our Lives: Diary, Memoir, and Letters Series) Paperback – April 23, 2015.

[3] For the building structural evaluations see, Miyamoto, H. Kit Ph.D., S.E (Seismic Engineer)., and Amir Gilani, Ph.D., S.E 2011 Haiti Earthquake Structural Debris Assessment Based on MTPTC Damage and USAID Repair Assessments. Miyamoto International

[4] Data from IOM on home returns by month and year for 2010 and 2011:

[5] Most of the controversy over the BARR Survey centered on the death count. But we also estimated that only 1 of every 20 people in the camps came from earthquake impacted homes. Indeed, that might have been the biggest reason that USAID in Washington had reacted so strongly to the release of the report. As Professor Mark Schuller would unwittingly admit when attacking it, “a red herring.” What was really at issue was the legitimacy of the camps. Schuller would write:

… the attention deflected away from this discussion of the “illegitimate” IDPs, was an insidious outcome. With the public debate focusing on what to most Haitian people I know consider a red herring—with nothing to be done about the dead, no one ultimately responsible for their deaths – the inflammatory and controversial allegations about living IDPs, whose rights were actively being challenged by a range of actors, became tacitly accepted by the lack of scrutiny.

To the oft-repeated quote – amplified and justified by the Schwartz report [the BARR] – of people suddenly appearing in unused tents whenever a distribution was made, my eight research teams spent five weeks in the same camp and noticed a constant level of comings and goings, economic activity, and social life. In other words, they were all “real” camps.

(see, Schuller, Mark. 2011. “Smoke and Mirrors: Deflecting Attention Away From Failure in Haiti’s IDP Camps,” Huffington Post. December. )

[6] If we had listened to the government death count estimates and the camp estimates, that would have meant this:  in July 2010 there would have had 1.5 million people in Camps, 800,000 more in rural areas or homes of others, and another 316,000 dead, for a total of 2.616 million people out of a population of 3.4 million, 76% of the population. And yet the survey indicated that as of July, 75% were back home. So if 75% were back home, and 12% were dead, we had an extra 2 million people.

[7] Lest anything be misunderstood in the main text, here is what we found out from the BARR Survey and corroborated from data from Columbia University and Karolinska Institute, was that immediately following the earthquake, 68% of residents of greater Port-au-Prince left their homes. Of that we know that in the weeks immediately following the earthquake:

9% went to the homes of others

21% moved into the yard or the street in front of their home

26% (between 465,246 and 584,754) people left Port-au-Prince and went to stay with family in the countryside

44% concentrated in the spontaneous tent cities that appeared throughout the metropolitan areas.

What this means in terms of numbers is that between 866,412 to 894,588 ( p<.01) people went to camps.

But by July—when IOM and most newspapers and the Haitian government were reporting 1.5 million people in camps—75% of those who left Port-au-Prince were back in the city. And from the BARR Survey we knew that 66% of all those who had left their homes were back in their residence or in some kind of shelter on the property. That includes people who reported having gone to camps.

Corroborating the BARR findings, Colombia University and Sweden’s Karolinska Institute—the same ones who would use cell phone data to estimate earthquake deaths—found almost exactly the same figures for the geographical movement. In their case, they used cellular phone data to track the movements of people. They could not tell how many people were in camps or if someone had moved back to their residence prior to the earthquake, but they could tell how many left Port-au-Prince for rural areas and they could tell when they came back to the city. What they concluded was that 570,000 people had fled the Port-au-Prince metropolitan area for the provinces. There was also data from the United Nation’s organization OCHA, which was coordinating the aid effort and had sent staff to the provinces to count the migrants. They counted 511,405. So the three major surveys on migration found the same pattern, between 465,246 and 584,754 people left Port-au-Prince in the month after the earthquake. Moreover, studies by the same institutions of estimated return to the city of those IDPs were also very similar.

For the Cell Phone data see:

Bengtsson, Linus, Xin Lu, Richard Garfield, Anna Thorson, Johan von Schreeb. 2010. “Internal Population Displacement in Haiti Preliminary analyses of movement patterns of Digicel mobile phones: 1 January to 11 March 2010,” May 14. Karolinska Institute, Center for Disaster Medicine, and Columbia University, Schools of Nursing and Public Health.

For the OCHA data on populations movement see: United Nations/OCHA. 2010. “Haiti Earthquake – Population Movements out of Port-au-Prince – 8 February 2010.” percent20movement&emid=EQ-2010-000009-HTI. Retrieved 11 May 2010.

[8] Here are the specific numbers from the USAID/BARR Survey of 5,158 residences regarding how many people were in camps.  One year after the earthquake, IOM was still claiming 1 million, 88 percent of Port-au-Prince residents were back home. Based on that figure, the estimated number of legitimate IDPs was no more than 375,031 people.

[9] Regarding the veracity of asking people in the BARR Survey about being in camps: This did not mean, of course, that a respondent didn’t have a tent in a camp. The point is that they were unlikely to tell us if they did. But by the same token, there was no apparent reason why they would have reported themselves living in the house or yard when they were really living in a camp. Indeed, the beauty of the BARR Survey was that we had approached the issue from the other direction. Rather than counting people in the camps and asking if they really lived in the tent or if they really didn’t have house, we had gone to the source, houses. And that’s what made the BARR Survey and estimating the number of real IDPs foolproof. Indeed, it might have been the only way to do it. No one would ever be able to get the information from the camps because those in the camps who had a home, or who were renters who had lost nothing but no longer wanted to pay rent (and who can blame them), or who were capitalizing on an opportunity to migrate from the rural areas to Port-au-Prince, were not about to tell surveyors that they were trying to game the NGOs. It would have defeated the whole purpose of being in the camp. But because we went to houses, people had no reason to say they were in camps. In fact, if they were also in a camp, they were not going to say so at risk of impugning themselves. And so by doing that, by determining who was home and asking about the whereabouts of everyone else who had been in the residence at the time of the earthquake, we were working from the other direction. We asked the residents in the sampled houses where they went after the earthquake and where they were at the time of the BARR. If we couldn’t find any residents—as in the house was destroyed—we did the next best thing, we asked the neighbors. That made it a powerful way to go about estimating the camp population. And just like the death toll there was good reason to believe we had over-estimated. We were drawing on people in the hardest hit areas of Port-au-Prince. And just like the death count, the aid executives and activists were incensed. Yet, as I keep trying to emphasize, none of this means that there were not desperate people in Port-au-Prince. There were. They have been for a long time. Long before the earthquake. I’ll get back to that.

[10] One more of so many clear declarations from significant sources deeply entrenched in the relief effort and who contradicted the official claims of 2.3 million legitimately displaced persons came from Kit Miyamota, the Japanese seismic engineer who oversaw the USAID/UN/Haitian government house assessment program Miyamota recounted to me that,

When we repair yellow houses [damaged homes], we get to know the owners and renters very well since we stay there for an average of three days. Our Haitian engineers know their living status. After we repair yellow houses, approximately 100% of people return for 24 hours a day. But about 90% of them keep the unoccupied tents in the IDP camps since they hope to receive services and money to remove them.   (Personal Communication by E-mail, 2011, published in USAID/BARR 2011)

Part II

So Why the Lies?

What we were seeing with the growing camps was in part a scramble to get aid that the humanitarian organizations were giving away. But what the humanitarian aid professionals and the press seemed to miss was that for the poorest people it was more about escaping rent payments and gaining access to free land, i.e. land invasion. Just like the poor and middle class throughout the world, urban rents are a huge burden for those who have to pay them. The first goal of most independent household heads is to own their own home, and the earthquake presented a golden opportunity to get one. (…) It’s interesting and useful because it helps us make sense of Haiti and the impact of humanitarian aid. But just as interesting, for me (…) was the exaggeration, indeed, outright lying from the humanitarian sector. For despite the obvious mathematical distortions, despite the fact that even common aid workers like Maria were aghast at the scale of the opportunism, despite that behind closed doors we all went on at length about the rampant opportunism, the leaders of the humanitarian aid community, like UN director Nigel Fisher, kept a straight face while bewailing to the press and overseas public absurd numbers of homeless. In that respect it was very much like the orphans and rapes. And just as with the orphans and rapes, lurking behind it all was pursuit of money from sympathetic overseas donors.

The Money

The NGOs were pouring aid into the camps. Or at least they appeared to be. Olga Benoit, the director of SOFA, the largest women’s organization in Haiti, (…) recounted that, “it was like an invasion of NGOs. They went to the camps directly. This camp was for CRS [Catholic Relief Services], this camp for World Vision, this camp for Concern.”

Some might think that’s alright. Why not? Even if many people in the camps were not direct victims of the earthquake, they must have been in need. Yolette Jeanty of Kay Fanm, the second major feminist organization in Haiti tells us why that really wasn’t alright: “The great majority of ‘sinistre’ (desperate people) were and still are inside the neighborhoods. Those people didn’t want to go to the camps, they stayed home. Even those in the camps, many don’t sleep there. They go home to sleep. They only come to the camps during the day to get water or whatever they might be giving away. But the NGOs, they all go to the camps.”

By ignoring the neighborhoods, the humanitarian aid workers were able to avoid (…) security. In the weeks after the earthquake, the press had not only sold a lot of newspapers with sensational stories of gangs and street battles, they had also frightened the hell out of everyone, not least of all the humanitarian professionals working for NGOs and UN agencies. In 2013, criminologist Arnaud Dandoy wrote about the absurdity of what he calls “moral panic” among the humanitarian community in Haiti.

The typical NGO headquarters in Port-au-Prince was secured behind 10 foot walls topped with concertina wire. Its employees were restricted by curfews, forbidden to even roll down their windows in certain neighborhoods or enter others, precisely those neighborhoods most in need of humanitarian aid. The camps solved a lot of problems.

Despite the fact that the NGOs and the grassroots organizations such as KOFAVIV were reporting skyrocketing violence, the camps could be patrolled. UN soldiers were stationed at camps where NGOs worked. Security experts could monitor the situation. And at night, when things supposedly got really bad, the aid workers weren’t there. They went back to the elite districts, to their apartments and hotel rooms located, once again, behind high walls and in guarded compounds. [11]

On Jul. 9, 2010, Nigel Fisher, UN Resident and Humanitarian Coordinator for Haiti, declared that 1.5 million were living in 1,555 camps. That would have been 46% of all 3.375 million people in the entire strike zone. He didn’t say anything about the fake tents.

The problem with focusing on the camps, from a humanitarian perspective, is that they were missing a lot of the real victims. But what’s worse, from the perspective of helping, is that it was precisely the indiscriminate giving, the protection of the camps, and the carte-blanche certification of camp residents as legitimate that encouraged opportunists to pour into the camps. The camps grew for seven months after the earthquake, long after the last aftershock. They went from 370,000 people living “under improvised shelters” on Jan. 20, 2010 (IOM), to 700,000 on Jan. 31 (USAID 2010), to 1.3 million on Mar. 1 (UN 2010), to Nigel Fisher’s claim of 1.536 million in 1,555 camps on Jul. 9. Among those numbers were a lot of opportunists who sought to benefit from the aid, many of whom already had little grey concrete homes near the camps, homes that had not fallen down. And most of whom had some means of earning a living, however meager. And it’s unfair to those in need that such people would pretend to be victims left homeless by the earthquake. But more to the point here, it’s hard to overlook the fact that those who most benefitted from the lies and from permitting opportunists to indiscriminately pour into the camps were not the impoverished opportunists feigning to be homeless. Those who most benefitted from the lies were the foreign humanitarian aid agencies and their workers, many of whom were living in $50,000 per year hotel rooms and apartments. And it’s here where we can best understand why the United Nations and the NGOs were spewing untruths and omitting facts about the camps. [12]

The camps brought in donations. Whether deliberately or by default, the humanitarian aid organizations used the camps in much the same way as the people pretending to live in them: as aid bait to get overseas donors to give. The NGOs and UN agencies presented the camps to the overseas donors as a humanitarian aid smorgasbord of ills. Hundreds of thousands of vulnerable people in central locations with every imaginable need: food, water, shelter, security, lighting, sanitation, health, therapy. They were getting paid to take care of those ills. And by making a show of their efforts, taking lots of photo opportunities, it was as an easy solution to make it look like they were doing something. They didn’t have to go to the neighborhoods, didn’t have to implement rigorous mechanisms for vetting real victims from the pretenders. In this way the aid agencies essentially conspired with those pretending to live in the camps by not telling the truth about them and by wanton distribution of the aid. What makes it sad and distressing, if not criminal, is that those most in need, the weakest and most vulnerable who had gone to camps were, by and large, not getting aid. In the six years since the earthquake, I’ve listened to it over and over in focus groups:

“The camp committee took everything that was given for the camp. They took the tarpaulins and if you needed one you had to buy it from them for 250 or 300 gourdes. If not, you lived in the rain. Sometimes we saw trucks come with food. But they took everything to store at their houses. They didn’t give us anything. Some of these people had houses in good condition. The camps offered them more advantages than staying in their own houses.”

Erns Maire Claire (Female; 43 years; 3 children; teacher)
Focus Group for CCCM OCHA Cluster, Mar. 12, 2016

“What I saw happening was that they sold the food. Sometimes they made arrangements with other people and gave them food several times. These people sold the food and shared the money with them.”

Cadio Jean (Male, 43 years old; 4 children; mason/ironworker)
Focus Group for CCCM OCHA Cluster, Mar. 13, 2016

So there was waste and the NGOs were doing a lousy job getting the aid to the people who really needed it. There was massive embezzlement and hoarding. But if most of the people in the camps were not really earthquake victims and most were not getting anything from the humanitarian aid agencies, why did several hundred thousand people continue to live in camps for years after the earthquake? The answer is something that everyone seemed to speak about constantly but no one, not even journalists, seemed to realize was driving the camps. The answer is because they were renters and they hoped to get a piece of land and a home. Indeed, it was a consummation of Haitian historical trends, the invasion and expropriation of land, and most recently that of the invasion of Haiti by NGOs and the emergence of being a viktim as an opportunity to escape poverty. The poorest people and relative newcomers to the city were mobilizing their status as “earthquake victim” to seize land. (…)

Spontaneously Disappearing IDPs

By December 2012, there were 347,284 people in the camps, down from the 1.5 million IOM had said were living in camps six months after the earthquake; 74% of them had simply left the camps, “spontaneously” according to IOM. It was not clear how many of the remaining thousands were holding out to see if they could keep the land they had their shelter on. Most revealing, over 90% of those who were still in the camps had been renters before the earthquake. But victims of the earthquake or not, the humanitarian aid agencies could not leave them as a reminder to the world of the failed post-earthquake relief effort. And so, a new plan was hatched.

In a strategy that critics denounced as “paying off the poor,” 80,000 families (representing 250,000 people) were given $500 toward a year’s rent. To make sure they really left the camps, the contract for the money was often given, not to the family, but to the owner of the rental unit where they were supposed to go live. The family had to move; then the tent was torn down; and then the money got transferred. Some 2 to 6 weeks after the move the aid agencies sent people in to verify if the people had really moved into the rental unit, and not simply partnered with a landlord to game the system. And in a move that seemed targeted to assure anyone who was lying to continue to do so—I by rewarding them for having lied in the first place–, they gave the recipients another $125—if they appeared to still be in the house.

How many really did move into the homes isn’t clear. The NGOs and UN claimed fantastic success rates. Red Cross evaluators found the results “extremely promising” explaining that “one year on, no grantees have returned to camps and 100% have autonomously found an accommodation solution. [59] Similar results can be found from evaluators for all the aid agencies, “100% satisfaction”, “90%” of all recipients really moved to the houses.” [60] [61]

Behind the scenes it wasn’t so pretty. In 2016, I was hired to lead a team of researchers for the United Nations Camp Coordination and Camp Management Cluster (CCCM Cluster), an agglomeration of 10 of the biggest humanitarian organizations involved in the rental subsidy program. Our task was to review their internal reports and then design and conduct a survey of 1,400 of those who had received rental subsidies.

The American Red Cross — under fire at the time for the now famous NPR investigation that revealed they had, despite getting $500 million in donations for Haiti earthquake victims, built a total of 6 houses — wouldn’t even give us the lists to find their beneficiaries. Neither did Sean Penn’s organization JP/HRO, which had spent some $8 million of World Bank funds to provide rental subsidies. When you read between the lines the deception was abundantly in evidence. Alexis Kervins, who managed the data for JP/HRO follow-up verifications, told me that 60% of the recipients had never even moved into the homes. In the survey we conducted for the CCCM Cluster, 80% of the phone numbers that the NGOs gave us on the contact lists were no good or no longer working.[62] The World Bank would note in its 2014, Rental Support Cash Grant Programs: Operations Manual that, “one interviewee gave some idea of the scale of the challenge when he noted that of 600 complaints received following registration at one camp, 70 were found to indeed live there.” In what was one of the few examples of a verifiable beneficiary list, Concern Worldwide wrote in an internal report that: “Over 3000 persons declared not having any ID during registration; however verification by local organization ACAT (contracted to provide birth certificates) found that the great majority of those persons do in fact have ID. ACAT’s verification brought down the number of paperless beneficiaries to 379 ….”[63]

In retrospect, the camps were one more version of the Great Haiti Aid Swindle. And just as with the rapes, orphans, the number dead, and all the other hyped afflictions the humanitarian aid agencies used to collect donations, they justified them with bad data, truth stretching and lies, all needed to fool the overseas public and legitimize the aid that was pouring in. The aid agencies knew what data was in their best interests and what was not. When the numbers didn’t add up, they came up with new numbers Was it impossible that 43% of the population were in camps? In one of the first major reports on the camps, U.S. university professor, activist-anthropologist and humanitarian aid researcher Mark

Schuller claimed that 70 to 85% of the people in Port-au-Prince had been renters before the earthquake. It was a number that got picked up by aid agencies and became part of the narrative. But Schuller had, deliberately or otherwise, mis-cited his colleagues Deepa Panchang and Mark Snyder who in a report had said, not 85%, but rather “up to 70%” of people were renters. And they were not referring to the population of Port-au-Prince.

They were referring to people living in the camps. Meanwhile, the real figure for proportion of the population that was renters at the time of the earthquake was, as seen, 40-50% of Port-au-Prince households, a figure that was available in several major and widely known studies. [64] [65] [66] [67] [68] [69] [70]

Another myth that justified camps was “skyrocketing rental costs.” Once again, this untruth came from the prolific Professor Schuller, who by this time had dubbed himself the “professor of NGOs” and was traveling to Washington DC to brief congressional committees on earthquake expenditures. Schuller cited UN data that rents had increased 300% since the earthquake, data that the aid agencies again latched on to.

Yet, using real income indicators, rental prices in Port-au-Prince slums where the same in 2010, 2011, and 2012 as they were in 1982 when author Joegodson’s father paid the equivalent of $209 for 1-year rental of a one-room, dirt floor shack with no latrine in Cité Soleil—one of Port-au-Prince’s poorest slums. As for the 300% increase in the cost of housing, Professor Schuller had been citing a UN report. But the UN wasn’t talking about the poor. They were talking about their own personnel who, along with NGO workers and consultants, were getting gouged while the rest of us who lived in Haiti, in popular neighborhoods, continued to pay the same rents.[71] [72] [73] [74]

Conclusion: Behind the Greed and Negligence

The misunderstandings, the failure to reach many of the most vulnerable, the lies about the numbers, the lies about opportunism, and the exploitation of the camps as “aid bait” to draw in donations were major features of the Haitian earthquake relief effort that should not be forgotten. Just as with the rescues, the orphans and the so-called rape epidemic, we shouldn’t allow politics, self-interest, and headline hunting journalists to impede our capacity to learn from the failures that came after the earthquake. But it’s important to make clear that the process is not some kind of conspiracy to mislead donors and benefit aid workers. Most aid workers who were present—from the lowest field worker to the highest directors—were as dismayed as I am with the waste, with the money that seemed to vanish, and with the failure to reach those who were most in need.

And many of the lowest level aid workers did not earn fat salaries. There were thousands of missionaries who earned nothing at all. There were people who paid to come to Haiti, who simply got tired of seeing the thousands of suffering Haitians on television, got off the couch, bought plane tickets, and came to Haiti to try do something about it. And even the high-level directors and administrators of humanitarian aid agencies are mostly good people who believe in what they are doing. I’ve known hundreds of them. The clear majority are compassionate people who set out to help, who wanted to change the world, alleviate poverty and suffering. But as they advance in the corporate world of charity, they get caught up in the industry of aid, the dreams get swept away and replaced by hope for a salary raise, a pension plan, a promotion, better working conditions, and the very real need to care for their own families. Turning on your employer and revealing that aid is failing is a fast way for an aid executive to lose those perks and get booted out of the business they and their families have come to depend on.

So it’s not the aid workers that we should blame for the failures. The issue is ultimately one of accountability. Those mega-aid institutions such as CARE International, Save the Children, and UNICEF depend on donations. The directors’ salaries and pension plans depend on those donations. The capacity for the organizations to be present in poor countries—no matter how wasteful and ineffective the organization is—all depends on getting donations. Their dependency on that money means the aid agencies must be pumping the public and the press with information that encourages people to give; their bureaucratic inefficiency means that there is never enough money; and the total absence of any mechanism to make the organizations accountable assures waste and failure to get the money to those for whom the aid was intended.

There are no institutional benefits to resolving these problems. There is no mechanism that assures that the organization that most effectively spends the money and helps people out of poverty will get the most money. On the contrary, It’s not about effectively spending the money; it’s about getting the money. The most donations go to those who exaggerate and lie the best. The profit motive is getting donors to give, selling images of extreme need and suffering: vulnerable children, orphans, child slaves, rape victims, homeless people. And they need that money to keep going, to keep the directors paid, keep the organization alive. It’s those needs that assure the problems will be exaggerated and the accomplishments, no matter how pathetic, will be hyped. It assures they will always hide the truth. And no matter how ineffective an aid agency is, those idealists working for the organization can always latch on to the belief that yes, there were mistakes in the past, but it’s all about to change, and they’re part of that change. But you can’t make change happen if the money stops. And in what becomes a fierce competition of making afflictions up, a type of arms race of lies, the money goes to those with the most fantastic tales. And so in the absence of any mechanism to vet those lies and censure those organizations behind the lies, the experts and professionals go right on pumping out untruths and sabotaging their own efforts to help the poor.


[11] For Arnaud Dandoy’s analysis of “moral panic,” see, Insecurity and humanitarian aid in Haiti: an impossible dialogue? Analysis of humanitarian organisations’ security policies in Metropolitan Port-au-Prince. Groupe URD (Urgence – Réhabilitation – Développement)

[12] For Nigel Fisher claims see: UN Office of the Special Envoy for Haiti. 2010. “Haiti: 6 months after… UN Stabilization Mission in Haiti.” Published on July 09, 2010

[54] Regarding the documentary “Where Did all the Money Go” by Michelle Mitchell, my opinion of the film was that it was narrow, demagogic attack on the NGOs from a journalist who depended heavily on activists such as Scott Snyder and Professor Mark Schuller. The film nevertheless stirred up a storm in driving home the undisputable fact that people in the camps in fact got very little of the aid money. The next question was, of course, if the camps didn’t get it—and the NGOs were claiming that it was the camps that were getting most—then where did the money go. Indeed, it became almost a cliché: “Where did all the money go?”

[55] Ratnesar, Romesh. 2011. “Who Failed on Haiti’s Recovery?” Time, January 10.,8599,2041450,00.html

[56] Doucet, Isabeau. 2011. “The Nation: NGOs Have Failed Haiti,” NPR. January 13.