To find success in Haiti's recovery, go local

By Catherine Cheney 21 September 2015

A roadside market in Haiti. Devex traveled with Chelsea Clinton and the Clinton Foundation to the Caribbean nation to unearth an untold spirit of success, one with a distinctly Haitian character. Photo by: Catherine Cheney / Devex

The release of former U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's emails surfaced a commanding perspective on U.S. development policy from a self-described “invisible soldier.” Chelsea Clinton, the former (and potentially future) first daughter and an emerging force at the Clinton Foundation, pulled no punches in her assessment of the post-earthquake response in Haiti five years ago.

“To say I was profoundly disturbed by what I saw — and didn’t see — would be an understatement,” Chelsea wrote in a 2010 email to her parents, who have taken a special interest in the country ever since they honeymooned there. “Haitians want to help themselves and want the international community to help them help themselves.”

Her letter, written after four days in Haiti with Paul Farmer and Partners in Health, dives into the details of dysfunction she witnessed. She calls the United Nations and international NGO workers she came across, “anachronistic in their thinking at best and arrogant and incompetent at worst.”

Over the past five years, the media has continued to expose the large scale failure of aid to the country, asking just how the American Red Cross spent $500 million in donations for disaster relief, and exposing the role Nepalese U.N. peacekeepers played in causing the 2010 cholera epidemic that followed the earthquake.

“I guess while you're there I'd challenge the assumption that the fundamental dynamic is outsiders trying to solve Haitian problems,” Jonathan Katz, author of “The Big Truck That Went By: How the World Came to Save Haiti and Left Behind a Disaster,” wrote Devex during a trip to Haiti with Chelsea Clinton and a delegation of supporters in July. “More often, we are the problem. I'd look outside the development world completely and try to understand how Haitians manage to survive and deal with their own problems in spite of us — Clintons and all.”

On site visits and long drives between Port-au-Prince and the Central Plateau, Clinton Foundation staff members repeated the mantra that they are trying to work themselves out of a job. But their involvement in Haiti’s reconstruction is not likely to end anytime soon. The Clinton Global Initiative's Haiti Action Network has made 100 Commitments to Action valued at $500 million when fully funded and implemented. Fortunately, as organizations like the Clinton Foundation have transitioned from disaster response to capacity building, they have sought to learn from past mistakes and built on their strengths.

From disaster response to job creation  

“Problems really can be solved here, and we see them being solved,” Chelsea Clinton told Devex after visiting with women entrepreneurs in the Central Plateau, one of several stops on a tour highlighting the Clinton Foundation’s work with Haitian women. The view from the press bus windows put human faces to Haiti’s myriad challenges. The country is often called the “Republic of NGOs” because of the way the aid industry has become more powerful than the government itself. It is the poorest nation in the Western Hemisphere, and in many places poverty and illiteracy seem more abundant than clean water and electricity.

But this makes the signs of resilience all the more powerful. While it was certainly in the Clinton Foundation staff’s interest that delegates and reporters see signs of progress, this trip did seem to leave Clinton more encouraged than disturbed. Some of her optimism about the role the international development community can play in Haiti seems to have returned in the interim between that first trip with Paul Farmer and her most recent one. Partnership with Haitians is what makes the difference in Clinton’s view.

“There are so many reasons to be optimistic," she told Devex, adding that constant doom and gloom journalism reporting is “disrespectful to the amazing work that’s being done in Haiti by Haitians to solve their own challenges.”

Chelsea Clinton talks to Devex reporter Catherine Cheney about reasons for optimism in Haiti.

Sabine Toussaint, senior program manager for the Clinton Foundation in Haiti, explained that the Clinton Foundation has returned to its original focus on sustainable job creation in Haiti after going into emergency relief mode following the earthquake.

“The Clinton foundation is uniquely placed. We are able to be the great convener because we have President Clinton,” she said, elaborating on how the Clinton Foundation gathers stakeholders to support its focus areas in Haiti: building capacity, bringing in investment, and empowering women entrepreneurs. “Just as we assessed ourselves and knew that disaster relief was not our forte, each individual organization should do an assessment of themselves and ask what are our strengths?”

As an operating foundation, most of the money the Clinton Foundation raises for projects around the world is used to operate programs, but given the unique needs for capacity building and job creation in Haiti, the staff there provides targeted grants. Throughout the trip, the foundation staff talked about how they want to support small and medium enterprises in ways that reduce, not grow, their dependence on external support. Take the fair trade manufacturer Caribbean Craft, which was devastated by the earthquake but now employs 400 artisans. There, Clinton Foundation delegates watched as mostly female employees turned recycled materials into artisan products, including papier-mache animal sculptures that Clinton Global Initiative members like West Elm will place in stores and catalogues.

Magalie Dresse, who founded Caribbean Craft, spoke with Devex about the value of the Clinton Foundation approach of supporting local entrepreneurs. “When an NGO gets free access to money, they don’t need to fight for any sales because everything is paid for,” she said, explaining how good intentions can have negative implications. “They can lower the cost of the item where it doesn’t even have any margin on it because it’s covered by a grant. Now you’re killing me as a producer, and I have no chance.”

Later, Yve-Car Momperousse, CEO of the beauty supply company Kreyól Essence, led Clinton Foundation delegates through a castor oil production facility in Mirebalais, Haiti, where women who once worked over open charcoal pits now work in the shade with uniforms and goggles thanks to Clinton Foundation support. “If you take a market based approach to solving these socially complex issues, development can be sustainable,” she said. “There are proven models and clear successes.”

Sustainable Organic Integrated Livelihoods transforms waste into compost after responding to a need voiced by the local community for ecological sanitation. An entire tab of their website is devoted to what makes them different from the many organizations in Haiti tied with another, unproductive, kind of waste. They emphasize their cultural fluency, with 90 percent Haitian staff, and their social business model, with low barriers to entry and multiple sources of revenue.

“The art of the possible has a special meaning in Haiti,” Sally Yearwood, executive director of the Washington, D.C.-based Caribbean Central American Action, told Devex after joining the Clinton Foundation in Haiti. She wrote a newsletter for her readers reflecting on the trip and how struck she was by the many women she saw building a better future for themselves, their children, and therefore the country as a whole.

With devastation comes disruption

The 7.0-magnitude earthquake killed 300,000 people and left 1.5 million Haitians homeless. But with devastation came disruption — the kind of disruption that breeds new ideas. Many technologists have called Haiti’s earthquake “the big bang of digital disaster relief.”

Patrick Meier, a thought leader on humanitarian technology, captures in his book Digital Humanitarians how digital technologists used tools like text messaging and mobile mapping to aid collaboration. “It wasn’t the technology that caused us to help,” he said later in a talk at the PopTech conference. “What the technology allowed us to do was help manifest that humans want to go and help others who are suffering. So that technology actually made us more human by extending our emotions to actions.”

Following the earthquake, technologists gathered around the world for hackathons, developing new tools for crisis management in front of computer screens and pizza boxes. But hackathons like the one held four days after the earthquake from 1 p.m. to 1 a.m. at DevHouse on Microsoft’s Silicon Valley Campus did not involve Haitians, so struggled to create lasting solutions to local needs. Flash forward to February 2013, when Haiti hosted its first hackathon.

Digital Democracy, an organization based in Oakland, California that works with marginalized communities to defend their rights through technology, helped organize the hackathon. It gathered Haitian technical students, members of the Haitian women’s organization KOFAVIV, and a mix of international software developers and designers who experienced for the first time local constraints like slow internet connections.

“This event has brought us back to a piece of Haitian culture, the ‘konbit,’ that we have largely left behind,” Richardson Ciguene, then a student studying databases and programming, said after spending three days building tools in support of a call center for survivors of gender-based violence.

“Konbit is a very significant concept in Haitian culture, and every Haitian knows what konbit means, because that was the way they survived the years after the revolution,” Emily Jacobi, executive director and founder of Digital Democracy, said of the Creole term for gathering, or coming together in solidarity in the face of adversity. “The effective earthquake responses I saw involved Haitians coming together in a konbit fashion.” In the Digital Democracy model of fully transitioning work to its local partners, Ciguene and other students went on to host the first official “Konbit Teknolojik” in June 2013, continuing the hackathon model without the direct involvement of an outside organization.

The disruption extends beyond the digital space. A bulletin from the World Health Organization on tuberculosis in the aftermath of the earthquake highlights the little known success story that the earthquake did not devastate basic health programs in Haiti. Given the interplay between HIV and tuberculosis, with HIV positive individuals more likely to get TB, the expectation was that breaks in the supply chain would lead to outbreaks of disease. But because of the dedication and collaboration of health workers, relief agencies, the patients themselves, and the government, the proportion of TB patients with HIV remained stable.

William Heisel, director of global engagement at the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation, sat down with Devex at the IHME offices in Seattle and showed visualizations of this promising health data on a screen suspended from the ceiling. “Overall, there’s a lot of hope in this paper, which makes me wonder if we’re on the verge of seeing a new phrase emerge as the thing you’re most likely to think of when you hear the word ‘Haiti,’” he wrote in a post responding to the WHO bulletin. “That phrase would be: ‘Rapid response.’”

Lauren Hashiguchi, a policy translation specialist at IHME who worked on the WHO study, first traveled to Haiti as a college undergraduate in 2009. Frustrated by the many unregulated medical missions she saw, she made a promise to herself that she would not return unless she had a master's degree in public health and the opportunity to work with a Haitian organization. “After the earthquake I was very tempted to go back, but I realized I didn’t have valuable skills,” she told Devex. "I would just be a body in the way of actual aid work.”

When she did return in 2013, it was to work with GHESKIO, a health service and research organization. "External aid will never be rapid response," Hashiguchi said, calling the best rapid responders people like “the physicians at GHESKIO … who trained in Canada and France and the U.S., who choose to come back to Haiti and work in difficult places and understand the population and their needs.”

Investing in Haiti’s future

One of the reasons GHESKIO has succeeded where other organizations have failed is its partnership with the Haitian government. Next month’s presidential elections in Haiti will be another test for those partnerships, and for the Haitian government’s commitment to leading the reconstruction effort.

“While it is important for Haiti’s international partners to continue to lend generous support to the country’s democratic process, it is equally crucial to recognize the work of the Government of Haiti in ensuring that its institutions can fully take charge of the elections,” Jessica Faieta, UNDP director for Latin America and the Caribbean, said at a gathering at U.N. headquarters.

Some outsiders aiming to do good in Haiti have cited corruption as the reason they circumvent the government. But their critics point to the money they spend on overhead costs. Foreigners driving new SUVs and living in gated neighborhoods are particularly conspicuous next to communities where people cram into decorated tap-tap buses that drive past shacks ready to slide down the hill.

“For too long, aid to Haiti has bypassed the government over a concern of poor governance and corruption,” Jake Johnston, the lead on the Center for Economic and Policy Research’s Haiti: Relief and Reconstruction Watch, relayed to Devex. “Instead billions have been funneled to unaccountable NGOs and private actors. For most Haitians, the high overhead costs and salaries are just as corrupt.”

The parallel public delivery system is part of what has created voter apathy in Haiti. Johnston explained that it is not so much about who wins the election, but what the process is like, and whether the aid community will begin to work through the government and strengthen its capacity to provide services to its population.

Clinton called Haiti a good laboratory for development, and a range of new actors appear to agree, trying new approaches that might build out the list of successes.

TOMS, the shoe brand that has gotten a mix of good and bad press for its “one-for-one” model of aid, recently came under fire again for its “This is Haiti” campaign, which showed a bunch of models lounging and laughing in the Caribbean sun with only a few locals in sight. But TOMS is one of several companies that has invested in the country years after the earthquake, when Haiti’s place in international headlines is less secure.

At the 2013 Clinton Global Initiative annual meeting, TOMS founder Blake Mycoskie announced that the company would be building a factory there in 2014. It was a major shift in approach, with the company pledging to produce a minimum of one-third of all the shoes it gives in the places where those shoes will be distributed.

Expanding door-to-door sales in the developing world

Mark Gunton, CEO of the Clinton Giustra Enterprise Partnership, talks with Devex about the success and expansion of the Chakipi door-to-door sales model, first in Peru and most recently in Haiti.

Lisa Curtis, the founder and CEO of Kuli Kuli, talked with Devex over an assortment of her products at a coffee shop just beneath her Oakland, California, office. Kuli Kuli sources high quality moringa oleifera from women’s cooperatives in the developing world and sells the superfood in the form of bars, teas and protein powders.

The social enterprise recently announced a partnership with the Smallholder Farmers Alliance and the Clinton Foundation to develop moringa for export in Haiti. Curtis said the organization learned about the importance of working with local partners from its experience launching in Ghana. There, they work with Fair Harvest, an organization that shared the goal of empowering women farmers growing moringa and had just started to try to export the product to the United States.

Anecdotal successes lack the cohesion to reorient Haiti’s narrative around learning, partnership, and innovation. Outsiders can play a helpful role in building and strengthening connections between those who are driving solutions.

After visiting a peanut supply chain enterprise on the Clinton Foundation trip, delegate Alexis Miesen, who leads the social venture of Blue Marble Ice Cream, is planning on using those peanuts for ice cream toppings once her store opens in Port-au-Prince this fall. The Port-au-Prince location will employ survivors of sexual violence in a shop built from repurposed shipping containers outfitted with solar panels, thanks in part to support from the Clinton Foundation.

It was only by partnering with Haitian native Lionel Bernard that Miesen could know the power of opening her shop — Bel Rev — in Fontamara, in the northwest corner of Port-au-Prince. “The shop is being built in front of my house where I grew up in Haiti,” Bernard said in a conversation with Caribbean Life on the decision to build further down the hill in Port-au-Prince, versus higher up where the wealth is. “It’s almost like a little tree growing with so many different branches. That’s the love and the beauty that we’re getting out of it.”

Of course, while anyone familiar with the range of problems and solutions in Haiti acknowledges the need to listen to local needs and work with local partners, there are larger scale roadblocks to proven approaches like local procurement. “What we have seen is a shift in rhetoric, but that has yet to result in significant changes on the ground,” Johnston lamented, acknowledging that there are organizations doing good work, but emphasizing that fractured responses cannot change the big picture. “The problems of the aid industry are systemic and unless the root of the problem is addressed, it’s unlikely there will be a major change in how the industry operates.” Donor dollars are often far removed from the people on the ground who will supposedly benefit from that aid, which is part of the reason for new models of building local capacity.

Robert Maguire, professor of international affairs and director of the Latin American and Hemispheric Studies Program at the Elliott School of International Affairs at George Washington University, explains how listening is key for successful development work in Haiti.

“You go to Haiti and you’ll never go back, or you go to Haiti and you’re hooked,”  Leigh Carter, executive director of Fonkoze USA, the 501(c)3 that raises funds for Haiti’s leading microfinance institution, told Devex of the way the country pulled her in and kept her committed. “I really believe we have to put the future in the hands of Haitians."

On flights from Haiti to the U.S., Carter said customs officers are constantly asking, “Where did all the money go?”

She finds herself holding up lines telling them the stories that do not make the headlines, the stories that suggest the international community can in fact play a positive role in Haiti.  But, echoing Dresse, Carter lamented the way so many people have started their own NGOs in Haiti rather than supporting community organizations and connecting them to the capacity they need.

“I would recommend people seek out Haitian institutions,” she said. “I don’t want to badmouth the big NGOs. But just because the Red Cross has the resources to go on CNN and accept donations via text doesn’t mean they’re doing the best job. Just be a smart philanthropist.”

The Haiti earthquake taught all those involved that navigating an emergency is as much about preparation as response. Gary Philoctete, senior vice president for Haiti operations and country director for JP/HRO, a relief organization founded by actor Sean Penn in response to the earthquake, said his team is realizing how preparation and contingency needs to be a part of their planning moving forward.

“For example, no matter how nice the house you build someone is, or how quickly you build it, the structure won't take away the fear of that house falling down in a subsequent disaster, unless you engage the resident in understanding why and how the house is safer,” Philoctete explained to Devex. “Education is what puts a roof over someone’s head in that case, not just construction. Folks in Haiti understand sustainability better than anyone, because the fears can be so immediate. If we're not planning for the next earthquake, as we build back from the last, our solutions won't work for the people we serve.”

Clinton articulated it well in that note to mom and dad. Years after the earthquake, Haiti continues to need support, to recover from a recent history of devastation and prepare for what lies ahead. But the best way outsiders can learn from mistakes and build on strengths is by ascribing to a spirit of partnership that’s been there all along — the Haitian spirit of konbit.

This article was updated at 11:28 am.

Conflict in Context is a monthlong global conversation on conflict, transition and recovery hosted by Devex in partnership with Chemonics, Cordaid, Mercy Corps, OSCE and USAID. We’ll decode the challenges and highlight the opportunities countries face while in crisis and what the development community is doing to respond. Visit the campaign site and join the conversation using #ConflictinContext.

About the author

Catherine cheney devex
Catherine Cheneycatherinecheney

Catherine Cheney covers the West Coast global development community for Devex. Since graduating from Yale University, where she earned bachelor's and master's degrees in political science, Catherine has worked as a reporter and editor for a range of publications including World Politics Review, POLITICO, and NationSwell, a media company and membership network she helped to build. She is also an ambassador for the Solutions Journalism Network and the Franklin Project at the Aspen Institute.


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