Philanthropy and the Haiti Earthquake of 2010

Grade Level: 
6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12
Disaster relief
Emergency Response
Philanthropic giving
Third World
The philanthropic reaction to the Haiti Earthquake of 2010 teaches us that philanthropy can play a major role in disaster response regarding immediate need and development for disaster relief, specifically in a developing nation.

Written by Farah Gerber



Philanthropy is defined by Robert Payton as "voluntary action for the public good." The adjective voluntary means the action is noncompulsory and done of one’s own free will. The term public good refers to "benefiting the wellbeing of the public." This concept encompasses voluntary moral actions that respond to the “human problematic.” Voluntary giving may happen by way of monetary donation, voluntary donation of our time and talent, or voluntary participation in an organized activity (Payton 2008).

Haiti Earthquake of 2010: On January 12, 2010, a powerful earthquake struck 15 miles southwest of Port-au-Prince, Haiti, destroying not only that capital city, which was home to 3 million people, but also towns of Leogane, Gressier, Petit-Goave, Grand Goave, and Jacmel, as well as countless mountain villages. The 35-second tremor devastated the administrative infrastructures of the government, several healthcare-delivery facilities, and many nongovernmental relief agencies. It left more than a million people displaced, more than 300,000 injured, and an estimated 230,000 to 316,000 dead, making it one of the deadliest natural disasters in modern history (Benjamin 2011).

Philanthropy and the Haiti Earthquake of 2010 teaches us that philanthropy can play a major role in disaster response regarding immediate need and development for disaster relief, specifically in a developing nation.


Historic Roots

The current situation in Haiti cannot be understood without the proper historical context. After the success of the Haitian Revolution in 1804, the colonial powers viewed the nation as a threat and proceeded to join forces and end the revolution. Facing extreme isolation and unequipped for global defense, Haiti agreed to take out a loan from the French bank in placement of freedom in the amount of 150,000,000 francs, an equivalent today of $21billion U.S. dollars. This resulted in Haiti becoming the first ‘third world’ nation in the traditional sense, as it was poor and overburdened with debt. Haitian government could not build schools, hospitals, or roads because nearly all of the available money went to pay France. Haiti did not end up paying off this debt until 1947 (Edmonds 2012).

With a history of over a hundred years in debt, and becoming the first developing nation, nearly 80 percent of Haitians live in extreme poverty, and more than half suffer from malnutrition. Unemployment is a staggering 70 percent, and tens of thousands of people die each year from preventable illnesses related to a lack of clean water. Average life expectancy at birth is only 50 years, and one in 16 women faces a lifetime chance of dying during childbirth (Bhattacharjee 2011). Seventy-six per cent of the Haitian population lives on less than $2 a day, and fifty-six per cent on less than $1 (Zanotti 2010).



The Haiti earthquake was the second-most deadly earthquake in the last 100 years, and struck the capital and nerve center of the country in several ways. Much of the capital city including critical government infrastructure was destroyed. Besides leaving over 230,000 dead, including scores of government officials, the earthquake left the government paralyzed and traumatized for several days (Bhattacharjee 2011).

The earthquake devastated Haiti’s frail infrastructure, including housing, public buildings, main roads, and the port and airport of Port-au-Prince. The disaster worsened the already inadequate and inequitable access to basic social services throughout Haiti. It also created a severe lack of safety and security especially for those living in camps, exacerbating the already grave problem of sexual violence that exists in Haitian society. According to the International Labour Organization (ILO) at least 90,000 jobs and 100,000 home-run businesses were lost in the quake, leaving about 1,000,000 people without a source of income (Zanotti 2010).


Ties to the Philanthropic Sector

Before the January 12, 2010 earthquake, Haiti had the most privatized social-service sector in the Americas, with over 80 percent of the country’s basic services provided by non-governmental organizations (NGOs). It is not uncommon for the Haitian people to mockingly refer to their country as the ‘republic of NGOs’. Before the earthquake, there were an estimated 10,000 NGOs operating in Haiti, but since January 12 it has been simply impossible to keep track of the number (Edmonds, 2012). Even before the earthquake, the Haitian state only provided a very thin share of basic services to its people. More than 70 per cent of available health care was provided by NGOs, but 72 percent of the population had no access to health care at all. Eighty-five percent of education was provided by private schools, which were mostly run by NGOs (Zanotti 2010).

With Haiti already having a heavy reliance on foreign aid, philanthropy was key to providing funding and services for disaster relief and development. The “Hope for Haiti Now: A Global Benefit for Earthquake Relief” telethon was the most widely broadcast telethon in history. It was an aestheticized spectacle of celebrities performing emotionally evocative music. After the quake hit, Wyclef Jean, George Clooney, and MTV executives envisioned a telethon to support disaster relief, and the production came together quickly. It effectively took over the media sphere and was aired commercial-free on every major network and cable channel, reaching 640 million households, and on CNN International, reaching 60 million. The telethon raised a record amount of 58 million dollars, through digital technologies. Beneficiaries were all NGO relief organizations: The Red Cross, UNICEF, United Nations World Food Program, Yele Haiti Foundation, Oxfam America, Partners in Health, and the newly formed Clinton Bush Haiti Fund (McAlister 2012).

Upon receiving monetary donations, charities have built almost 9,000 homes, as of 2015, according to figures from Global Shelter Cluster. Global Communities and PCI are building homes and have completed more than 300 homes in the neighborhood of Ravine Pintade. John Wildy Marcelin, a Haitian engineer, says the project has been successful because the majority of the staff and managers are also Haitian, and are passionate about rebuilding their country (Sullivan, 2015). Funding for philanthropy has been key in assisting Haiti with development prior to and post hurricane.

While there were praises to the philanthropic sector for bringing people together to support a cause and for providing necessary services to the people of Haiti, there was a huge backlash in how charitable organizations spent their donation funds. A highly publicized philanthropic failure in Haiti can be seen in the criticized efforts put forth by The American Red Cross. When the earthquake leveled Haiti, millions of people donated to the American Red Cross and the charity raised almost half a billion dollars. NPR and ProPublica went in search of the nearly $500 million and found a string of poorly managed projects, questionable spending and dubious claims of success. While the Red Cross is known as a provider for emergency disaster relief, it has very little experience in rebuilding a developing country. With the funds raised, the organization claimed to have built permanent homes to more than 130,000 people, but the number of homes actually built was six. While the Red Cross has little experience in rebuilding, the organization gave much of the money to other groups to do the hands-on work, resulting in additional fees. With the Red Cross taking customary administrative fees and second party charity fees, the costs totaled a third of all the money that was supposed to help Haitians (Sullivan 2015).


Key Related Ideas

  • Developing Nation is a nation where the average income is much lower than in industrial nations, where the economy relies on a few export crops, and where farming is conducted by primitive methods. In many developing nations, rapid population growth threatens the supply of food. Developing nations have also been called underdeveloped nations. Most of them are in Africa, Asia, and Latin America (
  • Digital Fundraising is simply fundraising using digital technology, which usually means fundraising online. Increasingly, this is done using mobile technology, as more and more people use our smartphones to access the internet (Digital 2017).
  • Disaster Relief is an interdisciplinary field dealing with the organizational processes that help prepare for and carry out all emergency functions necessary to prevent, prepare for, respond to, and recover from emergencies and disasters caused by all hazards, whether natural technological, or human-made (Benjamin 2011).
  • The Haitian Revolution in 1804 has often been described as the largest and most successful slave rebellion in the Western Hemisphere. Slaves initiated the rebellion in 1791 and by 1803 they had succeeded in ending not just slavery but French control over the colony (Sutherland 2017).
  • NGO (Nongovernmental Organization) is any non-profit, voluntary citizens' group which is organized on a local, national, or international level. Task-oriented and driven by people with a common interest, NGOs perform a variety of service and humanitarian functions, bring citizen concerns to governments, advocate and monitor policies, and encourage political participation through provision of information. Some are organized around specific issues, such as human rights, environment, or health. They provide analysis and expertise, serve as early warning mechanisms and help monitor and implement international agreements. Their relationship with offices and agencies of the United Nations system differs depending on their goals, their venue, and the mandate of a particular institution (


Important People Related to the Topic

  • Gail J. McGovern joined the American Red Cross as president and CEO in 2008, and has taken a strong leadership role at the nation's leading emergency response and blood services organization. McGovern was under extreme scrutiny when the public felt the American Red Cross mismanaged the 500 million dollars it raised in donations. One example included when McGovern stated that a fifth of the money the charity raised would go to “provide tens of thousands of people with permanent homes.” The charity only ended up building six permanent homes (Sullivan 2015).
  • Jean-Max Bellerive was Prime Minister of the Republic of Haiti, before resigning in 2011. Born in Haiti, and educated in Switzerland, France, and Belgium, he previously served for three years as Haiti’s Minister of Planning and External Cooperation. Before that, he was chief of staff and a cabinet member to four Prime Ministers. Bellerive was Prime Minister during the time of the Haiti earthquake and was a skeptic of the mismanaged funds raised by charities in response to devastation (Sullivan 2015).
  • Wyclef Jean is a Haitian born hip-hop celebrity who immigrated to the United States as a child. He became famous in the 1990's with his band, the Fugees. Jean is the founder of the charity, Yele, an organization dedicated to improving social issues facing Haiti, with donations being allotted to orphanages, temporary housing, medical centers, and farming initiatives. Wyclef has been under investigation due to his organization’s mismanagement of $16 million in donations after the Haiti Earthquake (Sontag 2012).


Related Nonprofit Organizations

  • The American Red Cross, formed in 1881, was born of a desire to bring assistance without discrimination to the wounded on the battlefield. It endeavors, in its international and national capacity, to prevent and alleviate human suffering wherever it may be found. Its purpose is to protect life and health and to ensure respect for the human being. It promotes mutual understanding, friendship, cooperation, and lasting peace among all peoples ( It was the organization to receive the highest amount of donations after the Haiti earthquake with $500 million.
  • National Public Radio (NPR), formed in 1970, is a mission-driven, multimedia news organization and radio program producer. It is a network with a strong base of member stations and supporters nationwide. NPR employees are innovators and developers — exploring new ways to serve the public via digital platforms and improved technologies. NPR is also the leading membership and representation organization for public radio ( NPR conducted an investigation in search of the Red Cross’ $500 Million in Haiti Relief and received backlash from the organization in return.
  • Partners in Health (PIH), was founded in 1987 by Dr. Paul Farmer and a small group of colleagues. Together, they built a clinic in a rural, desperately impoverished squatter settlement of farmers who had lost their land to a hydroelectric dam. PIH now works in 12 countries on four continents, but in many ways Haiti remains its heart and soul. ZL (the Haitian branch of PIH) has become a comprehensive public health system supported by international donors but staffed almost entirely by Haitians, about 4000 people in all, including some 120 doctors, 600 nurses, and 2000 trained and salaried community health workers. Members of ZL's staff were some of the first health care workers to respond to the disaster of the Haiti earthquake (Kidder 2010) (


Reflection Question - Consider a country such as Haiti, an underdeveloped and impoverished state preexisting the earthquake. If you were a charitable organization, such as the American Red Cross, what types of issues would you have addressed with your $500 million in donations?



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  • Kidder, Tracy. "Recovering from Disaster — Partners in Health and the Haitian Earthquake." New England Journal of Medicine, March 4, 2010. Accessed November 27, 2017.
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  • Payton, Robert, and Michael Moody. Understanding Philanthropy- Its Meaning and Mission. Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 2008.
  • Sontag, Deborah. "In Haiti, Little Can Be Found of a Hip-Hop Artist's Charity." The New York Times, October 11, 2012. Accessed November 27, 2017.
  • Sullivan, L. (2015). In Search of The Red Cross' $500 Million in Haiti Relief. NPR. Retrieved November 3, 2017.
  • Sutherland, Claudia. "Haitian Revolution (1791-1804)." Accessed November 28, 2017.
  • Zanotti, L. (2010). Cacophonies of Aid, Failed State Building and NGOs in Haiti: setting the stage for disaster, envisioning the future. Third World Quarterly, 31(5), 755-771. Retrieved November 3, 2017.

This paper was developed by students taking a Philanthropic Studies course taught at the Lilly Family School of Philanthropy at Indiana University in 2017. It is offered by Learning To Give and the Center on Philanthropy at Indiana University.