Wyclef Jean: 'Minus the smell, nothing has changed in six months'

Haiti's biggest star talks to Guy Adams about his frustrations at the pace of efforts to rebuild his shattered homeland
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The Independent US

For most of his adult life, Wyclef Jean has chased fame and fortune during a hugely successful career in hip-hop. But lately, he's been more concerned with helping the vast international relief effort to rebuild Haiti, the country of his birth.

In conversation, this can make for an unintentionally hilarious mix – one second, he'll be holding forth in the language of the street; the next, he'll use the deadpan jargon of a seasoned aid worker.

"Shit is fucked-up here, man," he declares, when I ask for his overview of the state of the nation.

Then he slips into a more serious mode. "And I truly believe that things will not improve until we can come up with a more realistic infrastructure plan."

Six months after the earthquake that rocked Haiti to its knees – killing 300,000 and making 1.5 million homeless – Wyclef is, like almost all of his countrymen, deeply frustrated at the pace of the relief effort. He is also angered by what he sees as the failure of governments and charities to come good with the help they promised.

He said: "I arrived here 24 hours after the quake and I would say that minus the bodies on the floor and minus the smell, it looks exactly the same today as it did then. Nothing has changed and people are getting frustrated. The youth is frustrated; people in tents is frustrated; things have got to the point where people are starting to tell me: 'If change don't start to come, we are going to start rioting'."

We are speaking in the garden of a sprawling bungalow in La Plaine, the suburb on the outskirts of Port-au-Prince, where Wyclef spent the first nine years of his life before emigrating to the US. It is the headquarters of Yele, an aid group he founded in 2005 to help educate the young people of his homeland.

Since the earth shook on 12 January its efforts – like those of every other charity in Haiti – have been almost exclusively devoted to earthquake relief.

Dotted around the garden are, variously, a derelict swimming pool, some prototype emergency dwellings with corrugated iron roofs, a water treatment facility connected to an underground well, several metal containers, a yurt full of food supplies and 21 trucks which are distributing clean drinking water to victims of the disaster. They have so far handed out two million gallons to the inhabitants of 34 refugee camps. Wyclef says Yele is a "grassroots" organisation which properly understands Haiti.

Although his fame has given Yele a high profile in the US, the group, Wyclef claims, does not bear the burden of bureaucracy that has so far prevented mainstream charities from spending more than a small fraction of the billions of dollars pledged to them in the aftermath of January's disaster.

"We've been working with communities for a long time, so we know exactly what needs to be done," he says. "We're not thinking 'Are we going to get killed?' or 'Is it safe for us to go here?' We already know. The proof is in the pudding. We have already spent 60 per cent of the money donated to us and that money is helping people. Other organisations have raised hundreds of millions and so far have only spent, like, five per cent. Their excuse is: 'We haven't decided yet what we're going to do with it.' Well I want to know why not."

Wyclef is especially proud of Yele Corps, a programme that pays young people to clean the streets of Port-au-Prince. He is also hoping to build an agrarian village of 1,000 prefab homes on 750 acres of public land in the Croix-des- Bouquets area. Work will start as soon as he can negotiate the lease of the site, whose existing inhabitants need to be convinced that it will improve their lot. "Land negotiations are never easy, but the way things are now, the people there have nothing," Wyclef says.

On all projects, he wants the tone of Yele's work to set it aside from myriad foreign organisations – "What I call the NGO show" – who, he claims, adopt a them-and-us approach towards the people they are supposed to be helping. "I get pissed off watching TV and seeing food tossed down to people like they are birds. Everything we do, we try to make sure that Haitians are treated like people, not animals.

"We go out to communities and speak to them. On Sundays, when we have to deliver hot meals to the camps, I make a point of eating the food we are going to distribute, to show them that it ain't junk."

The former Fugee is especially critical of foreign governments who made headline-grabbing pledges of support when disaster hit Haiti, but quietly reined back once the media circus had moved on. At a UN conference in March, governments said they would provide $5.3bn. So far, less than 10 per cent of that amount has actually been passed on to the Haitian government.

Part of the reason for international hesitancy is fear of corruption. Haiti's President Rene Preval, whose time in office is scheduled to run out in November, has lately shown a cavalier attitude towards public funds. Haiti's telephone network, for example, was recently sold to a Vietnamese corporation called Viettel in a murky $59m deal that saw bids by two Haitian companies turned down.

Another factor is that many donor nations are retrospectively attempting to attach strings to their aid, making the money conditional, for example, on their firms receiving lucrative reconstruction contracts. Wyclef believes the world's politicians acted in haste, pledging amounts they could not necessarily afford and are now repenting at leisure. "There is what I call pledging by emotion," he says. "And when you pledge by emotion you can take as long as you freaking want to get the money actually out there. Every year, these governments can come up with a different reason about why you're not going to give money. We need to make them keep these promises and shame them if they don't."

A similar point was made – albeit more diplomatically – by Bill Clinton, the UN Special Envoy to Haiti, who visited Port-au-Prince yesterday as the nation marked the six month anniversary of the disaster. After meeting with the country's political leaders, Mr Clinton called on donor nations to come up with "reliable schedules" for dispersing funds.

The former US President is almost universally adored by Haitians. Wyclef – whose forthcoming album The Haitian Experience will also raise funds for the relief effort – has a more complex relationship with his countrymen.

After leaving Haiti during childhood, he was brought up in New Jersey, where he shot to fame in the mid 1990s as one of the three members of the Fugees. In Port-au-Prince, locals sometimes accuse him of concealing his Haitian roots when his career was taking off and only becoming involved in helping his homeland when it was became politically expedient. It's an allegation to which he reacts with great anger, leaning forward to grab me by the knee. "Let me show you who you're dealing with here," he says. "See what this is? This is a Haitian passport. I've had it since I came to America when I was nine years old. Yele was founded in 2005 and we've been here for years.

"As to people who say I hid our Haitian identity until we grew up, the sceptics, or whatever you call them, I say facts is facts. Our first Fugee album, Blunted on Reality, has songs about how I was teased in the US for being Haitian. It has a song called Refugees on the Mike, which goes 'H to the A to the I to the T to the I live or die'." During his first performance at the Grammy Awards, Wyclef says he performed under a blue and red Haitian flag. A criticism that has perhaps carried more traction relates to Yele's finances. In the aftermath of January's disaster, Wyclef hit the airwaves to raise millions of dollars, mostly donated via text message, for the organisation. But he was soon forced to issue a tearful, YouTube apology, after it emerged that Yele had failed to file tax returns for four years and had paid out hundreds of thousands of dollars to businesses owned by its directors.

In one instance, $250,000 was spent by Yele on "TV airtime and production services" at Telemax, a Haitian TV network owned by Wyclef.

Thousands more were spent at a Manhattan recording studio he co-owned. When I ask about the scandal, Wyclef says his organisation was guilty of naivity, rather than corruption.

"When you're a young organisation; a little grassroots organisation, and then suddenly bang you start raising millions, mistakes will be made. But did Wyclef take any money personally? For his personal pocket? Did he steal the money to go buy a mansion? No. I got that already. I didn't benefit a cent. But the governance? Yes, we needed to work on that."

He says Yele now has a new, professional accountancy firm doing its books. He has hired Derek Johnson, a former executive at Time Warner, to act as his CEO. His house is in order, he says, "and six months in, people are finally saying that maybe it's the big organisations, rather than a little grassroots one like us that should have got all of the scrutiny".

Maybe so. But confusion still reigns. In our interview, Wyclef told me, for example, that Yele had raised $15m in funds, of which 60 per cent had already been distributed.

Later, I notice a press release from the organisation which put those figures (admittedly as of 31 May) at $9m and 16 per cent respectively.

I'm inclined to give him the benefit of the doubt about this apparent discrepancy, but plenty of people wouldn't – proof perhaps that the world of hip-hop doesn't always mix easily with the bean-counting demands of running a modern relief organisation.

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