We All Let Haiti Down
Iowa Sen. Chuck Grassley's report on the American Red Cross' spending of taxpayer funds in Haiti. According to the report, The American Red Cross spent a quarter of the nearly $500 million donated after the 2010 Haiti earthquake on its own internal expenses. In addition to this bombshell, there is also no verifiable accounting of just how much of the money that was granted to all foreign aid agencies to improve the lives of Haitians actually benefited Haitians after the earthquake. Grassley’s report is an embarrassment to the Red Cross, and indirectly to all of us who participated in, or benefited from, that disaster directly or indirectly.
My first trip to Haiti was in 2012 with a diverse group of well-heeled Americans between the ages of 35 and 45. Self-financed, we came to Haiti in our own special way to see how we could put the country back together, even though the puzzle of our own lives was a work in progress. My personal mission was to gift the Haitian people a narrative screenplay that I believed portrayed Haiti not as a place of desperation, but one of perseverance and hope the way that only film can do. I am from the Bahamas, myself a descendant of enslaved Africans; part of my motivation stemmed from my desire to create a connection to the place and the people that had wrested their freedom from the enslavers.
Upon my return to New York, I sermonized to anyone who would listen about how much Haiti and its people had given to me. I practically became one of those annoying Caribbean born again preachers on the subway. I eventually secured my first commercial client in Haiti, a big deal for a struggling filmmaker, and I produced a critically acclaimed commercial for a private Haitian insurance company. Haiti had given me more than I could have imagined.
So what was my contribution to Haiti? I produced a series of commercials with a production crew from Ciné Services, the professional arm of the country’s only film school. The filmmakers I worked with were smart, hardworking and desperately wanted to learn. While we worked together on these spots, I was increasingly inspired by the crew that had overcome way more obstacles to become filmmakers than I. They gave me great work, camaraderie and inspiration in return for a good paycheck. If my start-up production company could figure out the value in hiring Haitians to complete jobs in Haiti, why couldn’t an international organization like the Red Cross staffed by people trained at the top colleges in America not figure this out? Change in Haiti can come from Haitian hands if we hire them instead of interloping foreigners. Ultimately, I learned from this experience that a job was the only thing of real value I had to offer to Haitians.
After the earthquake, Haiti was filled with Americans of every ilk – Republican contractors, liberal-minded students, laborers, trainers for the police force, and of course, the American missionaries (some of whom decided the best place for Haitian children was with them and not their parents). Donations fueled this influx of Americans to Haiti - donations from people who hoped their money would make a difference in a shattered life. To me however, the contrast between the American foreigners and the local people was stark.
By 2012 CNN and Anderson Cooper had long left Haiti. Haitians were sick of the cameras - they would cover their faces or angrily wave their hands at us. They didn’t feel sorry for themselves and didn’t want to be the subject of our poverty tourism. Life was marching on in Haiti. With muscular physicality, Haitians expressed their distrust of their foreigner “helpers”; their feelings were similar to what James Baldwin describes in his essay “Journey to Atlanta”, of the perception African Americans have of politicians: “they have been best trained to expect nothing from them.”
When I think back to the piercing looks we got from men hustling to carry bags outside the airport, to the female merchants on the street selling their wares among the debris, to the waiters at the fancy restaurants, it was clear to me they thought I was just another visiting foreigner, coming to take more than I would ever give, and living a life far removed from the reality of most Haitians. Haiti is no better off today than it was before the earthquake, despite all our aid workers, missionaries and billions of dollars spent. The Red Cross did not make a difference in Haiti. I’m not sure any of us did. And if you still think Haiti needs your help, then become a tourist, create or support jobs, but don’t think you have any answers. As this report clearly illustrates, your dollars won’t make much difference if you don’t put them in the hands of the Haitians you hope to help.