Philanthropy in Haiti: Don’t Miss Out on the Opportunity

Friday, January 22, 2010

By Penny Fujiko Willgerodt
Executive Director, Prospect Hill Foundation

A catastrophic earthquake measuring 7.3 on the Richter scale hit Haiti on Tuesday, January 12th, shortly after 5 p.m. The epicenter of the earthquake was just outside of Port-au-Prince, the nation’s capital and the most densely populated area in the country. Thousands of people have died, and thousands more are wounded, most of them without access to adequate medical facilities. Millions are homeless. The national government’s infrastructure has been seriously damaged: the Presidential Palace; Ministries of Finance, Public Transport, Communications, and Justice; and Parliament have all collapsed. Many leaders are missing or known to be dead. The Hotel Montana (built in 1947), one of the most famous hotels in the city, where many U.N. staffers lived, apparently was pretty much destroyed; another famous hotel, The Christopher, home of the U.N. Mission’s headquarters, was badly damaged.

Since daybreak on the morning of the 13th, when people could finally see clearly what the earthquake had wrought, there has been a lot of pain and despair. However, the Haitian people are demonstrating that they are strong, creative, and resilient in the face of such catastrophe. Getting information is difficult, but Facebook and Twitter have emerged as the main vehicles for communication.#haiti and #haitiquake are active Twitter sites; so are those for organizations like Partners In Health and the Lambi Fund of Haiti and individuals like the musician Richard Morse and Melinda Miles, Co-Founder of Konbit Pou Ayiti/KONPAY (both of whom are on the ground in Haiti). Since January 14th, film students from the Ciné Institute in Jacmel have been posting short videos in Kreyòl, French, and English.

There have been firsthand accounts and reports on The New York Times news blog, The Lede, as well as on feeds such as The BBC’s website has been excellent. Radio MetropoleRadio Caraibes, and Radio Kiskeya are major radio stations in Haiti, and they are transmitting written news in French over the Internet. There are many other news sites and Facebook pages helping to link and identify lost family members and friends.

Over one week later, the most urgent needs are still search-and-rescue, field hospitals, emergency health, water purification, emergency shelters, logistics, and telecommunications, but recovery planning is starting to take shape.

The situation will be grave for weeks to come. President Obama has committed hundreds of millions of dollars in support, as have the leaders of many other countries. The Haitian diaspora communities are grieving at the same time that they are planning for the future and mobilizing donations and help.

Those of us who are anxious to start helping right away should think beyond “relief” or first response and focus on “recovery” or long-term rebuilding as we start to organize charitable contributions and assistance.

Soon the news about the earthquake’s aftermath will be gone from public attention. These first few weeks are crucial for mobilizing donations even as we recognize that the problems on the ground and the struggle to recover in Haiti will continue for a long time. As we have seen from our experience in the Gulf Coast, Haiti will need lots of help just to get back to where it was prior to the earthquake.

While horrific, infuriating, and ultimately very sad, this tragedy does create an opportunity to help the people and country of Haiti recover and rebuild in a way that supports sustainable development, human rights, and democracy. It is important that we do not miss this opportunity and that we advocate for philanthropy to focus on this critical approach.

We know that relief needs right now are acute and vast. Due to a long history of oppression, neglect, and racism, Haiti’s internal capacities and infrastructure were weak to begin with. A country of approximately 9.6 million people, Haiti is the poorest nation in the Caribbean and in this hemisphere, and among the poorest in the world. Political turmoil and uneven, limited development, often caused by destructive U.S. foreign and economic policies, have strained progress toward democracy and caused profound poverty and serious deterioration of the natural environment.

International governments and multilateral agencies need to step in and show constructive leadership. Consideration of debt forgiveness is a positive trend. Unlike what happened in the Gulf Coast, the current Administration has been quick to respond right away and deploy positive rhetoric. Pressure is necessary to keep the heat on these constructive efforts. Hundreds of millions of dollars have been donated, for the most part, to large international assistance agencies and NGOs. Hundreds of millions more have been pledged by governments and corporations. Who is going to hold international assistance and government donors accountable? Which independent nonprofit is going to monitor whether pledges get paid and track where and how the money is spent? We need to advocate that the U.S. government and major international institutions continue to commit large amounts of resources over time.

For example, access to clean drinking water has been an issue in Haiti from long before the earthquake. Just last year, the RFK Center for Justice & Human Rights, along with the Center for Human Rights and Global Justice, Partners In Health, and Zanmi Lasante (PIH’s flagship project) issued Wòch nan Soley: The Denial of the Right to Water in Haiti, which documents how the international assistance community and the U.S. government still have yet to make good on the potable water projects (as promised with Inter-American Development Bank funds) that date back to 1998.

In the first months, the survival needs take precedence. Apart from donating money and supplies, individuals are limited in what they can do. This will change in the future as opportunities for volunteers begin to become clear. Would-be volunteers can plan now to go to Haiti in six months or next winter or next year. There will be ample technical assistance and building project opportunities.

We need to remember clearly what we learned from Katrina and Rita. Mental health needs will only begin to emerge full force after the survival issues have been taken care of. How will the rebuilding of Port-au-Prince unfold? What do we need to start doing now if we want to help ensure an effective urban planning process that results in:

  • safe and adequate housing for all people
  • a water supply system that provides clean water for all
  • a sanitation and waste system that is sustainable and does not use precious clean drinking water
  • an infrastructure for schools, community gardens, police, arts & culture, etc. that works for all people?

How do we ensure that other locations are not ignored in the process? As city folk escape to the east, to the north and west, how will those small villages and towns absorb the refugees? What projects will be necessary to assist these internally displaced people?

Full recovery will be a long-term process and a sustained response by foundations and donors that supports infrastructure and capacity building at all levels is critical. Haiti has suffered from philanthropic neglect for many years now for a variety of reasons, not the least of which are historic political instability, “brain drain,” and a weak nonprofit infrastructure. Also, the kind of philanthropy that has been historically dominant in Haiti is primarily a basic social services charity approach as opposed to a long-term strategic sustainable development one that results from organizing and a vision of community development. There hasn’t been enough coordination or monitoring of international aid donations and projects in the past, and this will be critical going forward. Ultimately, the most successful and effective rebuilding projects are going to have clear and accountable structures for grassroots participation and leadership by Haitians and Haitian Americans.

While it is true that there are groups led by opportunistic individuals and we are correct to anticipate the Haiti “carpetbaggers,” there are stellar indigenous organizations with Haitian leadership. Several have programs and operations based in Haiti and also offices and 501(c)(3) status in the US. They have integrity and a history of demonstrated effectiveness and impact. We should be doing all we can to support them (see the list below).

One idea that has emerged for foundations and donors is a collaborative funding model much like the highly successful Gulf Coast Fund for Community Renewal and Ecological Health. This might be considered by grantmakers, foundations, and donors who recognize the importance of a long-term response but are limited by available resources and can make only one “Haiti earthquake” grant, or by those who wish to get their funds to the grassroots level but are justifiably concerned about getting the money into the right hands, and/or cannot make tiny “expenditure responsibility” grants. The core idea is to put the decision-making power of resource allocation and priority-setting into the hands of Haitian experts who have a demonstrated track record of effectively working with the Haitian people throughout the nation on important educational, health, environmental, and economic development projects. A group of recognized Haitian leaders can be identified that might include representatives of NGOs such as Zanmi Lasante and the Lambi Fund, civil society leaders such as the esteemed human rights lawyer Mario Joseph, and representatives from the Haitian government. This group would be empowered to be flexible, responsive, and proactive; to review and approve applications and monitor grants from on-the-ground, indigenous community groups nationwide. This model would affirm the principles of self-determination, human rights, and sustainability in the grantmaking process and model.

Like Miami, Boston, Washington, D.C., and Atlanta, New York City is a hub for the Haitian diaspora community, and there are excellent Haitian organizations based here. Dwa Famn, which means “women’s rights” in Creole, is an excellent group focused on women and children. Haitian Women for Haitian Refugees works with undocumented Haitians on immigrants’ rights issues. Haitian-Americans United for Progress is a multi-service center in Cambria Heights, Queens and has a history of organizing supplies after previous disasters. Haiti Liberté, located in the heart of Brooklyn, is only one of many agencies collecting relief supplies. Finally, the emerging Haitian Hope and Healing Fund, spearheaded by the Brooklyn Community Foundation and the United Way of New York City, provides an excellent opportunity to support Haitian-American leadership and the Haitian-American nonprofit community in New York City.

Excellent Haitian Organizations Addressing Critical Needs:

Fonkoze USA
Primary Contact: Lyla Leigh, Office Administrator
Contact Email:
Contact Phone: 202-628-9033

Haiti Action Committee
Primary Contact: Walter Riley
Contact Email:
Contact Phone: 510-483-7481

Lambi Fund of Haiti
Primary Contact: Karen Ashmore, Executive Director
Contact Email:
Contact Phone: US: 202-833-3713; Haiti: 509-2-245-9445

Konbit Pou Ayiti/KONPAY (Working Together for Haiti)
Primary Contact: Elise Hansen, U.S. Coordinator/Assistant Treasurer
Contact Email:
Contact Phone: 978-335-2758

Partners In Health & Zanmi Lasante
Primary Contact: Ophelia Dahl, Executive Director
Contact Email:
Contact Phone: 617-432-5256

St. Boniface Haiti Foundation
Primary Contact: Nannette M. Canniff, President/CEO
Contact Email:
Contact Phone: 781-963-7243

Penny Fujiko Willgerodt is the Executive Director of the Prospect Hill Foundation, a family foundation established in 1959 by the late Elizabeth G. Beinecke and William S. Beinecke, then President and now retired Chairman of the Sperry and Hutchinson Company. The Prospect Hill Foundation’s mission is to advance the human experience while ensuring the well-being of the earth. She started working in philanthropy at the Ms. Foundation for Women in 1987, joined the Joyce Mertz-Gilmore Foundation as a Program Officer in 1990, and the Rockefeller Family Office in the fall of 1999 as Philanthropy Advisor, where she was part of the start-up team for Rockefeller Philanthropy Advisors and was Vice President until the fall of 2008. Throughout her career, Ms. Fujiko Willgerodt has worked with individual donors, family foundations, charitable trusts, donor advised funds, and funder collaboratives on a wide range of issues including arts and culture, gender rights, criminal justice, environmental health and conservation, security issues, sustainable development, and international human rights. She continues to serve as a Fund Advisor to two special projects at Rockefeller Philanthropy Advisors—the Gulf Coast Fund for Community Renewal and Ecological Health and the Legacy Fund of the Special Court for Sierra Leone—and is a Trustee of the Weeksville Heritage Center, a New York City cultural institution based in Brooklyn. Ms. Fujiko Willgerodt graduated cum laude from Yale College with a B.A. in East Asian Studies, and holds an M.A. in Secondary School Education from Teachers College, Columbia University.

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