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'We Know Haiti.' After 2010 Debacle, Diaspora Wants Bigger Earthquake Aid Role

 An aid worker tosses a bag of rice last week to survivors of Haiti's August 14 earthquake in Vye Terre, near the hard-hit city of Les Cayes on the country's southwest Tiburon peninsula.
Fernando Llano
An aid worker tosses a bag of rice last week to survivors of Haiti's August 14 earthquake in Vye Terre, near the hard-hit city of Les Cayes on the country's southwest Tiburon peninsula.

After Haiti's epic 2010 earthquake, Haitians were largely shut out of the international relief effort. Haitian-Americans want to change that in 2021.

The relief-and-recovery effort after the earthquake that hit southwest Haiti earlier this month is, in many ways, just getting started. Haitians — and Haitians-Americans — don’t want to see the mistakes that happened after the earthquake in 2010 repeated now.

Many of those 2010 aid efforts are now widely considered a debacle: $13 billion in international help did relatively little to lift Haiti from a disaster that killed some 200,000 people. The American Red Cross, for example, got half a billion dollars — and built only six new homes in Haiti.

One of the big complaints is that the Red Cross and other non-governmental organizations effectively shut Haitians themselves — and the Haitian diaspora — out of the recovery process.

“They need to listen to people like me who know the culture, we know the country," said Haitian expat Yvans Morisseau of Miami.

"We’re not just pretending to know.”

READ MORE: Haiti 10 Years After the Earthquake: Why So Little Recovery Progress in a Decade?

Morisseau, a community liaison for Miami-Dade County, heads the nonprofit Haitian-American Emergency Relief Committee. Along with Florida International University, it has helped train Haitians in Haiti for the kind of rescue and relief work needed now — after this month's earthquake killed more than 2,200 people and destroyed whole towns in southwest Haiti.

Morisseau also helps lead a diaspora group called APREM that assists his hometown of Morisseau, Haiti. The town sits just miles from the latest quake’s epicenter, and he says he has relatives there who were injured.

“They were inside collapsed houses and in the [path] of a landslide, because in Morisseau you also have the mountains there," Morisseau said.

Matias Delacroix
A man stands amid the rubble of a collapsed building in Jeremie, Haiti, after the country's August 14 earthquake.

The diaspora sends more than $3 billion a year to Haiti and Morisseau feels its members and organizations should be invited, and funded, to complement international relief work — to be a critical liaison between Haitians and aid organizations. They say they have a kind of access and understanding that non-Haitians don’t.

“The diaspora can make contact with these people directly, going directly into the neighborhoods affected," said Morisseau, "and give them the support they need — not what you want to give them but what they actually need.”

“Haitians have seen for too long people come in and just do things for them and give it to them, hand it to them,” said Tessa Petit, a Miami Haitian-American, who heads the nonprofit Ayiti Toma, which helps communities in Haiti — especially in the remote southwest — organize to solve development issues.

One necessary thing Haitian diaspora organizations will do that I don’t think international NGOs did in 2010 is get Haitians themselves involved in post-earthquake recovery.
Tessa Petit

Petit stresses Haitian-Americans shouldn't try to replace the "white savior" attitude she says so many foreign NGOs bring to Haiti with their own "diaspora savior" mindset. But she feels organizations led by Haitian-Americans are ideally situated to help NGOs bring Haitians themselves into relief work.

The importance of that hit Petit when she lost her mother in the 2010 earthquake, after she raced to Port-au-Prince to locate her.

“It took me about a week to find her remains," Petit recalled. "But it was Haitian volunteer work, not international NGOs, that helped us. Once those NGOs came in, I stopped seeing volunteer community effort. If Haitians don’t put some sweat equity into something, it’s harder for folks to redevelop Haiti.”

Water Works

Petit and Morisseau say one example of how that diaspora liaison role could play out is water.

The earthquake destroyed water infrastructure across Haiti’s southwest. Haitians report the water in much of the Ravine du Sud river is now contaminated by the corpses of earthquake victims. Right now, survivors are depending largely on donated bottled water. More lasting alternatives need to be built, like well pumps — and Petit says Haitian groups, not NGO personnel, should be assigned and paid to carry that out.

Courtesy Ayiti Toma
Members of the Haitian diaspora organization Ayiti Toma work with Haitians to clear a road in southwest Haiti days after the August 14 earthquake.

“One necessary thing that [Ayiti Toma] would do, and I don’t know if an international NGO would do, is get Haitians involved in installing it," Petit said.

Petit, who is also operations director for the nonprofit Florida Immigrant Coalition in Miami, says diaspora organizations can help NGOs find Haitian suppliers of those water pumps — and help the local economy in the process.

These are things NGOs rarely did back in 2010. And in no small part because of that lack of Haitian and Haitian-American input, aid dollars were all too often misspent.

Today, the U.S. Agency for International Development, or USAID, has a Center for International Disaster Information website — CIDI.org — to help organizations and diaspora communities petition to take part in disaster recovery.

Last week, Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas met with Haitian-American community leaders in Little Haiti and, according to those present, registered their requests to engage the diaspora more usefully in earthquake relief.

Haitian-American leaders like Daniel Eugene, Florida director for the Haitian-American Diaspora Council, call that a welcome change from 2010.

“This time around they need to understand that the diaspora is the best partner for the U.S. government," said Eugene, who is also a hospital nurse in Miami and a member of the Haitian-American Nurses Association of Florida.

This week Eugene is headed to do volunteer work in Les Cayes, one of the cities hardest hit by the earthquake — largely on his own dime. He says the diaspora does need to better to coordinate as it approaches the U.S. government for funding. But he says the diaspora brings another advantage.

“Haitian-American organizations don’t have the overhead that an NGO will have," Eugene said. "So imagine if they have more money to do it. That will go extra miles.”

Haitians here say they want to finally have the chance to go those extra miles to help Haiti recover.
Copyright 2021 WLRN 91.3 FM. To see more, visit WLRN 91.3 FM.

Tim Padgett is the Americas editor for Miami NPR affiliate WLRN, covering Latin America, the Caribbean and their key relationship with South Florida.