Monday, May 17, 2010

Violence in Haiti

During the past four months that I’ve spent in Haiti, I’ve gotten lots of questions from friends and family (mostly from my loving and worried mother) about how safe it is for her child to be staying in the outskirts of Cite Soleil in Port au Prince. And I’ve had a difficult time answering that question. It turns out; Haiti is a hard country to stereotype.

Haiti has long been declared the poorest and most violent country in the Western Hemisphere; with Cite Soleil the largest and most dangerous slum in this country. Cite Soleil borders the city of Port au Prince on Route 9, which is next door to where my colleagues and I have been staying over the past four months. However, during the time we’ve been down here, we never been attacked or really even felt threatened in any way. We’ve seen some fairly violent fights break out at food distributions and gas lines. We’ve driven behind a truck filled with food that got hijacked by young men who jumped inside the trailer (unbeknownst to the driver) and emptied all the food to their friends waiting in the street. True, we are rarely greeted with smiling faces as we drive past the newly erected shanty towns on our way to our apartment. And yes, people do get quite upset when you take a picture while driving past in a speeding car. But how can you blame them? They are living in the poorest city in the western hemisphere; have just been through the worst natural disaster for the area in history; are aware of the $1 billion has been raised on their behalf yet are still living in tents (if they’re lucky) without any hopes for immediate improvement.

However, while we didn’t ever experience it firsthand, we have heard many stories of kidnappings and shootings during our time here. There was a well-publicized case of the two Medicines sans Frontiers workers who were kidnapped (and later released) upon leaving their clinic. And we also heard from a colleague at St. Damien’s Children’s Hospital that two U.S. aid workers were shot outside their facility near the U.S. Embassy earlier this month, although I have yet to find any documentation of it. And many of the NGOs that we work with in Haiti wouldn’t even venture over to our office/apartment off Route 9 because of the violence and widespread reports of shootings and robberies during the Aristide years five years ago. Indeed, a couple Haitian citizents who had come from the states to work with us for a short time were unwilling to even come with us to our office.

I’m sure that Haiti can be and has been a violent place over the years but I’m always puzzled by these accounts because I just have not seen it during my time here. I’ve seen small acts of aggression due to unimaginable desperation. But those acts pale in comparison to my interactions with some of the kindest people I’ve ever met in my life. In fact, on the same day I heard that the two people were shot outside the Embassy, a Haitian man I didn’t even know literally gave me the shirt off his back because I said I liked it.

Like I said, it’s a hard country to stereotype.

Friday, May 14, 2010

Where does the Money go?

The Chronicle of Philanthropy announced yesterday that over $1.1 billion has been donated to support relief efforts in Haiti. The largest recipients include the American Red Cross ($444 million), Catholic Relief Services ($135.7 million) and Oxfam International (over $100 million). This outpouring of generosity on the part of the world community is unprecedented and should be applauded and (hopefully) repeated. And for the most part, from what is possible to observe in Haiti, these organizations have been good stewards of this money, doing as much as they can as efficiently as possible to assist those who have been affected by the earthquake.

However, all of this money that has been raised on behalf of the Haitian people begs the question of whether or how the Haitian people will actually benefit from it. Of course, the money is being spent on Haitians' behalf by the NGOs that received it, but that's different from allowing them to spend it themselves. How much do their voices count in allocating this money or even giving it to them to empower their communities, rebuild their schools and hospitals, or provide education to their children? How much of the money will actually remain in Haiti for the decades that it will take to rebuild?

A few months ago, the students at the University of California at Santa Barbara held a fundraiser for Haiti and decided to donate the $25,000 they raised to Direct Relief International, the organization I work for that has been providing medication and medical supplies to hospitals in Haiti since 1964.

Among the speakers that evening was Professor Claudine Michel, a dynamic accomplished member of the Haitian Diaspora who edits the only peer-reviewed Journal of Haitian Studies in the world. Another speaker was Dr. Nadege Cilatandre, also Haitian, a brilliant young scholar who engaged in post-doc studies as a University of California post-doc Fellow. Nadege provided a rich retrospective on Haitian history and also showed the 600 attendees photographs of a community center, complete with a library and computer lab, in Carrefour-Feuilles that she personally had helped create with small-scale contributions and volunteer labor though Haiti Soleil, a small nonprofit she had established. The center was destroyed in the earthquake but the staff had self-organized and begun providing emergency help to the families and community that it serves. They lost nearly everything, spent what little financial cushion existed to help pull the community together, and continue doing this work as the months tick by.

Direct Relief’s CEO, Thomas Tighe, was at the meeting too. He told me he afterwards he was both humbled and puzzled after hearing these presentations that the funds collected from UCSB’s students would come to Direct Relief instead of Haiti Soleil to rebuild the library. But it gave him the idea to have Direct Relief serve as a conduit for channeling funds to well run, local, Haitian-run NGOs that have been working in their communities for many years and simply do not have access to funds that the international NGO community has.
The hallmark of Direct Relief’s approach is that we look for the local leaders who invariably do all the important work where the rubber hits the road. We look for the people who are plugged in, deeply committed, very smart, and with credibility and trust earned over many years. In any community (think of who you’d want to hear from in a local emergency in your own town) these are the people whose ear to the ground and ability to make things happen is essential.

But, as we’ve learned over many years (and is clear to me again after the past several months in Haiti), these great local leaders are often so busy doing great work for the people in poverty areas that they they’re invisible to individual donors and the large funding streams. For whatever reasons, funding tends to find its way only to large groups steeped in the arcane bureaucracies of government funding or have world-class, rapid-response marketing that can galvanize attention and resources when a high-profile emergency occurs and people are inspired to give.
Since then, Direct Relief has allocated an initial $500,000 from the Haiti contributions received to serve as a ‘community grant fund’ that offers local groups the ability to access grants for up to $25,000. So far, we’ve received over 40 requests and have provided $125,000 to five local groups to: begin rebuilding the library and community center in Carrerfour-Feuilles, keep free medical services open at a community hospital for three more months, re-open a medical clinic in Delmas, provide psychosocial support to youths who have left Port au Prince for the northern district, and start a feeding and therapeutic support program in the devastated Carrefour-Feuilles area. Those funds will be spent in, and reinvested in Haiti, directly. We’re hoping that our support, and listing these groups on our website, may give them some profile and help them attract other resources, including directly from others who might learn about them in this way.

All of these groups that we are fortunate enough to be able to provide grants to have been working in Haiti long before many of the rest of us came in to help and have a great sense of what their communities need. No one has a bigger stake in making sure these resources make a difference. We just don’t always think to give them the resources to do it.

Wednesday, May 5, 2010

Meeting a Supreme Master

I'm spending the week traveling with Claudine Michele, a professor of Haitian studies at UCSB and the editor of the only scholarly Haitian journal in the U.S. She and former student named Nico Pascal a have come to Haiti to help Direct Relief select Haitian NGOs to fund. As I've mentioned in the past we have established a $500,000 community grant fund to let Haitian groups who have been working here long before the earthquake get access to the money that has been raised for their country. So far we've selected five groups and are hoping to fund at least 15 more.

So after picking Claudine and Nico up from the airport, we drove an hour north to Mirebalais to visit a K-6 school modeled after the Montessori system. The place was like a paradise. It was peaceful, serene, and best of all, every single kid had a smile on their face. It is something that you do not see very often in Port au Prince and it was extremely refreshing.

From there we drove to Gressier, about 3 hours SW, to visit with Max Beauvoir Haiti's high priest of the voodoo religion. It was an honor to meet this man as I've read a lot about him and his work as I've tried to gobble up all the information I can about the voodoo religion. The man is a personal friend of Bill Clinton, has met Ban Ki-moon, fled the country during Aristide's rule, and got voodoo recognized as an official religion in the states. I could have spent all day listening to him speak but unfortunately, believe it or not, some Scientoligists showed up to speak to him about opening up a medical clinic across the street from his house.

Essentially, Mr. Beauvoir is concerned that the earthquake will erase the voodoo culture in Haiti because it knocked down some of the main temples in the country and nobody is paying to rebuild them. He says most of the churches will get rebuilt but nobody wants to pay to fix the temples and the majority of Haitians who practice the religion aren't wealthy people. It's a tough situation. Clearly these places of worship should be preserved but there aren't many NGOs are going to want to get behind a project like this.

Again, another aspect of this earthquake that you'd never think about but has fairly devastating consequences for the history and culture of Haiti. For me, it was an honor to meet a man who has dedicated his life to preserving it.