“The Difference is Empowerment.” A Funder Takes a Bottom-Up Approach to Haiti's Many Challenges



Lately it seems as if the troubles in the Americas are reaching Biblical proportions, plagued simultaneously by the collapse of the Venezuelan state and resulting migration of millions of its citizens, protests in Nicaragua, incessant violence and crime in Mexico and Central America, and most recently, a wave of protests in Haiti calling for President Jovenel Moise to step down over corruption and high inflation. Sadly, Haiti seems to careen from one crisis to another, whether it is the different variations of natural disasters or those created by humans, specifically politicians. In the midst of the string of bad news from Haiti, one relatively new funder—the Haiti Development Institute (HDI)—offers fresh ideas and reasons for hope.

After the Earthquake: Shaking Up the Model of Humanitarian Aid

HDI is the successor to the Haiti Fund at the Boston Foundation. According to a former program director, Daniel Moss, writing in the Stanford Social Innovation Review, the Haiti Fund was created in 2010, after the calamitous earthquake, out of concern that the coming wave of aid to Haiti could worsen social and economic inequalities, as it had done in previous disasters.

The founders—philanthropists Karen and Jim Ansara, working through a donor-advised fund at the Boston Foundation—hoped to ensure that the fund prioritized accountability to Haitians and strengthened Haitian leadership. As a first step, the team selected a leader from the Haitian diaspora community in Boston—Pierre André Noël. In an interview, Noël told me that he was drawn to the fund because they “had made a decision not to focus support on metropolitan Port-au-Prince. I knew that whatever change was needed in Haiti needed to come from the ground up, and Port-au-Prince was not the ground up.” For Noël, the countryside is the “heartbeat” of Haiti.

The team scoured the Haitian landscape to discover and support little-known community organizations. In Moss’s words:

We cast a wide net, far beyond Port-au-Prince and deep into Haitian civil society. Over previous decades, many donors had granted the lion's share of their aid to a small number of international NGOs and missionary groups not known for facilitating Haitian-led, bottom-up, inclusive development.

The fund aimed to support grassroots groups closer to the problem that could pursue Haitian agendas, rather than agendas imposed from the outside. It solicited proposals in Haitian Creole to expand their reach.

The fund adopted another key strategy: Aware that Haiti’s greatest challenge is weak government, it intentionally sought civil society groups constructively engaged with the public sector, rather than those that simply bypassed government. The fund’s grantees understood that they would never solve their constituents’ problems without a strong public sector, such as credible judicial and land tenure systems.

The strategic differences between the Haiti Fund and other donors are apparent in comparing its grantees to those of the founding member of the humanitarian industrial complexUSAID.

Between 2010 and 2014, HDI disbursed over $2 million to over 100 grassroots organizations, with nearly 60 percent targeted to rural development and education. These grants were relatively small—about $10,000 to $20,000 each.

In contrast, of the $2.5 billion USAID disbursed to Haiti between 2010 and 2012, only 0.7 percent went directly to Haitian organizations, according to the Center for Economic and Policy Research. The vast majority went to huge private contractors and international NGOs such as Chemonics and Catholic Relief Services.

“The difference is empowerment,” Noël says. “We are about building local leadership, building communities. When we give a $10,000 grant, it is an entry point to help build the community. At the end of the day, money is not the problem. The problem is how donors are spending the money.”

The fund’s main grantmaking focus, or “true north,” was human rights, but a more expansive definition of human rights that included not only civil and political rights, but also economic and social rights. It supported groups such as Bureau des Avocats Internationaux, which worked to protect voting rights and the rule of law; Partenariat pour le Développement Local, which focused on expanded rights to food, water and land; and Fondation Limyè Lavi and Fondation Zanmi Timoun, which both worked to advance the rights of children, especially restaveks (child servants), who are denied access to education.

Building a Network of Continuous Support

Beginning in 2015, the fund began its transition to the current HDI—a transition that spanned the period of Hurricane Matthew and the response to that disaster. The fund recognized that one of philanthropy’s greatest failings is lack of continuity, so it sought to catalyze a network of funders that could sustain the work over the long term. Between 2015 and 2017, the fund co-organized funder meetings to learn and collaborate. The outcome of this process was the HDI, which was officially created in 2017, and is a Haiti-based and registered nonprofit that continues to receive funds from the Boston Foundation. Since its creation, the institute has grown to 11 staff members, nine of whom live and work in Haiti.

HDI serves two important functions. First, it is a capacity-building institute, and provides small grants to community groups to help them tackle administrative, financial and organizational challenges. The institute does not run its own programs, but instead provides grants (around $10,000 each) to local groups that need support in implementing and improving existing projects—such as raising goats or pigs, growing yams, or building an irrigation system. “Our grants follow what the local communities want and are already doing,” Noël says. As a result, the range of groups and project types is diverse, although there does seem to be an emphasis on expanding economic opportunities through small-scale agriculture, animal husbandry, and vocations like sewing and knitting.

Second, HDI provides “philanthropic leadership” and convenes funder meetings so that donors can learn from each other and increase their impact. In June, HDI is convening its Fourth Haiti Funders Conference in Miami, Florida. Other confirmed co-hosts include the Kellogg Foundation,  the Inter-American Foundation, and FOKAL.

New Disasters: Political, Not Natural

Recent political—not natural—crises have sparked a new focus area for HDI. Over the past few years, thousands of people of Haitian descent, many of whom were born in the Dominican Republic, have been forced to leave or have been deported because of a 2013 Supreme Court decision that stripped them of their citizenship rights.  

In response, HDI, together with The Philanthropic Initiative (a philanthropy consulting unit within the Boston Foundation), and the Kellogg Foundation, have launched a new program called Becoming Visible, which aims to address the “crisis of statelessness” in the Dominican Republic and Haiti. According to the project overview, it aims to mobilize philanthropic resources to address the humanitarian needs of new returnees and anyone living in informal camps along the border.

As for the political protests that are now sweeping Haiti, Noël sees reason for hope because many of these people are young Haitians demanding accountability from government. “We believe in giving the people their voice, and as HDI, we try to give communities the tools they need to create change. It is one thing to ask for change, but you also have to come to the table to participate in the process.”