Haiti: A Young Professional’s Compelling Lessons for All Nonprofits

It’s been just over two years since a catastrophic, magnitude 7.0 earthquake hit Haiti. Today, the people of that small island nation continue to suffer.

What lessons should the nonprofit community have learned by now in order to better help Haiti? What lessons can all foreign aid organizations learn from Haiti that can be applied anywhere? What lessons can all nonprofit organizations learn from Haiti that will help them be more successful, whether they operate internationally or even domestically?

These were the questions running through my mind as I watched news coverage of the anniversary of the earthquake. Then, I learned that a friend of mine was back in the United States after returning home for Christmas to visit family and friends in Haiti.

Soon after her return to the U.S., I had lunch with Isabelle Clérié (@iclerie). For those of you who don’t know Isabelle, you should. She’s a sharp nonprofit young-professional. She’s done work for a number of non-governmental organizations in Haiti. She now works on the capital campaign team at the Franklin Institute, the largest science museum in Philadelphia. Isabelle holds a Master’s Degree in Nonprofit Management from Florida Atlantic University.

Isabelle and I talked about what she found in Haiti and the enormous challenges that remain there. I invited Isabelle to write a guest post that would begin to address some of my questions. I’m grateful that she agreed to write the following post.

Haiti has much it can teach us. I thank Isabelle, a Haitian with an American-education who is a nonprofit professional, for sharing her unique insights that can benefit us all:


Clean-up in Haiti with Oxfam's cash-for-work program. (2010)

During my last trip home to Haiti, I was repeatedly asked why I wasn’t working there. It was assumed that as a nonprofit professional, living in a country brimming with NGOs would naturally be “heaven” for me; with jobs aplenty, organizations of all shapes and sizes; it’s a veritable nonprofit buffet of opportunity! But, there are also enormous challenges.

The topic of NGOs in Haiti is a popular one, usually discussed under an umbrella of criticism and distrust. My intention here is not to point fingers but to shed some light so NGOs working in Haiti and in other underdeveloped countries, even those working in the U.S., can actually have the impact they advertise if they consider the following:

Be an anthropologist.

NGOs working in underdeveloped countries are too often guilty of ethnocentrism. They come with good intent and programs bursting with the potential to truly change the circumstances they exist to combat, but they do not consider the culture of the country and its people.

It is so important for NGOs to work with the people they are serving. I’m not saying to go out into a community and take a survey. I mean that before NGOs invest everything in a program or project they really need to get to know the community in which they’ll be working. Underdeveloped though it may be, Haiti is not without its ways of doing things. Despite the political climate, there are social conventions that, if observed, can save a lot of time and frustration.

Don’t assume that people are incapable because they are uneducated and do not assume that they don’t understand when they are being taken advantage of. The majority of Haitians may be uneducated, but ignorance is not stupidity.

Work together!

I know. So obvious and, yet, so uncommon. For nonprofits, especially those working in developing areas, working together does not have to mean sharing financial resources. In fact, collaborative efforts will save oodles of time and money.

I was working with a group that had undertaken to refurbish a girls’ orphanage in Haiti. I developed a framework for the project that identified and prioritized all of the components from construction, education, health, and even the self-esteem needs of the girls. I was adamant about working with other organizations and suggested that we work with different organizations in very much the same way that a business would get outside services (i.e.: printing and cleaning).

We wanted to have feminine health professionals not only perform regular exams for the girls, but also to hold sexual education seminars, and teach them about STDs and how they can protect themselves. I identified a group that did exactly that and proposed that the orphanage become one of their service recipients. We would determine a schedule for medical visits as well as the seminars and that’s that. No money is dispensed on our side, and the other group does what it does so well.

Go where people need you.

Consider for a second that Haiti is roughly the size of Maryland. Now, consider the fact that there are over 5,000 NGOs in the country (including nearly 1,000 registered NGOs and thousands of religious-based and other initiatives) and the majority of them are working within a 200 sq/km area in and around the capital of Port-au-Prince. As a result of this, people in need of aid from the provinces migrate into the city, further congesting an already overpopulated area.

Furthermore, the Haitians themselves begin to take advantage of the NGOs in very much the same way that a spoiled child takes advantage of gullible parents. There have been so many instances when NGOs complain that Haitians are ungrateful because there was an incident during which they refused a service or tried to implement a change and their service recipients revolted. If every time a petulant child cries he is given a treat to stop, what will happen when the next time he cries and there is no treat? Anarchy, that’s what.

A year after the earthquake, there were tent cities populated by people who themselves had houses. Why? Because in the tent cities, they were brought food and supplies that they could consume and sell, and they received medical care as needed. I won’t do more than mention all the women and girls that were habitually raped in these “cared for” communities.

From a purely managerial perspective, working in the NGO-overpopulated areas creates phenomenal complications that waste time and consequently money. If their sole intent is to dispense immediate aid, then they are doing their jobs. However, I am fairly certain that whatever their mission statements read, the ultimate goal is to have results and that is not possible under these conditions.

By going to where the people in need are, NGOs can be more efficient, deliver service to those truly in need, and ask service recipients to endure less hardship.

The past few years have witnessed many disasters around the world, both natural and political. As a result, NGOs have an even stronger presence in areas such as Libya, the Horn of Africa, and of course Haiti.

There are organizations doing amazing work in the world, and it is unarguable that NGOs are a necessity without which things would in fact be worse. However, in situations such as Haiti’s, where NGOs give and give and waste time and money trying to work against a country that they’ve made very little effort to understand, it is difficult not to distrust them. It is difficult not to want them out even while recognizing their usefulness. It is difficult not to question their motives. Are they here to help? If so, then in what capacity?

It is past the time for NGOs working in underdeveloped countries to take a look at themselves and consider their true impact and value. Not in numbers and charts, but within the communities they work in to get a sense of their actual value to the people they are there to help:

Have you helped in such a way that, if and when you leave, things will not simply crumble and revert back to their initial state?

Come to think of it, that’s a good question for any nonprofit organization to ask, regardless of the type of organization or where it works.

That’s what Isabelle Clérié and Michael Rosen say… What do you say?

15 Responses to “Haiti: A Young Professional’s Compelling Lessons for All Nonprofits”

  1. Well written and sadly true. When many organizations go to developing countries, they have the best intentions, but it does seem there is an attitude of paternalism that pervades, and that is off putting to the recipients of their efforts.

    NGOs should take your advice and learn more about the people and their cultures when going off to help a country. Do a little more homework and work in cooperation instead of doing things by yourself.

    • Richard, thank you for your comment. Amazing things can happen if organizations go into a situation with a limited set of assumptions and then adjust plans as more is learned. I know a young American woman who is doing wonderful things in Nicaragua. She started offering after-school arts programs for children after seeing the need during a visit. Later, some of the parents of the children wondered whether they could learn English while their children attended the arts program. They wanted to learn English to be able to qualify for jobs in the growing tourism industry. So, there’s now an adult education program. By working in partnership with others and by being responsive to the needs identified by the local population, this small NGO has built a robust program that educates people of all ages in a community that had very real needs. It’s a beautiful thing.

  2. Richard, thank you for your comment. I have met so many wonderful people with even better intentions that fell short of their own expectations because they had no idea who they working for. I hope a bit more “homework”, as you said, starts to go into this sort of work, as well as a bit more cooperation and information sharing!

    Thank you again for your comment.

  3. Great Article Michael… Very very true… While NGOs almost always have good intentions, they need to look at the big picture sometimes and can be guilty of not doing so…

  4. Isabele, Very well said. Hope some NGO will read it

  5. As a young dentist looking to, start my own 501(c)3 charity in Haiti, please refer me to resorces to educate myself.

    • Ronald, thank you for contacting me. I encourage you to visit http://afpnet.org, the Internet home of the Association of Fundraising Professionals, an international organization for fundraising professionals. It’s a terrific organization with a wealth of information online. There are number of superb books you should read, as well. The AFP website includes a bookstore with a broad array of titles.

      I also encourage you to contact Isabelle Clérié (https://twitter.com/iclerie), the author of the post. She has studied nonprofit management and now works for an NGO in Haiti. She would be a wonderful addition to your network.

      Finally, I just need to suggest that you carefully consider whether or not you need to create your own NGO or whether you can work thru an existing organization. By not duplicating effort or overhead, you might be able to achieve your mission more efficiently. Good luck with whatever you decide.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: