Ego and financial improprieties aside, Wyclef Jean has demonstrated a genuine desire to help the people of Haiti. To do that, it's time he acknowledge his personal foundation isn't equipped to provide disaster relief and donate to those who can.
We and others have demonstrated this week that his charity Yele Haiti is fraught with chronic management problems that make it less effective, transparent, and ethically managed than any charity ought to be. And this afternoon, Jean appeared on Oprah to address some of those concerns.
During the show he offered abundant proof of his anguish over what has happened to his homeland. When he spoke of what he has seen there, he was earnest, heartfelt, and moving. He told Winfrey about the friend who was crushed when a building collapsed onto his car, and how it took him two days to get the body out. About the 14-year-old he pulled out of the rubble alive. About the school for artists that his charity, Yele Haiti, sponsored that was "wiped out," killing everyone inside. He was there to witness it, and deserves credit for that. He also deserves credit for the extent to which he has used his celebrity to draw attention to the problems facing Haiti before and after the earthquake.
In the years before the earthquake, Jean has done some undeniable good for Haiti. Pwoje Lari Pwop, a Yele-affiliated program that employs 2,500 elderly Haitians a day to collect garbage on the streets of Port-au-Prince, has been repeatedly cited to us by even the charity's harshest internal critics as an example of what Yele is capable of doing. The organization has sponsored thousands of schoolchildren in primary schools. They host rap competitions and soccer matches.
There will be a time, hopefully soon, when clean streets, scholarships, and rap competitions will number once again among Haiti's most urgent needs. But right now, Haiti needs, as Jean himself put it, "logistics on the ground—the helicopters, the trucks." One day, Yele Haiti may outgrow its ethical and administrative failings, but today Yele simply doesn't have enough of those things to make a dent.
As of 2007, the last year for which it has released a tax return, Yele Haiti was running close to a half million dollar deficit, its president and his deputy were resigning amid a "crisis" brought about by Yele's failure to reimburse its employees own expenses, and its programs in Haiti were often being administered in what one source who worked for Yele there described as a slapdash and unprofessional fashion. It simply does not have the immediately available organizational capacity to provide the people of Haiti the help that Jean desperately wants them to have.
Which is why the best way for Jean to help is to do what George Clooney is doing: Deploy his celebrity to raise money, and then direct that money to the people who best know how to help. Yele Haiti stands to raise millions of dollars on Friday night as one of five charities participating in the "Hope for Haiti" telethon — vast multiples of the sorts of funds it's previously had access to. Jean may see this crisis has an opportunity to achieve the ambitions for Yele that he laid out for Winfrey. But it's not a time for ego.
It's time for him to remove himself from the equation. He can offer the millions of dollars that have been pledged to Yele to one of the other worthy organizations that will benefit from Friday's telethon — Partners in Health, the Red Cross, Oxfam and UNICEF — or others who already have helicopters and trucks in Haiti. It would be a laudatory move, which would assure Yele's future donors — who are going to be vital if Jean wants to expand and beef up its ongoing programs — that its plans are not interwined with its founder's ego. The appearance that Yele is attempting to take advantage of this situation to transform itself from a shaky if well-intentioned personal foundation into a disaster relief organization does a great injustice both to Yele's donors and the Haitians they are trying to help.
In explaining why he's been able to raise an astonishing $1 million a day through text donations, Jean told Winfrey that people who wanted to help said, "We're gonna give our money to Wyclef, because he came from Haiti, he's been doing this." That's a sad and telling misreading of the shocked and horified Americans who want to help. No one wants to give their money to Wyclef. They want to give it to Haiti. And he can help them do that by turning it over to the professionals.
Giving the money Yele's raised in the immediate aftermath of the quake to other non-profits would also preserve Jean's credibility as the most prominent celebrity voice in America when it comes to Haiti. Because he does himself and his homeland a disservice when he goes on Oprah and tells embarrassing lies like, "I put my first $1 million into the charity." That claim is contradicted both by Yele's founding executive director and the internal financial documents we reported on earlier today. Or when he flatly — and dishonestly — insists to Winfrey that he has "never in any form taken payment for myself" from Yele, despite clear and repeated evidence to the contrary in Yele's tax returns and in internal financial documents. Lies do not inspire confidence that Jean and Yele have turned the corner just yet.