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Haiti, a Tale of Capacity-Building (or the Lack Thereof)

January 12, 2011

by Terri Lee Freeman, President, The Community Foundation for the National Capital Region

Twelve months ago today, a catastrophic 7.0 earthquake struck the small, impoverished country of Haiti, killing more than 200,000 and leaving even more homeless in its wake.  We all remember the searing images – people digging with their hands to free their loved ones and neighbors; children, now orphans, roaming the streets; the main government building flattened.  Tent cities popped up immediately and quickly became over-crowded, offering little of the essentials for everyday life. 

The outpouring of worldwide sympathy was compassionate and generous.  But with each dollar contributed came the gnawing concern of accountability — and with good reason.  As a rule, large-scale disasters present significant issues when it comes to disbursement of relief aid to those who need it most.  That, coupled with Haiti’s lack of infrastructure and capacity, and you have another disaster in the making.  When the earthquake hit, Haiti wasn’t starting from zero, but from -10.

And so it is, unfortunately, with too many of our nonprofit organizations that provide critical social services to communities right here in America.  These groups often are undercapitalized and operating on a shoestring.  In some cases, infrastructure is so weak that it takes only the failure to secure one small grant to send the organization into a tailspin.  Conversely, too large of a grant can cause just as much chaos.  It’s an issue of capacity, not of ability.

The issues facing Haiti today have much to do with the country’s capacity to govern and effectively involve its people to rebuild their country.  Their capacity has been limited by decades of corruption, huge disparities in wealth and nonexistent investment in the country’s infrastructure.  So, one year after the earthquake, there are still close to a million people who are displaced without permanent housing.  Less than 5% of the rubble has been cleared, and the lack of the very basics of human existence, such as clean water and sanitation facilities, has led to a cholera epidemic that so far has killed more than 3,600 people.  The inequities that plagued Haiti before the earthquake were well known and documented, but little investment was made to “right the ship.”  Now the issues have been magnified and will require a significantly larger investment for a significantly longer period of time.

Building capacity in a time of crisis is far harder than making the investment over time to strengthen the systems and processes that allow organizations (and, in Haiti’s instance an entire country) to function.  In terms of the nonprofit sector, many organizations receive significant funding to implement and maintain programs while the walls around them crumble, their technology is antiquated, and making payroll is a constant worry.  When crisis occurs, those issues just become more glaring and can cause nonprofit organizations to go over the edge.

Twelve months after the devastating earthquake, the smart minds that were tasked with rebuilding Haiti need to redouble their efforts, put in place the systems and processes that will ensure the dollars contributed will be spent on relief and rebuilding, secure the unpaid commitments that were promised a year ago, and involve the Haitian people in their country’s rebuilding. 

Just as we can’t give up on Haiti, we can’t turn a blind eye to the infrastructure issues facing our own nonprofits.  We must invest in the capacity of organizations that have the ability to deliver and help create desirable communities, and we must make those investments early and often.

Learn more about The Community Foundation’s capacity-building work HERE.

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