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Rooting for Haiti

Haiti needs a breather from natural disasters, but it also needs smarter ways to invest and to direct humanitarian resources

Photo of painting by Richard Asinof

The painting by Haitian artist Gabriel Coutard captures some of the vibrancy and warmth of Haitian culture and its residents that keeps Toby Simon coming back, rooting for Haiti.

Photo coutesy of Toby Simon

One of the directors of the GOALS program, Emilio, with two of the kids who are participating.

Photo by Sandrine Kenol Weiner

Some of the girls participating in the YWCA Haiti program, who come to the safe space at the Y every day.

Photo courtesy of Toby Simon

Dr. Jacqueline Gautier is the CEO of St. Damien’s pediatric hospital located in Port-au-Prince. They provide incredible care for kids and families, including HIV and cholera work.

By Toby Simon
Posted 10/31/16
As Haiti recovers from the devastation wrought by Hurricane Matthew, here is some important advice about the best ways and the best places to send your donations.
Is there a way to integrate a better understanding of Haiti as part of our educational curriculum here in the U.S.? How many high schools in Rhode Island include the work of Edwidge Danticat, for instance, who earned her M.F.A. in Creative Writing at Brown University, in their curriculum? What kind of small-scale, solar-based engineering infrastructure is needed in Haiti to help provide potable water?
As much as the political discussion around trade has focused in large part on the Pacific region, there is much value to be found in redirecting U.S. investments to the Caribbean region, to figure out ways in which the economies of Venezuela, Puerto Rico, Haiti and other countries can be rebuilt. It is also an opportunity to promote new kinds of relationships with places such as Honduras and Guatemala as a way to decrease violence allegedly practiced by the governments against the population, including many indigenous peoples. That equation also includes Cuba, of course. Increasing the economic security and well being in these countries is more than building up the military and the police forces.

PROVIDENCE – Three weeks ago, Hurricane Matthew hit the southern end of Haiti, completely devastating and decimating the beautiful cities of Les Cayes and Jeremie as well as all the surrounding areas.

In addition, for the past week, it has been heavily raining in that region, impeding and/or halting the efforts to recover.

More than 500 deaths have been reported, but that number is likely to climb higher due to poor population data.

More than 2.2 million Haitians have been affected by the hurricane, which is about 20 percent of Haiti’s population. People who witnessed first-hand the devastation describe it as horrific and shocking. Cholera cases are on the rise, and deaths from cholera promise to easily surpass deaths due to the hurricane.

Add to this the continuing burden left by the devastation caused by the Jan. 12, 2010, earthquake, and you really have to wonder, what more can go wrong?

National election postponed
The national election was due to take place on Oct. 9, and for the past year, there’s been an interim President of the country, resulting in an increase in demonstrations and violence. The hurricane forced the cancellation of the election; and the next two rounds of the election are scheduled to take place in November and January.

And, like the earthquake photos coming out of Haiti six years ago, this latest plague has also produced gut-wrenching photos and news reports. It’s hard not to be moved when we see these images. Some want to travel to Haiti to volunteer; others want to donate funds to one of the [way too] many non-governmental organizations.

Learning curve about how best to donate
But, if there’s anything to be learned about some of the failed efforts and poor responses that came after the earthquake, now is the time. Hopping on a plane, for example, is absolutely the wrong thing to do unless you’re actually part of an organization.

As Juanita Rilling, director of USAID’s Center for International Disaster Information, said: “Volunteers without the support of an organization are all gasoline, no car.” And that helps no one.

In fact, it can make things worse. Certainly, there are language barriers and being a French speaker isn’t actually helpful in remote areas of Haiti. Haitians in the rural areas speak Kreyol, a real language, and not a dialect or French argot. Volunteers usually need training. That takes up the time of the people on the ground trying to work as quickly and efficiently as possible. [See link to YouTube video below.]

Suspicions about volunteers getting paid
There’s also another problem, one I became aware of when I first started working in Haiti. The common perception among rural Haitians is that “volunteers” are getting paid for their work. And that if they’re paid, they’re taking work that Haitians can do.

Since the 2010 earthquake, there are now many more Haitians who received training in various aspects of relief work, thereby eliminating the need for as many volunteers.

One example is Project Medishare, an organization based in Port-au-Prince. For the past six years they have trained Haitians to run hospitals in southern Haiti, reducing the need for volunteers.

Donating clothes, food and toys can get in the way of emergency deliveries that local organizations have coordinated. The result is that all these goods just pile up somewhere in the port of the capital city, in large containers for long periods of time.

Where to give – and not give your money
What Haiti needs is cash. Lots of groups on the ground in Haiti have said so, but where to donate is often a question I get. People want to “help” – but beware.

As a Haitian friend recently posted on Facebook: “Do NOT give a penny to any of the big charities OR random folks who want to do a winter break trip to Haiti. Definitely do not give money to open any more orphanages, whose existence mainly separate poor kids from their real families.”

If you want to help, donate to a Haitian non-profit, hospital, institution or company with a strong presence in Haiti, one with a track record and a history of sustainability.

Otherwise, you don’t really know what happens to your money. This certainly was the case after the earthquake. Part of the problem with organizations like the Red Cross is that your donation is probably being wasted on airline tickets for foreign staff, armored cars to drive around the country, and overpriced homes for expats.

Although there are many excellent Haitian nonprofits that have been in existence for many years and are doing sustainable work, my focus is on a few that I know well. I'm on the boards of two such organizations: the YWCA Haiti and GOALS Haiti.

GOALS Haiti uses soccer to activate 500 kids each day to be engaged in their education and civic responsibilities. Before they can play soccer, they need to attend health education programs and do some kind of community service. []

Located in Leogane, about two hours southwest of Port-au-Prince, the communities they serve have suffered significant damages in this storm. Many of the families whose kids are in the program live on the beach. They lost everything. I know any funds they receive will go directly to aid our kids and families. Their website offers additional information for those who want to help.

The YWCA Haiti, as part of the worldwide YW organizations, is based in the Port- au- Prince area and did not suffer much damage. However, they are now involved with setting up support systems in the South where the damage occurred and where there are already reports of sexual assaults in the shelters. []

The YWCA Haiti is working on mobilizing the resources in those affected areas and offering trainings to address the sexual violence that’s occurring. Funds donated to the YWCA will also be used appropriately.

Two other worthy Haitian agencies
There are two other places that deserve mention: Fonkoze; and St. Damien’s Hospital.

Fonkoze is a 20-year-old micro-finance organization that also provides some disaster relief. They have 44 branches throughout Haiti, including the areas in the South that were hit the hardest. They are actively working in those areas to enable the women in their micro-lending programs to get back on their feet. []

NPH [St. Damien’s] is a pediatric hospital located in Port-au-Prince. They provide incredible care for kids and families, including HIV and cholera work. Dr. Jacqueline Gautier is the CEO of the hospital and is a “can do” kind of woman. Donating to her hospital will also help in the care and management of much of the morbidity associated with the hurricane – malnutrition and cholera. []

Rooting for Haiti
Haiti is always on my mind. It’s a place that gets under your skin and, for whatever reason, you want to keep going back. The vibrant street scene, lack of road rage, exquisite Haitian art, stunning countryside, delicious cuisine, and beautiful people can easily win you over. And, you root for the country to stay strong and to not perish.

As much as Haiti needs a breather, and as much abuse as Haiti has had to endure from both domestic and international players since her independence in 1804, I want to believe that she’ll pull through once again.

As Edwidge Danticat wrote in her novel, Breath, Eyes, Memory: “They are the people of creation. Their maker…gives them the sky to carry because they are so strong. These people do not know who they are, but if you see a lot of trouble in your life, it is because you were chosen to carry part of the sky on your head.”


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