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Why can’t we track money pledged for disaster relief?

When a disaster strikes, the world takes action to help people in need. Relief workers are deployed and pledges are made to finance the effort to save lives. What happens to all of that money? Where is it spent? What does it accomplish?

Those are the kinds of questions that are always asked following a disaster. Whether it is the earthquake in Haiti, the tsunami in southeast Asia, or Ebola in West Africa, tracking money is incredibly hard. As countries and donors came to the support of Liberia, Sierra Leone, Guinea during the Ebola outbreak, billions of dollars were pledged and hundreds of millions spent.

The health team at the advocacy group the ONE Campaign, led by Aria Grabowski and Erin Hohlfelder, tried to determine how much money was pledged and delivered. The Ebola Response Tracker pulled in available information from governments, corporations and foundations.

The seemingly easy task was, in fact, difficult. It was hard just knowing how much money was promised, let alone spent and where it ended up. Nearly a year after the Ebola outbreak started to peak, ONE researchers still struggle to track the flow of money for the crisis. This is a big deal, say Grabowski and Hohlfelder in a report published on Medium. Current attempts to track money, including ONE’s platform, fall short in large part due to the lack of cohesive reporting by donors.

Credit: ONE Ebola Response Tracker

Credit: ONE Ebola Response Tracker – see data here

“Ultimately, if the existing mechanisms do not change to more consistently hold donors accountable for their pledges, there is a real risk that promises could continue to be unfulfilled without any real consequence,” write Grabowski and Hohlfelder.

The first problem is accurate reporting of pledges. For example, there is no agreement between the U.N. special envoy, World Bank, the U.N’s Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs and ONE on how much money Germany pledged. The range is $100 million among the four groups, a significant variance. It is because everyone does not agree on what counts as pledged money by the European country.

The second problem is whether the pledged money actually made it to the three affected countries. That too is a difficult proposition. China is only reporting money pledged because it cannot say for sure how much has been disbursed.

The two problems are made worse by the fact that there is no good way to track the money. Donors do their own thing and the tools used to keep watch are insufficient. Knowing where and how money is being spent allows for accountability with regards to honoring pledges and making sure that money goes where it is needed. How are the governments of the three countries supposed to know what is happening in their own borders if such information is hard to access?

“It is critical that humanitarian response pledges are tracked through implementation to ensure that there are not needless duplications of programs, that programs are addressing the areas of most need and not just the areas to which it is easiest to supply assistance, and that funds are not going missing or being mismanaged,” say Grabowski and Hohlfelder.

The problem is not new. Vijaya Ramachandran, who works at the D.C.-based think tank the Center for Global Development, tried to track money spent in response to the 2010 earthquake in Haiti. Five years later, she still does not have a strong hold on how the $9 billion in government and private money was spent on the recovery.

Credit: CGD

Credit: CGD

A large portion of the money spent by the U.S. on Haiti went to private contractors, says Ramachandran. Some $1.5 billion was spent on “prime assistance and contracting” as of 2012, accounting for roughly two-thirds of U.S. spending. The amount given to contractors to work on the Haitian response is known, but what they did and how the money was spent is unclear.

“So the U.S. government might be collecting these data, but they don’t make them public. So we don’t know who the NGOs or the private contractors have given the money to, what kinds of services they have delivered to Haitians. We don’t know whether these programs worked. I found that very frustrating,” she said in a recent interview with the podcast Tiny Spark.

The fact that this is a persistent problem worries Grabowski and Hohlfelder. They call for a global tracking system used by donors in future disasters. Collecting information about responding to a crisis should be as important as responding to the crisis itself, they say. If changes are not made, the problems seen in Haiti and West Africa are doomed to repeat.

“Until we can urgently resolve two main challenges – inconsistent reporting from donors, and limitations of existing financial tracking mechanisms  –  we are doomed to repeat our collective mistakes, and lose time, resources, and lives in the next crisis,” write Grabowski and Hohlfelder.


About Author

Tom Murphy

Tom Murphy is a New Hampshire-based reporter for Humanosphere. Before joining Humanosphere, Tom founded and edited the aid blog A View From the Cave. His work has appeared in Foreign Policy, the Huffington Post, the Guardian, GlobalPost and Christian Science Monitor. He tweets at @viewfromthecave. Contact him at tmurphy[at]