Children holding hands in Léogâne, Haiti. KSK Imaging/shutterstock
Children holding hands in Léogâne, Haiti. KSK Imaging/shutterstock

The tragedy of humanity is that we, at times, learn nothing from the past. But the stakes are too high to repeat our mistakes this time.

Haitians are again being cruelly tested by a catastrophic earthquake. The degree of devastation in the south of Haiti is immense. It is estimated that 130,000 structures—homes, schools, clinics, roads, water sources and agricultural infrastructure like mills, canals, sheds and pens—are damaged or destroyed. The lives of hundreds of thousands of already-poor farming families are even more precarious now.

Haiti needs help to rebuild, but as international aid arrives, we must learn from the mistakes made after the 2010 earthquake. Providing aid to Haiti without partnering with Haitians will fail to address Haiti’s most critical challenges.

As an American donor deeply committed to helping Haiti, and a Haitian American raised in rural Haiti, who today runs a nonprofit committed to Haitian-led institutions, we have seen firsthand the power of partnership to strengthen and empower Haitian leaders, organizations, government entities and communities.

How can the international donor community foster these partnerships?

Understanding the place

First, it’s important to know where you are giving, and the context, and to work with and through other organizations and intermediaries that understand it also.

Unlike the earthquake of 2010, which demolished much of the capital of Port au Prince, this earthquake struck largely in the rural South, a territory of remote mountainside hamlets spotted with a few small but essential cities. Each community here is unique. In this part of Haiti, subsistence farming on small plots of land is a way of life and a source of pride and dignity.

For the last two centuries, Haitian farmers have formed associations—some linked in networks across Haiti—to manage life in their communities. This is the heart of Haitian democracy, intensely local and participatory (although there is much room to elevate women’s leadership). Each community charts its own survival course, without safety nets or investments from the government. Local associations build roads, schools, health centers, processing mills and tree nurseries—all on their own and, if fortunate, with assistance from privately funded external organizations.

Understanding the needs 

As with any major disaster, the earthquake victims need immediate help with basic needs: temporary shelters, food, potable water, medical care and hygiene products. But the farmers in this area also urgently need help rebuilding their homes and agricultural assets to salvage their harvests and restore their livelihoods.

This is not a short-term issue. If donors simply sweep in with emergency food, water and shelter in the weeks after the quake and depart, leaving residents without their lives and livelihoods intact, we will have provided sustenance, but not supported solutions. We must make resources available for longer-term recovery and reconstruction.

Understanding the best approach

As important as the “where” and “what” is the “how.” It is crucially important that the 2021 disaster response not cast aside the local leaders who have supported their communities day in and day out for years. If aid marginalizes local leaders, undoes their accomplishments, or dissipates the trust they have painstakingly earned in their communities, the response will fall short.

This time, we must empower Haitians as agents rather than objects of their recovery. As donors, we are often drawn to concrete projects. We tend to forget that our critical end goal is to build strong communities. For that to happen, more significant funding must go to organizing, planning, upskilling and enterprise development. It should support the visions and plans of local leaders, and build institutions with roots and stakes in their communities.

This requires a fundamental shift in strategy. It requires funders to take the time to form partnerships with local actors capable of creating Haitian solutions. Once critical basic needs are met, what Haiti will need is fewer teams of logo-wearing outside organizations, and more funding to bring together knowledgeable local actors, from both inside and outside local government, to assess, evaluate and co-design equitable plans for moving forward.

Since 2010, there has been considerable investment in local leaders and organizations who can be these essential actors in disaster preparedness, recovery and long-term development. Their biggest needs now are not just financial. They include ongoing training, coaching and accompaniment to more effectively meet their missions and advocate for better governance and systems. Capacity-building organizations like the Haiti Development Institute (HDI), which Pierre leads and for which Karen serves as a board member, and Grassroots International, among others, provide resources to vibrant community organizations, support their development, and connect them for greater knowledge sharing, voice and impact.

Making those connections has required years of work. Haiti is an exclusionary society with deep divisions made more evident in recent years. Those who can speak to foreign development partners are the privileged few in a country that, for centuries, has used language, class, culture and geography to oppress and marginalize. To focus on equity, funders must build new relationships with intermediaries whose work connects them with the organizations serving the most marginalized Haitians, not just as recipients, but as decision-makers and grantees, as well.

This approach also unlocks one of Haiti’s most critical, but untapped assets—its youth. Haiti has one of the youngest populations in the Western Hemisphere, their lives defined by two devastating earthquakes and decades of misgovernance. They are haunted by the past, ashamed of the present and unsure of the future—but we must unlock their potential. Funders can help Haitians seize this opportunity by supporting development of a youth agenda that includes civic engagement, institutional development, leadership development, gender mainstreaming and job creation to give the youth confidence and a stake in a better future at home.

For Haiti to truly recover, Haitians and Haitian institutions must commit to developing shared visions, inclusive action frameworks and clearly defined goals. By understanding the place, transparently investing to address the long-term needs, and equitably empowering Haitians to lead, funders can make that recovery much more possible. They can do more than send aid to Haiti. They can empower a new generation to begin to reshape Haiti’s future.

Pierre Noel is executive director of the Haiti Development Institute. Karen Keating Ansara is co-founder of the Ansara Family Fund at the Boston Foundation.