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Two years ago, you may have been among the many Americans who listened to the radio or watched the news from Haiti and wanted to help. When an earthquake struck Haiti, killing hundreds of thousands and leaving more than a million people homeless, Americans were generous in their response. Through American charities, more than $1.8 billion were donated. NPR's Carrie Kahn has been following that money and has the first of two reports on where it went.

CARRIE KAHN, BYLINE: Charles Giiagliard hasn't seen much of that $1.8 billion yet. Three of his children sit on a dirt floor watching TV in their tiny, one-room shack in downtown Port-au-Prince.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

KAHN: His oldest daughter lies on the small bed, sick with a fever.

CHARLES GIIAGLIARD: (Foreign language spoken)

KAHN: Giiagliard calls his youngest daughter Jessica over and pushes back the hair from her head. You see a long, dark scar. Jessica was trapped under the rubble of their collapsed apartment back when the quake hit. Giiagliard says Jessica's wounds healed, but the family has not recovered.

GIIAGLIARD: (Through translator) Look at the way we live. We are living like animals. Nobody looks out for us. At night, when you sleep, you get visitors. Big rats come in.

KAHN: The Giiagliards are among half a million people who, two years after the quake, still live in the squalid tent camps seen all over Port-au-Prince. It's the most visible sign that Haiti has a long way to go before recovering from the devastating disaster.

(SOUNDBITE OF CROWD CHATTER)

KAHN: Few large-scale reconstruction projects have begun. You can count them on one hand. Most are small, like this project tucked off the main road in Cite Soleil, several miles from where the Giiagliards live. Seventy-three temporary wooden shelters were built last month by the American Red Cross, together with other non-governmental organizations, or NGOs. Charles Samuel got one of the wooden homes. They look like a big tool shed with a concrete foundation, plywood walls and a corrugated metal roof.

CHARLES SAMUEL: (Foreign language spoken)

KAHN: Samuel says everyone here is grateful for the homes. But he points beyond the last row of shelters to where dozens of families still live in tents in a swampy field.

SAMUEL: (Through translator) We know there are a lot of needs here, but those in tents need help, too. It's hard, and we know not everyone is going to be helped.

KAHN: That's the picture you get of progress in Haiti: gratitude of what has been done, but hope for much more. After all, expectations were set pretty high after the quake. Former President Bill Clinton, the U.N. special envoy to Haiti, repeatedly proclaimed that reconstruction would build back a better Haiti. At the Cite Soleil camp, residents wish that had been true. Out of earshot of the NGO officials, they ask why the small structures cost so much - about $5,000 apiece, including communal latrines and water collection systems.

They said if given the chance, they would have built them out of more permanent, local materials - cheaper, with enough for everyone. You hear complaints like these a lot around Port-au-Prince, many against the NGOs, whose workers stick out in their shiny white SUVs. Julie Sell of the American Red Cross says it's been a challenging two years.

JULIE SELL: We all wish that we were further along than we are, but Haiti is a complicated place, and there aren't a lot of quick, easy solutions.

KAHN: For many NGOs, it took more than a year to figure out how to work around those complications, like Haiti's chaotic land registry system and its lack of building codes or housing policies. Sam Worthington, the head of InterAction, a coalition of U.S. based charities, says NGOs unfairly get the brunt of the blame.

SAM WORTHINGTON: We cannot meet all needs. We have a niche. That niche is important, it saves lives, but we cannot be the face and the only face of recovery.

KAHN: He says the majority of money pledged to Haiti is managed by USAID and groups like the World Bank, not NGOs. But $1.8 billion given to U.S. charities is a lot of money. In the first year, much of those funds went unspent. This year, NPR surveyed 12 large charities and found that while many still have a lot of money in the bank, the rate of spending has picked up. You can see an accounting at npr.org. The American Red Cross, which raised more than half a billion dollars for Haiti, has really loosened its purse strings lately.

(SOUNDBITE OF HAMMERING)

KAHN: In the Delmas 9 neighborhood of the capital, the group is funding the repair of about a hundred houses. Workers in Oguis Joileque's three-room house fix several walls and are almost ready to put on a new roof. He says, through an interpreter, he could never have done that alone.

OGUIS JOILEQUE: (Through translator) I see it as better, because me myself, I was not in a position to do it.

KAHN: Many smaller groups, with decades of experience in Haiti, say they wish the money would have come sooner. But they don't have the fundraising machinery or name recognition that the big charities have. Dan O'Neil of the Pan American Development Foundation got a grant from the Red Cross to do the house repair work. He says NGOs in general need to do a better job.

DAN O'NEIL: We do need to have greater transparency. We need to have a more standard reporting as to how money's been spent.

KAHN: And tomorrow, we look at the way U.S. charities report how they spend their money. Carrie Kahn, NPR News.

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