You call it Philanthropy, we call it ‘Devlopman Tèt Ansanm’

This is the second article in a global series about philanthropic responses to COVID-19 and its effects, which was produced in partnership with The Alliance Magazine. This was part of the SIX Funders Node Year on Power programme.

Marie-Rose Romain Murphy, the Co-founder of Haiti Community Foundation, continues the series.

‘We do not learn from experience…We learn from reflecting on experience.’ – John Dewey said. In the aftermath of the 2010 Haiti Earthquake, armed with a lot of hope and an all-consuming desire for structural change, I initiated the launching of the Haiti Community Foundation Initiative with the engagement and support of a wide range of local and international stakeholders. Over the past four years, I have been reflecting on this incredible journey and its lessons through various writings and presentations that this article draws from.

Before I share some of these lessons, I will confess that I hesitated to identify myself as the lead founder of the Haiti Community Foundation (HCF) as we women are conditioned not to take credit for our accomplishments (HBR 2004). For women of color like myself, this socio-cultural tendency is even more pronounced as we are expected to ‘know our place’ (which is usually in the shadow and at the end of the line). As an independent thinker and a seasoned professional woman, the very fact that I hesitated appalls me as it is an indication of that the real social pressure that women and especially women of color face to abstain from publicly identifying the contributions we make to societies that negate our intrinsic value.

I also matter and the Haiti Community Foundation matters for what we symbolise. I symbolise Global South leaders and Black Indigenous People of Color (BIPOC) leaders whose work is systematically under-supported by philanthropy, even though it is essential for the advent of structural social change and social justice. The Haiti Community Foundation symbolises the myriad of undercapitalized Global South community foundations fighting to help communities to lead themselves, as well as Global South local and national organisations that somehow command less than 2per cent of development and humanitarian sectors’ funding.

Covid-19 has exposed the stark reality of the inequality of our societies and of our global network. There is no doubt that the historic long-standing marginalisation of Global South leaders and BIPOC leaders and communities is a key root cause of this pervasive and deeply harmful inequality.

Lesson 1: ‘impossible’ is always a relative term
Nelson Mandela once said: ‘It always seems impossible until it’s done.’ The story of the Haiti Community Foundation is a story of the impossible made possible thanks to the power of deep abiding love for Haiti, the power of shared vision and the power of community leadership and global solidarity. It all began after a life altering disaster…

  • The 12th January 2010 Haiti earthquake killed 300,000 people and made 1.5 million individuals homeless.
  • In the same year, Hurricane Thomas wiped out crops and created a hunger crisis.
  • Also, foreign troops brought us cholera which killed thousands.

Haitians everywhere suffered what can only be described as a collective trauma. Our pain was evident for anyone and everyone who looked. We also somehow thought that perhaps, there was hope, and a chance to rebuild better. Ideas percolated. Then reality set in as: only 0.6per cent of Haiti’s 10 billion dollars in public-private funding went directly to Haiti’s businesses and organisations (based on a study by the Center for Global Development). 0.6per cent!

The writing was on the wall. It happened: community marginalisation, increased dependency on foreign aid, the lack of national and international accountability.

The building of a bottom-up ‘Haiti-based, Haiti-led, community centered community foundation for Haiti’ was necessary. In fact, many of us realised that had we had a strong community foundation before the earthquake, it could have perhaps prevented not just the systematic robbery of our country’s funds, but also the crushing of our people’s hopes and dreams.

When no one seemed interested in setting up a community foundation for Haiti, a small group of Haitian activists (Caroline Hudicourt, François Chavenet, Tanguy Armand, Joyce Mathon Trotman and I – among others) supported by individual donors funders and ‘believers’ rallied around the Community Foundation Initiative idea (including ESPWA, the GFCFInter-American FoundationPuerto Rico Community FoundationW.K. Kellogg Foundation and so many others along the way, like the Kenya Community Development Foundation and community foundations from Nebraska, Mexico, Brazil, Ottawa, Montreal – not to mention Community Foundations of CanadaBoston FoundationNEAR Network). I remember speaking with Jenny Hodgson, GFCF Executive Director, for an hour a year after the earthquake in January 2011 and her saying: ‘Marie-Rose, we cannot not do it!’ Our story resonated and many responded in the name of justice and solidarity.

From then to now
We began a journey WITH our communities to seek answers that we didn’t have. We asked the community at every step of the way. Never assuming, never just telling them that ‘we were coming.’ They were and are the experts. It’s their community. They know best.

Our regional planning process that lasted two and a half years and engaged hundreds of Haitian leaders from all sectors has constructed a community leadership infrastructure which is 600 members strong.

Working with small community groups through highly participatory grant making process and programs, we have helped over 80,000 community members after Hurricane Matthew and through a health education campaign geared towards the prevention of the spread of Covid-19 in rural communities in Haiti. We are now in the process of launching more grant making programs while we work on solidifying our organisational capacity and long-term sustainability. Within the next two years, we plan to work in another region and also expand our national philanthropy work… We are still making the impossible possible.

Despite what the status quo would have us believe, we must remember the temporal relativity of the concept of impossibility when we seek to bring about structural change. Institutions that were well entrenched within our societies only decades ago such as slavery, apartheid and the disenfranchisement of women and people of color in the United States were once thought of as impossible to change.

Lesson 2: Don’t just think out of the box, be open to ‘new boxes’
‘The electric light did not come from the continuous improvement of candle.’ Oren Harari said. Sometimes, it is not enough to ‘improve systems’. Sometimes, it’s necessary to reinvent them.

Developing HCF’s structure and its intervention formula took a thorough process that was only supported by a small group of funders, and misunderstood by most others. One U.S. funder told me years ago: ‘People are wondering what you are doing Marie-Rose. Usually, you find the money and then you go to the community.’ Many funders pay lip service to embracing community-led organisations and bottom-up processes, few actually support them. This must change for transformative change to occur. Progressive funders also have their own limiting ‘boxes’.

Community foundations are relatively new entities for the Global South while they have existed in Global North spaces for decades and in some instances for more than a century. Many Global South Community Foundations succeeded thanks to the support of large funders such as the Ford Foundation, the Charles Stewart Mott Foundation and the Aga Khan Foundation and the Inter-American Foundation. In many instances, a consultant supported by these foundations worked with community groups on the development of their community foundations.

In the case of the Haiti Community Foundation, we initiated the process through ESPWA, Inc. a transnational organization focusing on the long-term development of civil society in Haiti.  Funders questioned this process because of it was ‘different’. It is critical that funders be open to new models. WAlso, we unapologetically stand at the crossroads of community philanthropy, humanitarian and development sectors as our focus is not ‘fitting into’ a specific silo/box but more on meeting our country and community needs.

Global North models cannot be successful if they are not properly and thoroughly retrofitted into the substance and reality of Global South countries. This process needs to be embraced and supported not just with words of encouragement but with tangible financial support and resources.

Haiti, like other Global South countries has deep traditions of philanthropy: from what we call Konbit which is a community volunteer aid custom; to a strong entraide system where people help each other. The Global North philanthropy and nonprofit sector that has benefited from extensive long-term public-private investments is not a structure that Haiti possesses. There are many family and company philanthropic foundations but together, they constitute nothing as strong of a sector as their Global North equivalent. Developing the philanthropic sector in Haiti and other Global South countries will take time, energy and deliberate support as the country’s development, humanitarian and philanthropic sectors have long been dominated by international institutions.

Lesson 3: Invest in reinforcing community ecosystems and leadership
Haiti is a country that has been in crisis for decades. When we started the Haiti Community Foundation Initiative, we decided to focus on a comprehensive community-led regional process in our pilot region and to ignore the pressing urgent needs that are always present. One of our network members once said that ‘Haiti is a country of projects. You cannot build a nation with projects’.

The short-term approach of the aid system is stunting our growth and undermining our long-term development. I once questioned a funder who funded grassroots groups and encouraged them to ignore ‘those elite people’.  ‘What happens when you leave?’ I said.   ‘Where are these groups going to find support? This is divisive and doesn’t help build linkages and bridges within our already divided society.’

From day one, the Haiti Community Foundation was determined to bring a wide diversity of stakeholders to the table. We knew that Haiti needed an inclusive development formula. A society is only as strong of its networks. Like many fragile states, Haiti’s society is fragmented and its frayed social fabric requires mending and healing. Complex problems require comprehensive solutions and long-term investment. There are no shortcuts!

Lessons 4: Cultural competency is everything! Fund local organisations and support community foundations rooted in local contexts
There are several parts to this lesson. The need for, the complexity and nuances of the nature of ‘cultural competency’ should be addressed.

Part one: the title of this article refers to how our group translated the word philanthropy in Haitian Creole. The Haiti Community Foundation was once a demonstration program of the Global Alliance for Community Philanthropy (GACP) which had produced a brochure about the global community philanthropy movement. The Charles Stewart Mott Foundation provided us funding to translate the brochure in Haitian Creole. We paid a well-known translator but decided to review the translation.

Wisly Jasmin, one of our Regional Leaders who worked with a ROPAGA, a network of 68 local farmer associations identified the fact that Creole-only speakers would not understand certain terms; ‘philanthropy’ being one of them-a reality that underscores the fact that French is very much a second or foreign language for the majority of Haitians. It took us three weeks of frequent discussions to come up with a Creole version that was accessible to all. Devlopman Tèt Ansanm/ ‘Development conducted with our heads together’ is as close as we could come to our concept of philanthropy. We also paired it with the word philanthropy to introduce and propagate the term. If as an organisation, we had not had a culturally competent network or a thoughtful and inclusive approach to community organising, this translation would have been a waste of resources and a missed opportunity as residents of Haitian rural communities would not have understood this introduction to community philanthropy. Language matters.

Part two, if this is not significant enough, I should mention the regional planning process that was led by the Regional Planning Committee and was successful thanks to their intimate knowledge of and their networks within local communities. It also succeeded because regional leaders understood that small village leaders ‘knew best’. They learned from them and followed their lead. Lessons: there are many layers to ‘local’ and openness and humility are essential ingredients of the brand of leadership that can bring about deep social change.

Once again, we had been told that this would be impossible as three previous attempts of this kind had failed. The regional planning meeting that completed our two and a half year planning process included over sixty-five community leaders from all sectors including nine out the region’s twelve Mayors.

The Haiti Community Foundation’s comprehensive, inclusive and bottom-up community planning process generated unprecedented community response, support and engagement because of its passionate emphasis on, and its deep investment in, the power of local communities and their leaders. In so many ways, our work has unleashed visceral enthusiasm and commitment because it has been about: building trust and confidence; connecting leaders within communities; connecting communities to other communities; urging local leaders to trust themselves again, and to take action.

In brief, our work has been impactful because it has leveraged Haitian communities’ yearning for a vision that includes them. Our work has been transformative because it has been relentlessly reconstructing hope. Local leadership matters.

Part three, cultural competency is linked to effectiveness and long-term sustainability. I recently co-authored an article with Degan Ali, CEO of ADESO and Founder of the NEAR Network where we stated the following: ‘If the goal of aid is about ending aid, then INGOs should have an exit plan and develop new metrics of success for their organisations that are centered around devolving power, money and voice to local communities, organisations and movements.’ Lesson: if the goal of philanthropic institutions and donors around the world is to support structural change and self-sufficiency, they need to fund local and culturally competent organisations and community foundations that are at the frontline of social change.

I will end with a quote from Vu’s blog: ‘Let’s think of BIPOC leaders as suns providing energy, light, and warmth for myriad of things to grow and communities to thrive. We need their visions to be the fuel for realising a just society and a sustainable world. For that to happen, we need you to invest differently.’

Marie-Rose Romain Murphy is the Co-founder of Haiti Community Foundation, President of RMC-Romain Murphy Consulting and founder of ESPWA