When Michaelle Chapman interviewed me for a Weld article three years ago, I said that we should respond differently to crisis and chronic needs. I knew all too well how “helping hurts.” I’d been working in Haiti off and on since 1990, and in the early years made every mistake in the book. I’d learned the hard way that well-intentioned giving can have unintended results — like creating dependency, fostering corruption, and causing donor burnout — not to mention the injustice and inequality it perpetuates. I’d come to believe that chronic needs needed to be met through a ground-up, community-driven strategic plan for systemic change. In times of crisis that’s not possible. Big aid agencies have to get emergency relief to people fast.
That’s what I thought when the interview was published in 2014.
Two years later, I would learn I was wrong.
In October 2016, category four Hurricane Matthew struck Haiti’s southern peninsula. By then, Haitian colleagues and I had founded a new nonprofit, Creative Exchanges Initiative (CEI), to change the way Americans and Haitians work together, and to create lasting change in villages there. When the hurricane hit, we’d just started a music program in Jeannette and hadn’t yet raised funds for the economic development we wanted to do in the future.
Then, 140 mile-per-hour winds and 40 inches of rain threw us, overnight, into disaster relief. CEI sent a reconnaissance team from Port-au-Prince to Jeannette, to find out how we could help. They forded a river where raging waters had washed out the bridge. When they got closer to the village, they found the road so littered with mango, avocado, and other uprooted trees that even a motorcycle couldn’t get through. They walked the last few miles. In Jeannette they found houses ripped apart, chickens and goats dead, and crops destroyed.
Our team went back to Port-au-Prince and priced emergency supplies like tents, tarps, food, and water. Soon, word came back from the village that the local church’s Hurricane Relief Committee said, “Don’t bring tents. We want durable houses. The kind that will survive earthquakes and hurricanes.”
Meanwhile, a donor offered CEI $20,000 for critical needs. It would only build two houses of the kind the committee wanted. What about the other 350 families who had lost their homes? I believed in community-driven decisions, but this didn’t seem right. Were these leaders speaking for everyone, or a chosen few?
As soon as I could, I packed my bags, and flew there with two women from the Wisconsin project with whom I’d worked in the early ‘90s. They’d raised about $50,000 at that infopoint. During the four-hour ride to Jeannette, we talked about use and abuse of funds, and agreed that we didn’t want to operate in the old ways — when donors decided how their dollars were spent, and locals had little say — but we also wanted the funds to have maximum impact.
We turned off the main road four hours later expecting to get out and walk. To our surprise, the only obstacles left in the road were gullies formed by the deluge. The Hurricane Relief Committee had organized people and cleared even the largest trees without help of so much as a chainsaw. We were impressed.
I immediately set out on a walk to meet with old friends — a former principal, teachers, students, and illiterate women my age. Some didn’t agree with the committee’s decision. They wanted roofing materials, hammers, nails, tarps to keep out the rain until they could afford larger repairs. “The committee doesn’t speak for everyone,” they said.
That night I slept little, worrying about what was the right thing to do.
The next day the other two women and I met for hours with the Hurricane Relief Committee. They held firm. The Wisconsin group agreed to build five houses with cisterns of the type the committee was requesting.
Meanwhile, I’d come up with a suggestion for CEI’s contribution. Farmers had three weeks to get crops in the ground before they lost the growing season. Already, predictions were being made of famine in Haiti the upcoming spring, and migration of farmers from their land. I proposed that CEI’s money go for seeds. The committee liked the idea.
Except for one thing: They wanted me to give them the money and let them take care of purchase and distribution.
CEI is committed to democratizing power — to supporting grassroots leadership. But did this group from the church equally represent everyone in the five zones we served? I didn’t ask that question. Instead, I explained that we’re incorporated as a nonreligious nonprofit and have to operate within a specific framework. We couldn’t give the money directly to the church committee.
Their leaders balked.
I held firm.
When it seemed we’d reached an impasse, I reminded the committee that some of their parents and I had been friends since these new young leaders were born. I wanted to help people in Jeannette. But if we couldn’t resolve this, our funds would have to go to a different village instead.
We came to an agreement. By nightfall, they provided me a list of 50 names of farmers from each of the five zones, then set out on foot to notify people. By 8 a.m. the next morning, the first group of farmers was seated and ready to go. All day long they came. We distributed sealed envelopes of cash, one-by-one. Each person signed a receipt — marking with an X if they couldn’t write their names — with representatives of CEI and the Hurricane Relief Committee as witnesses. It was orderly, efficient, and astounding.
A typical family in Jeannette represents seven to 10 people. The distributions that day touched at least 2,000 lives, and infused money directly and immediately into the local economy. Was it all spent on seeds? I doubt it. Some was probably used to buy food, or even roofing materials. But each family was free to decide for themselves, and that matters.
When we got back to the hotel in Port-au-Prince the next day, I talked with members of the International Red Cross Team who were also staying there. Many of them, from Europe and South America, told me they were frustrated. Large containers of relief supplies were still sitting in the port waiting to clear customs. Others had been diverted by local mayors. I told them about our experience. They said they wished they could work in that way.
Next time, they can — if we start now to set up effective grassroots networks. Sadly, in places like Haiti, where people’s daily lives are so precarious, there’s always a next time.
Crisis response, as I learned, doesn’t have to be all that different from chronic needs response. It can’t be, in fact, if we want to stop fueling corruption and inequality.
Had leaders of that relief committee hoped to skim a share of the money for themselves? Maybe. Maybe not. I witnessed them working selflessly on behalf of the community. But money wasn’t the only, or even the most important, thing at stake. As bad or worse than wasting donors’ hard-earned money and failing to provide as much aid as we can, is the way top-heavy systems often override the voices of those at the grassroots level. It’s disempowering at best. At its worst its oppressive, unjust and corrupt.
Within the month, CEI’s Senior Haitian Advisor Rodolphe Eloi and others from the village proposed a long-term strategy to create a more viable local economy in Jeannette. We secured funding and rolled it out in January 2017. We’re using an integrated, multi-pronged, systemic approach that democratizes power while bringing top quality goats, seeds, composts, training, and more to the village. They’re creating decentralized committees and cooperatives in each zone. Farmers give back from their first-born goats and first crops, so that more and more can be brought into the program, and so that everyone who receives also gives.
Already, 350 farmers have benefitted and more are being added each month. We’re adding a media network soon, to give equal access to essential information. All of that, just months after our first response to a natural disaster.
Now, when word comes back that a person who was formerly a member of the now-disbanded Hurricane Relief Committee has threatened one of our team members with a gun, or sent him to the local magistrate on a trumped-up charge, I remember that these are the same people making these threats who cleared debris without any equipment and arranged a cash distribution that that went off without a hitch. I fly down when these things happen. We talk it over. Recently, we sent two Haitian CEI program directors (our goat expert and agronomist) to Rhode Island for training in nonviolence and conflict resolution.
We have a way to go. Transformation isn’t easy. But together, we’re doing it. I’m glad I was wrong.