INTERVIEW-Haitian democracy depends on scrutiny of aid -watchdog

by Anastasia Moloney | @anastasiabogota | Thomson Reuters Foundation
Tuesday, 20 December 2011 11:22 GMT
Jane Regan, an American journalist, co-founded a watchdog that reports on the country's reconstruction

BOGOTA (AlertNet) - When the earthquake hit Haiti almost two years ago journalist Jane Regan, who was living in Washington at the time, knew she had to return to the Caribbean nation and watch where the aid was going.

Training local journalists to ask tough questions about how the billions of dollars of aid money is spent is a perquisite to building a strong democracy in Haiti, she told AlertNet, a year after co-founding a watchdog that reports on the country’s reconstruction.

“Haiti is trying to build a democracy, and without good journalists and a strong media sector you can't have informed citizen participation or accountability,” said Regan, a U.S. citizen who has lived on and off in Haiti for the last 20 years.

 “The Haitian press is not really of a high level, it doesn’t have the resources to be a watchdog in the reconstruction effort,” she added. “The government doesn't have the capacity, and the media in general don't have the training, nor the tradition of doing investigative journalism.”

Scraping funding from U.S. and Danish donors, Regan and three Haitian journalists founded Haiti Grassroots Watch (HGW), or “Ayiti Kale Je” meaning ‘Haiti Eyes Peeled’ in Creole. Its investigations are aired on local radio, the main source of news for Haitians, and the website publishes in English, Spanish, French and Creole.

Alongside her small team of part-time volunteers, journalism students and reporters, she works from a cramped office with two donated computers. The watchdog reveals finding from discussions with Haitians living in tent cities, and from off-the-record interviews with local and foreign aid officials and community liaison officers.

In its latest report, the watchdog asked why a $4.9-million project funded by the Venezuelan government to build 128 homes in the northeast of Port-au-Prince sat empty for 15 months. The report comes at a time when around half a million Haitians uprooted by the earthquake still live in camps in worsening conditions.

The homes are now occupied, but most by squatters who broke in by smashing windows and doors, and others by 42 families handpicked by the Venezuelan embassy in Haiti, HGW says. The Venezuelan embassy in Haiti has not responded to interview requests by HGW following its report. 

“The 128 houses sat empty for over a year while people argued who should be allowed to go into them and while hundreds of thousands of people are living in makeshift shelters. It’s a waste of resources,” said Milo Milfort, 24, a HGW journalist who took part in the investigation.

In July, the watchdog exposed alleged corruption in cash-for-work programmes, a scheme overseen by the United Nations, USAID (the U.S. government’s humanitarian aid agency), and foreign NGOs (non-governmental organisations) that provides jobs to Haitians, mainly clearing rubble. According to HGW’s investigation, based on interviews with 50 participants, some people in charge of hiring workers were offering jobs and spots on work lists in exchange for sex.

“Ten percent of women beneficiaries say ‘their friends’ had to give sexual favours to get a position, and 30 percent of the beneficiaries say they had to pay a kickback for their job,” the report says.

The HGW report includes as evidence a copy of a slide from a presentation by the U.N.’s development agency (UNDP) that says charity “Save the Children reported instances of sexual favours etc being demanded for spots on the list.”

In response to these accusations, CHF International, one NGO running cash-work-programmes in Haiti, said it would investigate whether the allegations were true.

“CHF is investigating the complaints made in the article and will act in partnership with the community and the authorities to remove any offenders from their positions. Our position is clear: even if only 1 percent of the allegations are true, that 1 percent is unacceptable. Any incidents at all of corruption or exploitation are unacceptable,” the NGO said in a July statement.

And in an audit of USAID’s Haiti cash-for-work programme,  the U.S. international development agency’s Office of Inspector General last September said: “Not all implementing partners had sufficient controls to prevent corruption from taking place in the selection of beneficiaries hired to work on USAID cash-for-work projects.”

EDUCATION IS KEY

In a country with a tradition of repression against journalists, and where getting access to information and to government officials is difficult, investigative journalism is fraught with difficulties.

“There’s little tradition of accountability or transparency here. There are no open records laws and in general, especially post-earthquake, since so many records were destroyed during the disaster. Government and NGO officials usually don't feel they have to give interviews, talk about budgets, or even share information,” Regan said.

Regan teaches the only investigative journalism course in the country, at the State University of Haiti. So far about 40 students have completed the course and lessons take place in a makeshift classroom with no electricity.  

“Haiti needs its own journalists to dig deeper, to ask the probing questions, to hold leaders accountable, to increase citizen participation,” Regan said. “I want to help my colleagues gather and consolidate the skills, and the confidence, that will permit them to do that. Covering a million press conferences and reworking press releases just won't do the trick.”

Many local journalists earn less than the minimum factory wage of $750 a month, and few own computers or have access to the internet outside work, says Regan.

To help journalists do their job, HGW pays for telephone cards, transportation, and provides a small stipend. Regan runs a barebones operation, with cassettes and sound files for radio often sent on the back of a motorcycle or with a bus driver to the radio station.

As well as its investigation on the cash-for-work programmes, the watchdog in November reported on a $2.5-million project backed by the European Union to provide clean water to poor neighborhoods in the capital. Five years on since its inception, and despite available funds, the project has not been completed, HGW says.

In another report, HGW criticises a new $225-million industrial park in northern Haiti – backed by the U.S. government and Inter-American Development Bank – which aims to provide over 20,000 jobs in textiles and kick-start the local economy when it opens next year.

HGW says the park is being built on a key watershed and ecological area, near forests and the country's longest coral reef. The watchdog says the industrial park could harm fragile ecosystems and pollute the nearby river with factory waste. The report also says workers could be paid sweatshop wages, between $3.75 a day to $5 a day – Haiti’s minimum daily wage.

However, some say life in Haiti is set to improve, citing signs that the pace of recovery will pick up and that decisions will be made quicker following this year’s formation of a government under President Michel Martelly.

“This government is much more engaged. There is a much more positive and hopeful atmosphere,” said Tom Adams, U.S. special coordinator for Haiti.

(Editing by Rebekah Curtis)

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