How to Find an Effective Volunteer Program in Haiti

by Mary Ellen Dingley

Haiti is, simply put, struggling. As of 2015, half the population was considered vulnerable, cholera was still infecting millions, and over a quarter of the population did not have access to the food they needed to survive. Not only that, but Haiti is currently experiencing a political scandal and a power vacuum as their presidential election has been postponed due to allegations of fraud.

Looking at this dire forecast may make us want to buy a plane ticket and fly right over to lend a hand, but that is not necessarily the best idea!

Aerial shot of Port-Au-Prince, Haiti
Haiti is still recovering from the aftermath of the 2010 earthquake.

After the earthquake, the influx of untrained and unprepared volunteers was dubbed the “second disaster” and many of these volunteers sucked up resources that should have gone to people in need. In fact, some claim that UN Peacekeepers accidentally started the spread of cholera. With these issues in mind, you should be very careful when selecting a volunteer program in Haiti.

So, how do you find a volunteer program that is doing good work?

Ask so many questions! Seriously, go full on interrogation here. But before you sit down for some serious answer seeking, you need to know what you’re looking for. What questions should you ask? More importantly, what answers will let you know that a volunteer program in Haiti will be effective?

First of all, what does it mean for a volunteer program to be effective? How can you, as an outsider, even know whether or not the program is effectively helping the community?

Well, you can’t know everything from afar, but there are a few things to look for:

  1. Local buy in
  2. Evaluation
  3. Sustainability

Let’s break those down…

Children in Haiti holding out their hands
Find an effective, sustainable program to ensure you’re helping more than hindering local efforts.

1. Local buy in means that the project is supported by the community and that the programs goals and the community goals are in line with each other. You don’t want to work for a program that is building a school, when the community actually requested a desperately needed medical clinic!

You ask: “Can you tell me more about local buy in and community participation?”

2. Evaluation simply means that someone is tracking the program’s progress. Sometimes this is easy, did they build a medical center? Is it functioning? Check! Sometimes this is harder, are those art therapy classes actually helping students in a concrete way? Is it reaching those in need? But if there is no evaluation, if no one is coming in to see where the money and effort is all going, then we can’t know if the program is effective! Good NGO’s either have staff do evaluations on a regular basis, or bring in outside consultants to evaluate. Then if they see a problem, they fix it.

You ask: “Do you have regular program evaluations? Can you tell me about your last evaluation?”

3. Last of these major points, sustainability. Will the project you volunteer with continue after you leave? If you’re a medical volunteer, can you train people so that medical care will continue? If you help build a school, will others finish it? Unsustainable, short term projects are almost always for the benefit of the volunteer rather than the local community, and you should be very careful with them.

You ask: “Can you tell me about the sustainability of what I’ll be working on?”

After you ask these major questions, dig in a little deeper into the nitty gritty of the daily work.

Green countryside in Haiti
Volunteering in Haiti is more than a tropical vacation, so make sure you’re ready.

Ask About Best Practices

Best practices are the procedures that are considered the most effective and fair, and every industry has them, including volunteer programs. One big one to look out for is asking about background checks. If you are going to be working with vulnerable populations, background checks are often required. If they aren’t, especially if you will be with kids, you should ask why not. A few questions you might want to bring up: 

You ask:

  • “Do you require background checks? Why or why not?”
  • “What sort of training do volunteers receive, if any?”
  • “What are some of the cultural guidelines you give for volunteers?”

Another big issue that was already mentioned in articles about Haiti and the plethora of NGO’s is dependency. While dependency is mostly spoken of in large scale terms, nations being dependent on foreign aid, you should also bring this up when asking about an effective volunteer program. Will your work involve the local community in a shared, sustainable program that they can carry on, or will it move them further in dependence on outsiders?

Local woman in her storefront in Haiti
Does your volunteer program work closely with locals?

You ask: 

  • “What are volunteers doing that locals cannot do?”
  • “If volunteers did not come, could locals carry on the work?” 

If an organization or program cannot answer these questions, then they might not be a very effective place to volunteer, and you should tread carefully.

Ask Specifically About the Situation in Haiti

Now that you have a little background on the country, make sure to dig into the local context of the program you’re interested in! This can also help you see how plugged in the hosting organization is to realities on the ground. 

You ask: 

  • “How is your program faring during this time of political instability?”
  • “What are the urgent challenges in your region?”

A great way to find more information, beyond asking your contacts at the program, is to also read program reviews and ask alumni. Ask the organization to put you in touch with someone who has been through their program and then see if that alumnus can give you a fuller picture. (And while you’re speaking to them, be sure to ask about important things like packing lists!)

Google open on a Samsung tablet on a table with coffee
Go beyond Google in your research, and ask lots of questions!

Find the Right Placement for You!

Once you feel like you’ve found a program run by a responsible organization with an effective project for you to jump on board with, now you need to ask yourself more personal questions about your placement, such as:

Long or short term? This depends on your schedule and resources but also influences how effective you can be on the ground. If it’s short term, that’s when issues of sustainability definitely need to be looked at!

Are you ready for this? You need to be sure you’re in the right mental and physical place to volunteer abroad. Haiti has been through a lot, and you might be in the midst of the aftermath of trauma. It’s a lot to take in, and not a challenge that should be taken lightly.

Are you bringing an open mind? Question your assumptions! We’ve all heard a lot about Haiti, but  organizations don’t want someone coming in thinking they know everything. Make sure your attitude is one of openness and flexibility!

Once you’ve found answers to these important questions, you are well on your way to being an effective volunteer in Haiti. Never stop learning, maybe pick up a good book on Haiti while you’re at it, and bring your newfound knowledge to a volunteer program in Haiti that’s the best fit for you.