No business for amateur philanthropists: Part 3, abuse

November 21, 2012 | Celebrities, Charities, Development, Disaster relief, Haiti, Housing, Nonprofits, Theory, Urban renewal, Wyclef Jean, Yele

[Continued from yesterday’s Part 2 and the preceding Part 1.]


By:David A. Smith


Now, after two days of demolishing the reputation of Wyclef Jean’s charity, Yele, using evidence presented in an exhaustive article in New York Times (October 11, 2012), the Times reporter settles down to presenting the material for a corruption indictment:


There were questionable contracts, too.


When it comes to celebrity charities, there nearly always are. (Sean Penn’s Haiti charity work appears to be the remarkable and laudable exception.)


I’m sorry we got got


Mr. Jean’s brother-in-law, Eric Warnel Pierre, collected about $630,000 for three projects including the medical center and the plaza — what Yele’s tax forms called “the rebuilding of Haiti.” Mr. Pierre did not respond to messages left for him.


Typical of the risks run by an impatient and under-organized charity overly eager to make a splash:


In its relief operation, Yele operated outside the coordination system set up by other nongovernment groups; it did not want to be burdened by rules and meetings, said Hugh Locke, a Yele co-founded, in a 2010 interview.


Rules are for others; so is financial accountability


I have heard Haiti described as the Republic of NGOs (Non-Governmental Organizations, meaning mostly charities), and have read that at one point over 10,000 such entities were jostling for space and relief work.


Other organizations focused on providing concrete services like sanitation or health care.  Yele chose to work more broadly than deeply. It supplied food, water and supplies to what it said were dozens of tent camps.


Handout programs are easy – just throw money, click pictures, win the news cycle, and go.  They also pass so much money, so swiftly, that it’s all too easy for posse members and others to skim a dollop out of the stream on its way by, as illustrated by this sequence:


A Miami company called Amisphere Farm Labor, incorporated in 2008 and dissolved in 2009, received $1 million in 2010 to provide hot meals to displaced Haitians.


Already that’s suspicious, a company receiving money after its dissolution (and during Mr. Jean’s Presidential-campaign year) – and that’s only the beginning.


A week after the earthquake, Lusmene Bien-Aime was recovering in the Dominican Republic from the broken leg she suffered when her hotel, the Flamboyant, collapsed. King Kino, a well-known Haitian musician and a friend of Mr. Jean’s, proposed that she return to Haiti to prepare meals for Yele, they both said. She and Mr. Jean sealed the deal on the phone, they said, and she hobbled from bed with her leg in a cast and crossed back into Haiti.


No signed contract, naturally.


King Kino said he asked Amsterly Pierre, the president of Amisphere, to oversee the food operation. But Ms. Bien-Aime said in an interview that she had never heard of Amisphere or of Mr. Pierre, a former licensed barber in Florida who runs a transportation business in Haiti. She said that two weeks after the disaster, she provided 8,000 containers of meat, rice and salad and Mr. Jean, cameras in tow, distributed them to earthquake victims.


There’s the photo-op, the news story, which evidently was the only observable performance that mattered to Yele.


Julie Schindall, then spokeswoman for Oxfam America, called it a “dump and run strategy.”


Seldom a good idea under any circumstances


All told, Ms. Bien-Aime said, she was owed for 810,000 meals at $10 a plate and was paid, in cash, less than half that.


Naturally there is no evidence whatever of how many meals were served, what went into them, what the contract terms were, if there was a written contract at all, and if so whether it was with Yele or with the disappearing Amisphere.  Somebody’s being scammed.  Maybe everyone involved was scamming everyone else.


King Kino said she had overcharged, “taking advantage of the emergency.”  Yele, though, agreed to pay Amisphere $10 a plate, according to a contract that was, curiously, signed a year after the meals program ended.


Even making allowance for a price spike immediately after the earthquake, $10 is a sky-high price for meals in bulk. In any case, Ms. Bien-Aime then sued Yele, apparently without producing any contract:


For her part, Ms. Bien-Aime said: “I fulfilled my end of the deal, and I don’t know why they won’t fulfill theirs. Wyclef raised millions and millions of dollars. Where is the money?”


Lost along the way, to all of the hands through which it passed, is by far the simplest and most likely explanation. The Times then offers two more stories of aid to orphanages where Yele is at best shortsighted and at worst completely wasteful:


While Yele describes its support of the Jean et Marie Orphanage as one of its most significant accomplishments, the help provided was not really what the orphanage wanted, its director says.

After the orphanage was flattened by the earthquake, another group, the Global Orphan Project, quickly replaced it with a simple concrete structure. The day that the children moved back in, a Yele team stumbled upon them, the director, Diaoly Estime, said.


At the Jean et Marie orphanage that Yele took under wing, boys watch TV in a wing that another charity rebuilt.


 “They offered to rebuild the orphanage and I said it was already rebuilt but we needed help to survive,” she said. “They started giving us $3,000 a month for food. Also, Mr. Clef’s wife came with a soccer star and police officers and journalists and gave the children presents.”


They also apparently asked the orphanage to rename itself after Mr. Jean and his wife, co-opting these children for his marketing.


Then in the summer of 2010, Yele cut off the stipend entirely, for a while sending the orphanage a weekly basket of vegetables and rice instead. The children were always hungry and crying, said the Rev. Jean Claude Dorcelly, whose Haitian-American Rock Apostolic Church in Spring Valley, NY, began scraping together money to help.


At the same time, Yele pushed forward with its building plan. Mr. Jean’s brother-in-law got a $154,000 contract to construct a second floor atop the dormitory and a second building with a cafeteria and classrooms.


At the Jean et Marie orphanage,  Diaoly Estime, the director, said she felt abandoned by Yele, which built a dormitory wing that does not have enough beds for the children, a cafeteria that does not have food to cook and classrooms though there is no money to pay teachers.


Pastor Dorcelly said they were grateful. “But it is an incomplete gift,” he said. “They have a new dormitory but they only have beds for half the kids. They have classrooms but no money to pay teachers. They have a cafeteria but no money to buy food.”


No evident corruption, just no evident concept.


Oh, I have a concept, all right


The vegetables came through another Yele program that ended abruptly. A peasant farmers’ collective was paid $600,000 to provide weekly deliveries of produce for a year to what the charity’s Web site identifies as 35 orphanages.


Asked for a list of the beneficiaries, the Rev. Occide Cico Jean, who runs the collective, provided one with 19 orphanages. Nine were visited or reached by phone. Only four said they had received weekly baskets for a full year. One, Village of Hope, which has 29 severely disabled children, who were being fed gruel for supper during a recent visit, said it had never received a single basket.


These stories are the more heartbreaking because the corruption and theft has interposed itself between altruistic donors and desperately needy recipients.  The intermediaries are stealing from the most deserving.  It makes one wish for damnation so that they could be condemned to it.


Derek Q. Johnson, then the chief executive of Yele, was skeptical of the program and canceled it.


My respect for Mr. Johnson rises.  He smelled fraud and he cut off the funding.


The Rev. Jean, in protest, sent an angry e-mail to Yele: “Are we Haitians, once again, going to show ourselves incapable of carrying a project to conclusion?” he asked. “Are we going to do this Haitian-style — ‘Wash our hands and dry them in the dirt?’ ”


Beware the outraged email.  Anyone can write an outraged email.


The Rev. Occide  Cico Jean runs a peasant farmers’ collective that was paid $600,000 to provide weekly deliveries of produce for a year to orphanages. The program was suspended by Yele’s chief executive, who was skeptical of its cost and value.


I hate writing these posts, yet it’s necessary if only to document how good intentions are so pathetically short of what it takes to make a non-profit work.


Wyclef Jean’s charity raised millions of dollars, paid maybe half of that to Mr. Jean and his entourage, all doubtless for rendering necessary services, delivered some relief, and leaves a legacy of unbroken failure.  Meanwhile, Mr. Jean himself has turned his back on those who trusted him, touting his self-edited life story, refusing to make restitution (see Part 1), and obfuscating his culpability:


On Thursday, Mr. Jean’s spokeswoman said he and his lawyers “are working assiduously to resolve any pending issues with respect to Yele prior to its closing as Mr. Jean continues his tireless commitment to his beloved country.”  


How tiring is self-promotion, Mr. Jean?


The leader of a tent camp outside Port-au-Prince, initially taken under wing by Yele, said the camp had not seen any sign of the charity since the summer of 2010.