Thursday, June 23, 2011

Seeking relief: Business-led Haiti-aid group shuts down

Published in the Portland Phoenix

What happens when lawyers, public-relations experts, bankers and accountants, construction contractors, insurance brokers, and manufacturers join forces to get involved in emergency disaster relief in one of the most underdeveloped countries in the Western Hemisphere?
Much less than they hoped, it turns out. The brainchild of Darcy Pierce, a Scarborough-based independent consultant specializing in linking businesses with developing countries, MaineLine Haiti was a non-profit intending to make "a direct, specific difference" in Haitians' lives in the wake of a devastating January 2010 earthquake. The group is dissolving after just 18 months in operation, with no on-the-ground achievements, and is turning over its remaining assets to Portland-based Haiti-aid group Konbit Sante.
From the beginning, Pierce won backing from some of Maine's most reputable companies (including Preti Flaherty, Unum, Reed and Reed, and CD&M Communications) and parlayed that into glowing prognostications (10 schools built by "mid-2011") and fawning interviews in the Portland Press Herald and on several local TV stations. For this story, Pierce repeatedly declined to answer questions, referring thePortland Phoenix to attorney Susan LoGuidice of Preti Flaherty, who also serves on MaineLine's board of directors.
LoGuidice says the businesses "went in trying to do a good thing," but it didn't work out the way they wanted. A key pitfall was that MaineLine Haiti's decision to partner with a non-profit called Samaritan's Purse turned out badly.
In mid-2010 that group, run by Franklin Graham (son of evangelist Billy Graham) and focused on building schools, became the target of allegations that it was inappropriately spending federal disaster-relief grants on evangelical Christian missionary efforts. While Graham and Samaritan's Purse denied any wrongdoing, MaineLine ended the partnership because, LoGuidice says, MaineLine members were uneasy about the organization.
MaineLine, which had raised a total of $62,645 in cash (in addition to unquantified in-kind donations), including $28,500 contributed by the founding businesses, discovered that finding another partner proved difficult, she says.
After paying Pierce a consulting fee for "a number of months," and covering the costs of his two trips to Haiti, MaineLine's backers cut costs — telling Pierce they couldn't afford to pay him anymore (Pierce volunteered thereafter, LoGuidice says) — and looked for a less direct way to help.
"We found a high-quality institution . . . right in our back yard," LoGuidice says, referring to Konbit Sante, which has been helping Haitians improve their health care for 11 years. Pierce had met with the group in Haiti in April 2010, according to his Twitter feed; a tweet called them "great people doing great work." MaineLine decided to give them what remained of its money — around $30,000, LoGuidice says.
Nate Nickerson, Konbit Sante's executive director, says he understands what happened to MaineLine, because working in Haiti is unlike development work elsewhere in the world. "Some of the issues are the same, but the context is different," he says. In a country where more non-governmental organizations are at work than anywhere else on the planet, the people still live in grinding poverty because of a lack of coordination among all those seeking to help, Nickerson says.
Frustration and ultimately stalemate "was the experience of lots of groups that came in" after the earthquake, Nickerson says. His group doesn't have those sorts of problems because it has been working in Haiti since 2000. "We have the relationships in the community," he says, including 33 Haitian staff, an office in the largest hospital in the region that Konbit Sante serves, and a partnership with a group of Haitian medical professionals.
It's through that latter group that Konbit Sante will use the money donated by MaineLine Haiti, Nickerson says. While the deadly cholera epidemic that followed the quake continues — and is on the rise because it is the rainy season in Haiti — funding is dropping because emergency aid is running out. Konbit Sante will teach people how to protect themselves, including clean sanitation practices and water-treatment processing.
While Nickerson says Konbit Sante would welcome the opportunity to partner with any of MaineLine's former sponsors, LoGuidice says "it's too soon to tell" if that will happen. "We're taking a little breather."