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Democratic Party arm criticized in Haiti project for spending on big foreign salaries and Washington office overhead

EXCLUSIVE: An arm of the Democratic Party chaired by former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, that aims to support democracy in foreign countries, has been sharply criticized by an important donor for spending nearly 40 percent of the budget of a project in disaster-battered Haiti on foreign salaries and Washington office overhead, rather than on the field staff and equipment the project required.

The National Democratic Institute is a non-profit arm of the Democratic Party that maintains more than 60 offices abroad and works in non-partisan fashion, according to its website, “to support democratic elections, political parties, parliaments, civic engagement and women’s political empowerment.”

But at least in Haiti, the institute commonly known as NDI has been the subject of tough criticism from evaluators hired by one of its most respected donors: Norway.

In connection with a program intended to boost civilian influence on the priorities of Haiti’s ramshackle government, the evaluators took a harsh swipe at the salaries handed out to top NDI personnel on the ground in connection with the money spent on NDI personnel and other overhead back at its Washington headquarters, and, most importantly, at  what the evaluators declared was “the lack of anything that ordinary Haitians would consider results.”

NDI strongly disputes most of the conclusions of the evaluation study, forbiddingly titled, “Review of Norwegian Support to Strengthening Citizens’ Political Influence in Haiti through the National Democratic Institute,” and currently posted on the ministry’s website.

In all, the report declared, “roughly 4 out of every 10 dollars” in NDI’s $1.6 million budget for its civilian support exercise in Haiti went “to cover the cost of the Washington office and its in-country field director, an expatriate who received salary benefits and allowances (including a “hardship” payment ) more than $256,000.

Another $55,000 went toward salaries of six NDI staffers in Washington, along with nearly $120,000 in overhead costs and an additional amount of nearly $181,600 retained for NDI’s home office that was dubbed “program support.”

In the meantime, as a result of the cash squeeze brought on by high expenses, nearly half of the NDI program’s 13 local field coordinators were fired after half a year, while the remainder had to provide their own computers for work, do work from home, and, when they traveled to the far-flung regions under their supervision, take Haiti’s crude collective taxis or hitch rides on ubiquitous local motorcycles. 

Only about one-third  f more than $616,000 that went for Washington overhead and the expat director’s salary and benefits would have reversed the cutbacks, the study says.

Norway dropped its financing for NDI’s program shortly after the evaluation report was published in November 2012.

In response to questions from Fox News, Norwegian foreign ministry officials confirmed that “discussions” about NDI’s costs “were held” with the organization, and that “Norway no longer supports NDI’s activities in Haiti,” although it does so elsewhere, notably in Somalia.

In broader terms, the Norwegian evaluation was also a critique of too-optimistic assumptions about what it called “democracy-building goals”—what might be called internationally-funded community organizing-- in dysfunctional states like Haiti.

As the report put it: “Can MFA [Norway’s foreign ministry] feel reasonably assured that the finance of pressure groups and advocacy coalitions within civil society will lead to positive change, to enhanced responsiveness, on the part of the Haitian government ?”

Simply put, no. “The team found no evidence in this field review that the people really expect the government to come through” with goods and services as a result of civilian lobbying, the document stated.  “And given the chronic, continuing chaotic state of the government,” it continued, “they are right.”

The essence of program that Norway’s evaluators found wanting had been in existence for more than a decade before Oslo’s checkbook came along, mostly supported by USAID.  It consists of a non-partisan network of so-called citizens’ Initiative Committees, or ICs, developed by NDI through field work, and organized in parallel to local and regional government. According to the report, they now cover most of the country.

They are, according to the report, intended to “identify problems of local concern” and to “dialogue with elected officials concerning the resolution of these problems”—which for most of Haiti amounts to a catastrophic lack of infrastructure and basic services, even after billions in humanitarian and development aid poured in after the mammoth 2010 earthquake and ensuing cholera epidemic. 

NDI’s role was to organize the ICs and support them through “event financing”—helping to rent meeting spaces, pay for food at encounter sessions with Haitian government officials, and sometimes pay for the transport and housing of people to attend the events.

As the report puts it, “The NDI program focuses on organizing the citizenry for advocacy purposes rather than directly trying to improve government performance.”

The events  themselves drew praise from Norway’s evaluators, who say they were “impressed with the excitement and electricity generated” at one such gathering of “individuals who were happy to be interacting in an organized manner, perhaps for the first time in their lives, with government officials.”

But when it came to actual results, the evaluators were decidedly more skeptical. They saw the things that Haitians wanted to organize around as real and desperately needed services --“governmentally funded roads, water systems, electric systems, health centers, schools and the like,” as the document puts it at one point.

Instead, the reviewers noted that NDI’s own proposed benchmarks for evaluation included enlargement of the IC network, the establishment of “civic advocacy coalitions, “and the implementation of “visible advocacy campaigns,” i.e. dialogue meetings.

The problem is, the evaluators noted, that in NDI’s concept, “program activities are being defined as the program results.”  By analogy, they argued, “NDI’s use of the term would define the ‘results’ of a vaccination campaign in terms of the quantity of vaccine distributed, rather than its impact on health outcomes. This terminological maneuver in effect frees program managers from the task of proving any impact of the delivered activities.”

Bottom line: “The concept of results in the NDI proposal is at odds with the common sense definition that ordinary Haitians (and probably most humans) have.”

In fairness, the evaluation report also underlines that the “absence of bona-fide results has more to do with the intractable nature of the Haitian State.” 

The “intractable” problem is that no matter how much citizens lobby, in the reviewers’ opinion the Haitian state knows how to extract money and resources from its citizens and others, but has virtually no history at all of delivering services. “It has all the proper ministries in place, but they are like Hollywood sets in terms of what goes on inside them.”

But that only makes the issue of mobilizing civil encounter groups worse, and the issue of using those lobbying efforts as a benchmark of success, even worse.

As the report puts it, “If a lobbying group in Tampa, Florida, or in Berget in western Norway had failed to elicit a dollar or a kroner from the local government during 12 years of efforts, the undertaking would be declared a failure. Why should it be considered a success in Haiti?”

For its part, when queried by Fox News, NDI took issue with virtually every skeptical aspect of the evaluation report.

Among other things, a DNI spokesperson told Fox News,  the Institute’s “overhead costs were approved at the onset of each program,” and noted that the report itself said NDI costs in Haiti were “not unusual in the context of U.S. NGOs and U.S. federal contracts, grants and cooperative agreements.”

So the report indeed says. But the investigation was carried out on behalf of Norway, not the U.S.,  and the report  also notes that the overheads were “far above” Norway’s own 8 percent guideline for “office support. ”

And  even though NDI’s cost structure may have paralleled the U.S. government’s, it was divided up in a different manner, as the report also notes: rather than consolidate its support figures up front, NDI buried the explanation for more than 14 percent of the overhead figure on the second-last page of a 14-page memo accompanying its budget.

Concerning the evaluation report’s conclusions about NDI’s lack of concrete results, the spokesperson declared that “NDI holds a fundamentally different development philosophy from that of the evaluator.”

She further claimed that the report itself declared that NDI “has admirably and effectively” fulfilled the requirements of the agreement and “strongly recommends” that Norway continue in partnership with NDI.

In fact, the report says something similar --but different.

It concludes that “NDI has effectively fulfilled its part of the agreement at least in terms of activities if not of results. We recommend that MFA [Norway’s foreign affairs ministry] and NDI deal with the conceptual, budgetary and managerial issues raised in the report and continue in partnership.”

Evidently, that did not happen.