Joseph Odelyn/AP
A police officer tries to bring order as earthquake survivors scramble for a handout of rice at a food distribution site in Les Cayes, Haiti, on Aug. 16.

How to help Haiti? Ask its citizens.

Solutions will take money, yes, but also time, patience, and a willingness to recognize the agency and expertise of the Haitian community.

The timing could not have been worse. Just five weeks after the assassination of President Jovenel Moïse plunged Haiti into political chaos, a 7.2 magnitude earthquake ripped through the nation’s rural southwest coast, buckling roads, leveling tens of thousands of homes, and reducing already flimsy infrastructure to rubble. Residents and aid workers were still taking stock of the loss of life – more than 2,000 people, as of this writing – when a tropical storm descended upon the region.

The Aug. 14 quake drew a familiar spotlight to a beleaguered Haiti. Nothing snaps the world to attention like a natural disaster. Haiti has been here before. In 2010, when a similar magnitude quake struck the capital city of Port-au-Prince, the entire globe, it seemed, reached out to help. 

“Watching the world respond to Haiti in the immediate aftermath [of the 2010 earthquake] was incredibly gratifying,” says Kathie Klarreich, a journalist who lived in Haiti for two decades. “It felt like this was their opportunity – finally – to capture the world’s attention.”

In all, the international community pledged $5.3 billion in aid with promises to work with people on the ground to rebuild. It was all part of a familiar script that plays out in response to acute emergencies only to peter out before ever reaching the final act. Within two years, just half of the funds had been delivered, but the world’s attention had long since moved on. Haiti was back where it started – alone in the dark.

In the intervening years, much of the news out of Haiti has centered around misappropriation of donated funds.

The international community has “a fair amount of hubris when it comes to intervening in other countries and thinking we know what’s best for them,” says Robert Maguire, a retired international affairs professor who has spent decades studying Haiti, first with the Inter-American Foundation and then as an academic. “We don’t have a very good track record in listening to the people in these places and hearing what they are telling us.”

That leaves many onlookers wondering how they can help. The urge to assist is admirable, and support is most definitely needed. But, when it comes to Haiti, there are no easy answers.

“If you are an American who wants to open your wallet, my suggestion is to resist that temptation for the moment,” says Professor Maguire. “The look for quick results has really gotten in the way of the longer, slower work of helping to reinforce and create institutions.”

Emergency response is already on the way, adds Ms. Klarreich. “The big-deal organizations can fly in the helicopters. But what are they going to do for housing? What are they going to do for hospitals and schools?”

These long-term questions won’t be answered in the aftermath of any disaster. The solutions will take money, yes, but also time, patience, and a willingness to recognize the agency and expertise of the Haitian community. “There are people in Haiti who are begging to be listened to,” Professor Maguire says.

Those voices are a source of hope for Ms. Klarreich.

“The same people who survived and rebuilt after 2010,” she says, “they are still there. Despite all, this country is still there. The honest, hardworking humanitarians who live there will surface. They’ll have to fight a little bit harder, but they’ll go on. In that sense there is always going to be hope.”

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