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Doing ‘Tet Anba’ Philanthropy in Haiti

August 2014

Haiti is a place where you can fall “upside down” in love with the Haitian people and culture. It is also the place where everything you knew before – including about philanthropy and development – can get turned on its head. In fact, Haitians have a phrase for that: “Tet Anba,” literally “head below,” or “upside down head.”

That’s what happened to me and my husband Jim over the last five years. Before the earthquake struck, we knew very, very little about this country, except for what we had read in the life-changing book Mountains Beyond Mountains, about the founding of Partners in Health in Haiti.

40 hours after the earthquake, on a sleep-deprived impulse – and after visiting and working in Haiti in the months prior to the earthquake – we launched the Haiti Fund in partnership with the Boston Foundation, where we already had a donor advised fund. We had seen on the news the intense suffering not only on the island, but in Boston, which we learned, for the first time, had the third largest Haitian community in the US.

The Haiti Fund turned the Boston Foundation completely “Tet Anba.” It had never had an international initiative before. Every employee was engaged at full-tilt to raise funds to match a million dollar challenge grant in a month.

When we launched the Haiti Fund we had only this simple framework:

  • 1/4 of the money would be spent immediately to save lives in Haiti and support Haitians in Boston reeling from the earthquake.
  • 3/4 would be spent on long-term reconstruction and defending human rights in Haiti.

The only problem was: I didn’t know a single Haitian in the Boston area. I didn’t know that Haiti was the first free black nation. I didn’t know most Haitians spoke Creole. I did know that Haiti had suffered under brutal dictators, had had a leftist Priest-President, and I had suspected that the US had meddled in Haiti to protect its business interests. Beyond that, I had everything to learn about Haiti.

To compensate for my ignorance, I thought I knew a few things about international philanthropy — but Haiti turned those things “Tet Anba,” too.

After more than a decade of making international grants, plus completing a course on strategic philanthropy two years earlier, I knew how to identify a problem and develop a theory of change to solve it. I knew how to review a proposal and deploy money to make things happen. But I sure didn’t know much about how to choose in an instant the best organizations to save lives during a disaster or how to change centuries of deep-rooted oppression in Haiti.

And at the time I didn’t know of other Boston-area funders working in Haiti for many years, including Grassroots International, which I came to realize, represents the values we hope our philanthropy embodies, including partnership, solidarity and deep respect for local culture and local leaders. I have personally and proudly funded Grassroots for three years, and the Haiti Fund has also support Grassroots’ program in Haiti where the congruence of our philosophies of grassroots empowerment and Haiti-led development mesh seamlessly.

The lessons I have learned from my wise Haitian American colleagues and from passionate, Haiti activists and funders have turned my preconceived notions about international philanthropy “Tet Anba.” I will share with you just three of many lessons.  

1. Focus on partners, not plans.

In “strategic philanthropy,” we (generally outsiders) articulate a problem as we see it. We create an “if-then” equation to solve it: “If we target money here, change will happen there.” We find “thought leaders” and practitioners with solutions on our pre-charted path and we fund them. If we meet our shared goals, we all feel really good about ourselves.

In the “Tet Anba Philanthropy” I have come to embrace, we funders don’t have all the answers. We seek partners who have lived the problems, and try to look at life through their lenses. In “Tet Anba Philanthropy,” we practice subjectivity, rather than false objectivity, acknowledging that money is power and is never neutral. “Tet Anba Philanthropy” takes sides to empower rather than serve the people.  

For several weeks after the earthquake we held public events to which hundreds of Haitians came. They kept saying that no one was asking them for their help or their opinions – even though Haiti was their homeland and they often supported family there. So we decided we would ask Haitians in Boston to lead… And that’s when the learning really started.

The bottom line: we didn’t start with a plan for Haiti’s reconstruction. We didn’t start with certain NGOs, sectors or geographies. We just created a space for Haitians to examine their own realities and work together to set their own collective agenda. This was revolutionary for a people for whom sovereignty — independent decision making, unobstructed by foreign powers — has always been so elusive. Simply being heard in Haiti, can be a “Tet Anba” experience.  

2. The second “Tet Anba” lesson is closely related to the first: Focus on empowerment, not impact.

So much of the discourse in philanthropy today is about how to ensure the broadest and most measurable impact with our limited dollars. I find “impact” to be an aggressive term. It is about what “we” do to “someone or something” else. It is about the size of the indelible crater we leave after we funders have moved on.  

After my Haiti Fund years, I care far less about measurable impact and much more about signs of empowerment. Have our grants helped Haitians find their own voices? Have we enabled and ennobled grassroots leaders — too long dismissed by elites, politicians and foreign interests — to articulate their own visions and celebrate their own collective assets? Have we held these leaders and their organizations to the highest standards of ethics, professionalism, and practice — and given them the tools, training and trust needed to achieve their greatest aspirations for themselves and their communities?  

The real impact of this kind of philanthropy is evidenced by whether we have left Haitian organizations prouder and more powerful to work things out together — to improve their communities and society — over the very, very long haul, long after we funders have gone home and stopped measuring.

3. The third “Tet Anba” lesson is this: Focus on depth, not breadth.

I have learned to peel off the layers of the onion in a local context instead of trying to go quickly to scale – because poverty is undeniably multi-layered. It’s not just about lack of income, lack of infrastructure, lack of education, lack of health care, or lack of any particular resource. Poverty may also be perpetuated by entrenched social norms, by structural and internalized oppression, by lack of a political voice or right to hold one’s government accountable. I have seen that all of these layers must be addressed for an individual or a community to move forward. Our goal is not the number of lives touched or specific behaviors changed, but the number of communities transformed – and that requires digging deep into the spiritual, intellectual, social, economic, and physical ecosystems which shape individuals.

Many times we have chosen to fund one-off projects and small enterprises, rather than systemic solutions, because Haiti at this time is so fractured. It has a national curriculum, but not a national education system; it has a national teaching hospital, but not an integrated national health care system; it has a national Parliament, but no municipal elections. So, while it would in some ways be ideal to propel change on a large scale, that is not so realistic in Haiti. In the absence of ample opportunities for large-scale systems change, I have learned that changing realities for one child, one family, one school, one commune or one group of 100 women, is deeply gratifying. Each time we do so, we announce that a new Haiti is possible, if we practice “Tet Anba Philanthropy.”

When you turn the power dynamics in philanthropy upside down, when your “head is underneath,” you can see the day to day needs and dreams of grassroots Haitians all the more clearly.

Karen Keating Ansara is co-chair a newly established Advisory Board for the Institute for Justice and Democracy in Haiti. In 2008 Karen co-founded New England International Donors (NEID), a network that helps major donors, social investors, grant makers and advisors deepen their engagement and effectiveness in global philanthropy. She received the an inaugural “Community Partnership” award from Grassroots International as part of its 30th anniversary celebration in 2013.


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