Audit: USAID Haiti work 'not on track'

October 1, 2012 - 5:34 PM

A newly released audit says the largest U.S. contractor working to stabilize Haiti after the 2010 earthquake is "not on track" to complete its assignments on schedule, has a weak monitoring system and is not adequately involving community members.

Washington D.C.-based Chemonics won a $53 million, 18-month contract from USAID in 2011 to help Haiti strengthen its economy and public institutions. USAID's Office of Inspector General released a report Monday that found Chemonics had a series of slips, including using arbitrary ways of evaluating its work, failing to hire local workers, and going ahead with potentially damaging environmental projects before they were approved.

"This report touches on a lot of issues we've seen with the overall reconstruction effort," said Jake Johnston, a researcher at the Washington D.C.-based Center for Economic and Policy Research who studies U.S. spending in Haiti. "There's a lack of transparency and the work is often poorly planned and poorly executed."

Chemonics did not have an immediate comment, but a spokeswoman said it was preparing a response. USAID's Office of Transition Initiatives, which manages the Chemonics contracts, said in a written response to the audit that it agrees with all of the recommendations and that changes are under way to resolve the issues.

"It should be noted that it is challenging to attribute direct results in complex and fluid stabilization environments, and it is often the absence of destabilizing events that demonstrates stability in these historically volatile areas," USAID directors Robert Jenkins and Steve Olive said in a joint response.

This is the second time Chemonics work in Haiti has been found lacking. In 2010, USAID auditors found the firm failed to hire thousands of Haitians as planned under a cash-for-work program, spending the funds on equipment and materials.

Also in 2010, Chemonics was one of five groups criticized for wasting aid in Afghanistan on foreign workers' high salaries, security and living arrangements.

Chemonics, which has worked in 150 countries, counts USAID as its largest client.

In Haiti, Chemonics was awarded a $39.5 million contract after the earthquake for the first phase of reconstruction, involving 301 different small projects including setting up temporary space for parliament and holding Haiti's first-ever presidential debates. Its second $53 million contract, aimed at a second phase of reconstruction, had more than 140 different projects aimed at improving the social and economic situation in Haiti by hosting job fairs, printing training guides to prevent violence against women, establishing a daily radio news program and other projects.

Auditors said the second phase lacks accountability on many levels.

For example, the U.S. is helping construct a major, $224 million industrial park which is projected to employ more than 20,000 people in a small, impoverished northern community. Chemonics set out to beautify nearby towns to project "a positive image of what role the nearby Caracol industrial park and other upcoming economic investments will play in citizens' lives."

It didn't work. The plan was to spruce up the towns by installing benches, upgrading landscaping, and doing some minor masonry work. Auditors found Chemonics purchased and planted some seedlings for the town center, but they died from lack of care, and residents said they didn't see how the activity led to the beautification of the area nor did they associate it with the industrial park.

As a contractor, Chemonics is also responsible for setting up its own system of evaluation. The auditors found some of the ways the firm was measuring accomplishments simply didn't make sense. For example, Chemonics conducted an engineering study to improve one town's roads, and then measured their accomplishment by trying to count how many rebuilt institutions and structures "incorporate principles that support democracy and government legitimacy."

At times the work has also seemed backward. For example, an environmental review required in advance of farming projects was instead signed off on three months after Chemonics had 700,000 flowering tropical jatropha seedlings planted as part of a temporary work program.