You’ve got a heart for Haiti but do you have a mind for Haiti?

By Rebecca Obounou

There are many people with a heart for Haiti who lack a MIND for Haiti as the documentary Poverty, Inc. so eloquently states it.  Haiti is a country that needs conscious businesses that create economic value and social value simultaneously. The world needs such businesses. Conscious businesses are one of the keys to combatting poverty. As a nonprofit organization, we must constantly evaluate and re-evaluate our selves to ensure that we are not promoting dependency but the reverse: self-sufficiency and independence. We evaluate this by closely looking at a number of dimensions: 1) the capacity that our programs build, 2) the local partners and individuals we work with, 3) how we spend in Haiti, 4) where we source the products we sell to fundraise for CHES. We strive to ensure that CHES’ activities are benefiting local Haitian economies in everything that we do and continue to improve every chance we get.

It has very much dismayed me to see a number of similar “helping” efforts from the January 2010 earthquake repeated as a response to the October 2016 Hurricane Matthew. In fact, we at CHES fell prey to this ill-conceived notion of “helping” ourselves. We held a big drive for essential items for 2010 earthquake victims who had migrated to the Limbe area Northern Haiti from the capital.We worked with Royal Caribbean Cruise Lines, Extra Space Storage and many others individuals and organizations that provided in-kind donations to help us save on costs. We didn’t have to fly anyone from the US to receive the goods and we were fortunate enough to evade the length of time that the items would have been stuck in Haitian customs because RCCL dropped off the items on Labadee beach in Northern Haiti.  We coordinated with CHES Haiti volunteers for the pick-up and distribution of all of the supplies (see the photos in our history page).Despite all of our resourcefulness, we spent about $1,000 to do all of of this. I care not to mention much about the fatigue that was associated with all of these activities. We recorded a nice THANK YOU video. We “helped” well over a hundred families. Most of all we felt good about ourselves and what a great story! Those who donated to the drive felt good about themselves. All of this came from a place of love and compassion (as it always does). Little did we know that in the end, we helped very little. The effects of our “help” on the local economy was in fact more detrimental than it was helpful.

Imagine if we had simply sent the emergency relief funds we had raised to the earthquake victims. If we had done so, we would have saved a lot of effort on our end, and we would have not only helped victims, but also supported local businesses. By giving the funds raised, people would have purchased their necessities at local Haitian businesses. We could have also given the funds to local organizations that work with local businesses to coordinate relief responses instead of dumping free stuff into Haiti that ultimately undermined Haiti’s economic activity. The popular type of relief efforts made Haiti worse off after the blows of the 2010 earthquake. I saw this with my own eyes during the 2010 CHES trip. Not only did I see tents of homeless Haitians, I even saw tents of foreign NGO organizations, all fueled by foreign donations, that had crowded the country at that time. These NGOs came in and artificially inflated the housing market in Haiti by paying more than market rate for homes and apartments. They set up tents on hotel grounds even to house their staff in order to be in the middle of all the action. As a result, NGO “helping” efforts created more homelessness in the capital and other earthquake-effected regions because many could no longer afford the increased rent prices and became homeless. I spoke with people who had suffered through this issue. I was simply APPALLED. I felt embarrassed that we at CHES contributed in even a small way to the mess I saw given our mission to support long-term development through education, funding and mentoring.  It was a great learning opportunity and caused me to RETHINK EVERYTHING we did in CHES. And to this day we continue to remain as thoughtful as possible about how we approach our efforts in Haiti.

Our response to Hurricane Matthew was drastically different this time! I’m proud to say that we learned from our mistakes! At first, we chose not to run a fundraising campaign but to simply direct donors to trusted local organizations who we knew would get needed resources to people faster and better than any foreign organization could. As a growing number of needs of friends and family emerged and at the img_0083request of many CHES supporters, we ran (and are still running) a modest crowdfunding campaign. While our fundraiser page doesn’t reflect it, we raised close to $1,000. This time, we did what we should have done in 2010, we sent the emergency relief funds directly to the families we knew whose possessions and livelihoods where stripped from them by Hurricane Matthew to begin to rebuild their lives. We supported one church and 22 families. Though we touched a smaller number of people, this is a more impactful contribution. We know that the funds have not only helped these families but also the local economies. We’re more proud of this story. Pictured are some families we supported. More are pictured on the crowdfunding page.

I share the Poverty Inc. documentary because it captures so eloquently the unintended consequences of well-meaning actions. I read this provocative piece entitled “Tragedians” written by Katia D. Ulysse that begs a lot of introspection. We need to examine ourselves, the ultimate ends we seek as well as the means we use to attain those ends. Unfortunately, due to climate change Haiti and other poor countries like it are most vulnerable and prone to the more frequent and more violent natural disasters that the world will see in the coming years. This is another unintended consequence of the developed world’s consumption of energy. That’s a topic for another blog but if you want to understand more about what I am referring to, you must watch Leonardo DiCaprio’s documentary Before the Flood.

As Massachusetts Senator Markey put it, “a disaster is a sad thing to waste.” Let us learn from our past mistakes as DEVEX puts it 1) money over goods, 2) rethink capacity building, 3) stay for the long-term, 4) consider the narrative.  There are amazing examples of Haitian’s participating and solving their own problems: The Haitian army leading clean-up immediately after Hurricane MatthewHaitian-led reconstruction, The separation of siamese twins by a Haitian-American doctor in Haiti’s teaching hospital in Mirebalais, and plenty more can be found in the documentary Owning Our Future- Haitian Perspectives in Film. These are the initiatives that must be supported if Haiti is ever to truly rebound as a nation and weather – no pun intended – extreme natural disaster events which will almost surely come. We invite you to support our continued long-term development efforts in rural parts of Haiti.


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