Doing Bad by Doing Good: Why Humanitarian Action Fails

By Christopher J. Coyne | Go to book overview

CHAPTER 5
The Bureaucracy of Humanitarianism

Following the catastrophic earthquake in Haiti in 2010, there was an influx of humanitarian resources from governments and relief agencies across the globe. Instead of quickly being delivered to the three million people affected by the earthquake, the donations became mired in a black hole of customs rules and regulations that no one seemed to understand. For example, some aid workers who had been required to turn over their donations to Haitian customs officials for inspection were required to pay a tax to reacquire them, despite the fact that they intended to distribute them to those in need free of charge. Others had to wait while the Haitian Department of Civil Protection reviewed their request for tax-exempt status. Still others had to pay bribes of varying amounts to customs officials to (re)secure their donations as those who were suffering continued to wait for help. This bureaucratic red tape affected many small humanitarian groups, but larger relief agencies and governments also were unable to escape the tentacles of Haiti’s stifling customs bureaucracy. For example, trucks carrying supplies for the World Food Program were refused entry and delayed for several days as customs paperwork was filed and reviewed by a variety of bureaucrats. And shipping containers filled with basic relief goods provided by a variety of governments—medical supplies, food, building supplies, tents, rubble-clearing equipment—were delayed entry into the country for months due to bureaucratic hand-wringing.

Surely these excessive administrative costs are exclusive to Haiti, which was, after all, characterized by dysfunctional political institutions prior to the earthquake, as well as widespread devastation due to the disaster itself? Sadly they are not. One can find examples of overly burdensome bureaucratic red tape in all countries, even the most developed, such as the United States. And in these cases, just as in Haiti, excessive bureaucracy hinders the effectiveness of humanitarian efforts.

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