Haiti: How Can I Help? – Lessons for donors on building back better

It has been three years since the devastating earthquake that killed over 200,000 people and left thousands more displaced, struggling to get back on their feet amidst a widespread cholera epidemic. Given the state of Haiti prior to the quake, most understood that “building back better” would be a daunting task.

While the popular press continues to cover and question the impact of international aid, we were fortunate to join a group of funders and implementers discussing what was working at a recent meeting convened by the Haiti Fund at the Boston Foundation and the W. K. Kellogg Foundation. Despite recognition of the work still to be done, the funders and other stakeholders in attendance remain optimistic. With the right strategies and partners, they have seen how aid is reaching Haitian communities and progress is happening.

What other donors might learn from their experience:

Build the capacity of Haitian organizations

Despite the mantra of a Haitian-led recovery, analysis of official aid flows following the earthquake suggest that the vast majority of aid went to U.S.-based and other international groups rather than Haitian nonprofits and businesses.

When donors try to give to grassroots organizations, many find it logistically difficult to find local Haitian organizations that they can directly support, particularly outside of the capital city where many Haitians live and work. Often, if they can find organizations, these groups lack the organizational capacity for basic accounting, reporting, and management.

At the meeting, there were several examples of funders and partnering organizations who overcame both of these barriers. For example, American Jewish World Service and the Global Fund for Children have staff in Haiti that search out and assess local organizations and projects for grant funding. In addition, they work with local organizations to build their capacity in areas such as financial management and human resources. Supporting such efforts is one way donors can address the current limitations of grassroots Haitian organizations, while still building necessary, local capacity.

Support growth of the Haitian business sector for long term economic development

Growing the business sector in Haiti is critical to Haiti’s future prospects. As the majority of Haitians still live in the rural areas of the country, great potential lies in improving the agricultural sector. Here were three promising donor strategies:

  1. Using an impact investing approach, Root Capital has seen growth working with and providing business loans to coffee farmers to help them along their entire value-chain.
  2. Groups such as Catholic Relief Services have provided technical assistance to small farmers aimed at increasing the yields of their crops while improving the health of the soils to prevent flooding and run-off.
  3. For the poorest of the poor, Fonkoze’s Chemen Lavi Miyò (CLM) or “Pathway to a Better Life” strategy helps provide basics—housing, food, skills training—to get women on the first step on the path out of poverty. A new initiative called Zafen provides a web-based platform for donors including the Haitian Diaspora, to give no-interest loans to Haitian entrepreneurs through Fonkoze as well as to provide educational scholarships for young Haitians.

Consider supporting a Fund as a mechanism that is able to adapt to changing conditions

After the earthquake in Haiti, there was an immediate need for emergency services as well as a surge in charitable donations. However, as with most disasters, the situation on the ground changed rapidly as new conditions emerged and new players responded. Specialized donor funds (such as the Haiti Fund at the Boston Foundation) were able to adapt their grant portfolio to the dynamic environment—initially funding direct relief and later switching to support and grow the capacity of local grassroots Haitian organizations outside the capital city. Such funds are a good option for disaster response generally, particularly for donors seeking to address both the crisis as well as support long term solutions.

We look forward to following the experience of these and other donors in Haiti and sharing the lessons they are learning as they support the efforts of Haitian communities to build back better.