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Haiti: A Philosophical and Funding Dilemma

An interagency skirmish over how to spend the $8 million sent by Christian Reformed churches for Haiti reveals just how complicated it is to mesh the work of long-term development with the rapid pace of disaster relief.

It also reveals the setting the Christian Reformed World Relief Committee must operate in as an agency representing the church and faith community in a world of large secular relief and government organizations.

The March Banner editorial (“Taking the Long View in Haiti and Elsewhere”) noted that because the CRC has had staff in Haiti for the past 35 years, it was uniquely positioned to provide immediate help after the Jan. 12, 2010, earthquake, when larger relief organizations found themselves gridlocked at a defunct airport.

Personnel from Christian Reformed World Missions, Back to God Ministries International, and CRWRC knew how and where to bring in supplies and distribute them efficiently, despite a collapsed infrastructure.

When their supporting churches asked “What can we do?” the personnel requested donations to CRWRC for Haiti relief.

That seemed to make sense. In Haiti there is no distinction between the agencies. They work as a single entity called Sous Espwa (Creole for “Source of Hope”). And they believed money sent to CRWRC for Haiti would be available to them as that single entity, regardless of their sending agency.

But as the money poured in, CRWRC’s International Disaster Response team set its sights on working in the hard-hit Leogane region. The Sous Espwa staff back in Port au Prince discovered that getting money to help their longtime ministry partners was initially like getting blood from a stone.

Wayne DeJong, director of CRWRC’s International Disaster Response, explained: “Some of [Sous Espwa’s] work was disaster response, but they have to continue with their activities and we had made a commitment to spend our money in Leogane.”

Sous Espwa said, in effect: “Helping our partners that do long-term development is disaster relief. Their homes are gone, their family members are dead, and many have no food.”

There was no ill will on anyone’s part. Rather, it was a matter of two different approaches to the work. As DeJong noted, in community development you build capacity, taking a long-term view. But when there’s a disaster-relief project that needs to go quickly, it takes a different management style requiring speed, accountability, reporting, and evaluation because you’re dealing with a lot of money in a short amount of time.

Eventually Sous Espwa received a one-time grant of $250,000 for its partner ministries. In addition, a grant-writing and approval process was put in place whereby Sous Espwa can apply for funds from CRWRC’s Disaster Response for specific projects.

“We appreciate that the grant process forces us to develop better projects, but it takes so long,” said Rev. Zachary King of Sous Espwa.

Coworker Lesley Millar Toussant is less patient. “A scrutiny is being applied to us that’s not fair. We’re [also] an agency of the CRC, and you’d think they would have confidence in our standards and the way we do our work,” she said.

The grant-writing process was new to Sous Espwa and was taking up too much staff time. So CRWRC used some Disaster Response money to hire José Magloire-van der Vossen in Port au Prince to help Sous Espwa and its partners write proposals.

Linda Dykstra in CRWRC’s Burlington, Ontario, office reviews the grant proposals before passing them on to a regional review team for consideration.

Grants are beginning to be approved, and the money is starting to flow.

Philosophical Dilemma

A deeper issue may be that CRWRC must balance the requirements of governments and secular organizations that give money with certain strings attached, while remaining faithful to the supporting church that expects that the relief being given is done in Jesus’ name.

As DeJong explained, “We subscribe to a number of humanitarian standards. One thing all have in common is that disaster response should not be used as a vehicle for faith outreach, and faith or religion should not be a condition of beneficiary selection.”

Howard Van Dam from Sous Espwa said, “I think [government and secular organizations] thought we were going to cherry-pick Christians and churches. Yes, we wanted to be able to help our [Christian] partners?so they could effectively respond to the needs of the larger community.”

King, who works for World Missions, said it’s a difference in philosophy that centers on proselytizing or evangelizing.

“Proselytizing is anathema for relief projects,” he said. “We had no intention of designing projects that would make the receiving of aid dependent on making a faith commitment. But at the same time we are open and excited to help believers use the resources of their faith to help them heal. We don’t want to mix proselytizing with relief, but we want faith to have a place in relief.”

For Van Dam the bigger issue is that CRWRC gets some of its funding from secular sources.

“In my mind, they still have a catch-22,” he said. “They represent the church, but at the same time have become partners with groups with other values. I think they are trying to appease both groups.”

DeJong sees no such dilemma. “We’re free to share when asked to tell why we’re doing this,” he said. “But whether it’s food or shelter, it’s not a vehicle for converting people. We don’t spend money on proselytizing.”

About the Author

Gayla Postma is news editor for The Banner.

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