In the days before Hurricane Matthew, when it became clear it would not dissolve harmlessly, I called a friend in Haiti to warn him.
I did not just call Daniel Tillias, leader of the SAKALA community center in Cite Soleil, because he is my friend. I called Daniel because he was the one I knew personally who was in the best position to get the word out, to actually help people in a way that I — up here in the US — could not.
And, Daniel — along with many other community leaders in Cite Soleil— did just that.
In the space of a day, SAKALA — whose normal activities center around education, sports and gardening — became an emergency shelter, stocked with food and water for the surrounding neighborhoods, which were threatened by flooding from both the ocean and the trash-clogged canals that run through Cite Soleil.
I have been coming regularly to Haiti since April 2009. I have good friends there and a decent understanding of the country. I speak Haitian Creole — not well, but enough to get around ok.
Here’s what I know about helping out in a disaster in Haiti: nothing.
Well, one thing: I know who to call.
I did not know even that much when I first came to Haiti, tagging along as a journalist with a missionary group who was kindly showing me the ropes of the country.
I remember a conversation one of them had with the Haitian manager of the guesthouse where we were staying. The missionary told him about their plans to do an educational program on handwashing in an isolated and poor village up in the countryside. She asked for his advice because in the past their efforts had not worked as well as they had hoped.
He explained to her that in the countryside the blan — which in Haitian Creole means both foreigner and white — have to work hard to gain the trust and respect of the people by first showing respect themselves. He said that even he — Haitian, but college-educated, multi-lingual and from the capitol city of Port-au-Prince — would be considered blan in the countryside.
The missionary listened for a bit, then she said, “Oh, I get it. We have to make them think it’s their idea.”
To which the Haitian manager, a little bemused, replied, “No. It actually has to be their idea.”
I would be reminded of that moment often — particularly after the earthquake in Port-au-Prince in January 2010 — when it was writ large countless times among the promises from the international community to “build back better.”
It was a brilliant catch-phrase but mostly, despite billions of dollars and beautiful intentions on the part of many, what they built on was a history of excluding Haitians — along with their expertise — in their own country.
And so instead of a model of aid that actually helps, the earthquake recovery became a poster child for aid failure. This would, ironically, then be blamed on the Haitians who the international community left out of the loop –and out of the money — in the rush to build back better.
And, then comes Hurricane Matthew and in its wake the hope that we will not repeat the mistakes of the past and exclude Haitians from the rebuilding of their country.
The worst case scenarios did not come to pass in Cite Soleil as they would on Haiti’s South coast, where one survey of 40,000 homes found only 82 intact.
But there was still damage in Cite Soleil — roofs were blown off, homes were flooded. All that dirty flood water brought with it the threat of a spike in cholera — a bacterial disease first brought to Haiti in October 2010 when United Nations peacekeeping troops disposed of untreated, infected waste in the country’s main river system.
Since then, by conservative estimates, cholera has killed nearly 10,000 people and sickened nearly a million. The UN’s decision to cover up rather than own up to the cholera epidemic it caused is another stark example of international arrogance in Haiti. Already, only a week after Hurricane Matthew struck, cholera cases, particularly in the devastated southern region have spiked.
When I first called Daniel Tillias about the impending storm it was cholera that he mentioned first — and the need to get treated water to people and raise awareness of the increased threat. After the storm, there was also a need to help people with clean-up. He wanted to get barrels that could be kept on hand for future storms and heavy boots and gloves to protect workers from anything sharp swirling around in the flood water.
Then Daniel went to the South coast and described the situation there. Late one night he sent me a text: “I have this idea after seeing so many trees down. We will start a tree nursery that people can adopt as a gift to Haiti to make the south green again.”
I would receive more such texts from Daniel, more ideas both for the immediate emergency and the long term recovery — all grounded in both the devastating reality the hurricane victims are facing and the need to respect their dignity as they rebuild their lives.
It’s neighbors helping neighbors and, for my money, it’s the best investment for the future of Haiti.
So no one has to tell me about the importance of investing in Haitian-led nonprofits. It’s easy for me, I have a front row seat. I’ve already seen the success.
But there are obstacles to giving. Many Haitian-led nonprofits do not have the resources to do the work only they could do best. Not only that, they often don’t have websites or updated Facebook pages and Twitter feeds. There’s often no easy way to give online, no real way to compete with international nonprofits who have departments devoted to public relations and marketing.
Even though I know better, I look at a polished website with beautiful photography and graphics, donating a matter of a couple of clicks, and I just trust it more than something that looks like it was last updated in 2013 and looks perpetually unfinished. We’re just conditioned that way now.
International organizations with longstanding partnerships with Haitian groups — such as Partners in Health and SOIL (there are more) — are working to get relief to the people most affected by the hurricane.
Over the long term, the Institute for Justice & Democracy in Haiti (where I am a volunteer) has strong relationships with grassroots groups and is working to address the conditions of injustice and poverty that multiply the effects of natural disasters like Hurricane Matthew.
One of the challenges we in the international community face now — if we truly we want to build back better or whatever the catch-phrase for Hurricane Matthew ends up being — is how to use our considerable resources to truly partner with Haitian groups. Neighbors helping neighbors, with respect. The way it should be.