Clinton Foundation aims to lead Caribbean disaster recovery with new action network

A road littered with debris in the aftermath of Hurricane Irma in Puerto Rico. Photo by: Joe Piette / CC BY-NC-SA

NEW YORK — The Clinton Foundation is launching a new action network on post-disaster recovery in the Caribbean, aiming to tackle long-term challenges that climate change is wreaking on vulnerable small islands such as Puerto Rico and Dominica.

Former United States President Bill Clinton presided over the network’s first planning meeting in New York City on Wednesday, one day before the foundation officially announced the network’s launch. Speaking with more than 90 nonprofit, business, philanthropic, and government representatives, Clinton addressed the need for innovative planning and partnership in a region that will continue to be battered by climate change’s rippled effects.

“If someone wrote a billion dollar check today, the water will keep rising,” Clinton said at the meeting, at which Devex had exclusive access. “There will be more storms.”

The action network, formed at the invitation of the governments of Puerto Rico, the U.S. Virgin Islands, Antigua and Barbuda, and Dominica, will formally convene for its first open meeting April 3 at the University of Miami. There, its members will work to develop commitments to action, as per the Clinton Global Initiative model that stresses cross-sector collaboration and mobilization of resources.

On Wednesday, Clinton announced three initial commitments with private sector groups on infrastructure damage in Dominica, solar power systems for health care facilities in Puerto Rico, and Zika testing for pregnant women in Puerto Rico and the Caribbean.

The network’s development speaks to a need for cross-sector collaboration, Clinton Foundation Chief Executive Officer Kevin Thurm told Devex. But it is not a direct response to the U.S. government’s efforts in Puerto Rico, which has been widely criticized as inadequate by many Puerto Rican political leaders and other experts. The U.S. Federal Emergency Management Agency ended food and water aid to the U.S. territory this week, despite continuing problems on the island.

“Solutions to challenges always require actors from multiple sectors. Solutions are not solely within for government, for the not-for-profit or for the private sector. And best delivered when there is maximum coordination, understanding of what works and sometimes what does not work,” Thurm said in an interview with Devex.

“These kinds of responses to large natural disasters require multifaceted responses engaging actors from government, civil society, and the private sector. They just do. They are significant — the breadth and depth of issues like this — essentially requires all hands on deck.”

The action network is focusing on five areas of recovery: Energy, infrastructure, health, education, and economic development.

Participants at the all-day meeting stressed the ongoing, and in some cases extreme, needs across different Caribbean islands, more than 140 days after two category 5 hurricanes, Irma and Maria, hit the region.

About 60 percent of Dominica’s population is still without power. The government, meanwhile, is working to develop new energy solutions, in form of geothermal and hydro energy, which could make the country’s energy infrastructure and resources more resilient in the long term. That’s happening all while the country grapples with hurricane damage costs that total more than 200 percent of its annual gross domestic product.

And in Puerto Rico, 1.2 million people — or about a third of the island — remain without power. Medical access for people in remote and urban settings was a key area of concern for some government representatives, as some doctors offices remain shuttered, and there is a scarcity of sometimes life-saving medical devices and supplies.

The planning session revealed the flaws in some potential solutions for supporting, or supplementing a country like Dominica’s energy grid. They are already operating with some solar panels, but found that the hurricanes both destroyed some of their panels — and remaining ones were taken by people desperate to power their own homes.

Thurm spoke of the need for ideas generated by people with local expertise.

“It’s why it is so important to have the voices of people from the affected areas, to have representatives from governments here today who can articulate what the needs are, what the challenges are and to help shape the ways in which people think about solutions,” he said.  

The new post-disaster recovery network follows in the legacy of the foundation’s 10-year-old Haiti Action Network. Since the mid-2000s — and the devastating 2010 earthquake — the action network has generating 130 commitments in action that are worth more than $500 million. The network still meets quarterly in Haiti.

Clinton said he would be surprised if this new network did not generate as much, if not more, funding through diverse partnerships.

“When we went to work in Haiti, there’s no way I could have gotten any individual to give $500 million. We did it together,” he said, stressing the need to “listen and be nimble.”  

The climate-related obstacles and solutions for Caribbean island nations and territories — though relatively small — also matter on a much broader level, Clinton said. More frequent, or intense storms and rains are increasingly becoming a dangerous — and costly — reality for many other small islands and other coastal countries.

“If you are really worried about the island nations of the whole world, in the Pacific, and it makes you sick to think people have to live through it [hurricanes] three a decade before they drowned out, you can be cynical and say, ‘To hell with it,’ or you be comfortable making any sort of partnership you can,” Clinton said.

About the author

  • Lieberman amy

    Amy Lieberman

    Amy Lieberman is the New York Correspondent for Devex. She covers the United Nations and reports on global development and politics. Amy previously worked as a freelance reporter, covering the environment, human rights, immigration, and health across the U.S. and in more than 10 countries, including Colombia, Mexico, Nepal, and Cambodia. Her coverage has appeared in the Guardian, the Atlantic, Slate, and the Los Angeles Times. A native New Yorker, Amy received her master’s degree in politics and government from Columbia’s School of Journalism.