100 Days After Earthquake, Wyclef Jean Hopes For New Haiti

Grammy nominated singer and record producer Wyclef Jean has been a tireless advocate for his native country of Haiti. After establishing his organization Yele Haiti in 2005, he has spent millions on education, health and the environment. But after the devastating earthquake hit the island nation, leaving hundreds of thousands dead, the artist has worked harder than ever to bring relief to his co-patriots. Host Michel Martin speaks with Wyclef Jean about rebuilding Haiti, a hundred days after the earthquake and some of his charity's accounting practices that have come under fire.

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MICHEL MARTIN, host:

I'm Michel Martin, and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News.

Today, we take on two big issues in the news, the economy and the environment. With the Senate apparently close to agreement on new regulations to protect consumers and the economy from risky financial practices, we'll talk about a group of financial institutions who say they should be able to opt out of new regulations: payday lenders. And we'll give our own take on Earth Day. That's coming up in just a few minutes.

But first, an update on a different kind of environmental story - that devastating earthquake in Haiti. One hundred days have passed since that powerful earthquake devastated Haiti killing more than 200,000 people, injuring 300,000 and leaving more than one million homeless, according to official estimates.

Since then, millions of dollars in aid have poured into the country from individuals and private organizations. And billions more have been pledged by Western governments.

Grammy Award winning performer and producer Wyclef Jean has been one of the most prominent fundraisers for relief to his native Haiti. So we thought we would check in with him to see how he thinks the relief and reconstruction efforts are going. And Wyclef Jean joins us now from our studios in New York. Welcome, thanks so much for joining us.

Mr. WYCLEF JEAN (Performer, Producer): Thank you for having me.

MARTIN: Between you and your wife, I'm imagining, who's also of Haitian descent...

Mr. JEAN: Yes.

MARTIN: You made a number of trips back and forth since the earthquake. So I wanted to ask you what you think is working well and what is not.

Mr. JEAN: Actually, as we're speaking right now, my mother's on the ground in Haiti. These trips come because before me, before my wife, my mother and father are of Nazarene ministry. And every month, they would always go to Haiti. So, all I did was pick up where my parents basically left off. Understand I was there the day right after the quake. And I was in Port-au-Prince picking up bodies on the ground, right?

Since then, as we're going back, what I'm noticing is aid is coming very slow, but the aid is coming. There is psychological trauma with the people that are living in tents. Being that I speak the language, when I speak to people, people are saying, listen, Clef, even if they put a house for me, I'm not going back inside of it right now.

So, as we start the process of rebuilding, we have to start the process of talking to these people and letting them explain to you their trauma experience from the kids all the way to the adults. These people are traumatized.

MARTIN: What have you been working on? Your organization, Yele Haiti, which was founded in 2005, I mean, you've worked on quality of life issues in the past, but also in response to previous disasters. You've also worked on emergency relief. So what are you focusing on now?

Mr. JEAN: Well, Yele Haiti, we focus on the ground a little different. We say we go into places where no other NGOs will go into, you know. So, we have water, which is very, very important. We have what's called Yele Dlo. And Yele Dlo is these water trucks that we put out. And also we do food kits. So when we deliver the foods, we make sure that it's a complete package, which lasts month by month, which is very important. Now what we're about to embark in is a complete Yele village. So this is the next project that Yele's going to embark in.

MARTIN: I wanted to ask about what your thoughts are about the response from the international community. It seems like millions of dollars have been raised, some nine million, as I understand it. You've reported have been raised for your charity, Yele Haiti. And, also, millions of course have been raised by other entities. And I'm interested in what you think about that, given particularly that we're in a recession. I would imagine that this is a pretty impressive response given that a lot of people are really concerned about their own situation right now.

Mr. JEAN: I mean, the response is ecstatic, I mean, starting with my fellow musicians, actors, actresses. I think that's definitely going in the right direction. There are people that are frustrated. They're, like, man, listen, we donate our money and, you know, we're looking on the ground and things are still looking the same. What's going on?

I think it's important that the money is not wasted. I call it, you know, aid that can help people aid themselves. It's important that we head towards that direction. But at the same time, there's another part that I want people to focus on: business development, which is very important. Because think about it, you've had NGOs in Haiti for over 30 years and you still have no real infrastructure.

So it's important that we make sure that the business partners, the private sectors, can come in and provide also job creation and start to train the population along with the NGOs. Because keep in mind, 61 percent of the population can't really read and write. So as we say, okay, we want to take Haiti into the 21st century, I don't know how we are going to do that unless we start to train the people and teach them how to read and write.

MARTIN: If you're just joining us, I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm speaking with the Grammy Award winning artist Wyclef Jean. We're talking about his work in Haiti. It's 100 days after that devastating earthquake and we're talking about reconstruction and relief efforts there.

Obviously given the amount of money raised, there's scrutiny about how the money is going to spent. I think we would both agree that people who are giving money have a right to be assured that it is going to be well spent. And as of course you know, there have been some questions about the way your charity, Yele Haiti, has raised money and counted money and spent that money. So I'd like to ask - and you've been a little testy about it - when people have raised these questions. I'd like to ask, what assurances are you giving that the money is going to be well spent?

Mr. JEAN: You know, I'm always going to be testy because I'm from Brooklyn, right?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. JEAN: But understand, my testiness has to do with the fact that we're a ground on - meaning, Yele Haiti is a grassroots organization, which I built, like, from the ground on up, you know? And like I said on "Oprah," you know, usually, you know, every foundation, you know, they'll have a fall guy, you know. But me, I just say, you know what? I started this thing and it's important that we learn from our mistakes and get it right.

I think it's important that whether someone is giving $5, $10, $15, that through the website, that you make everything transparent. And that's the only way people could follow because, you know, they're not on the ground. They're not - they don't know what's going on. So it's important to always keep them up-to-date with information. So, everything that we're doing, please, look on yele.org, follow me at Wyclef, go on Facebook and you'll see a lot of transparency.

MARTIN: But there are outside entities whose job it is to assure donors that the money is being appropriately spent and that appropriate methods are being used to account for it. And one of the criticisms has been that the expenses are too high, relative to the amount of money being distributed, even though the amount of money being distributed is a lot.

And that also money went to production expenses and to people within the organization. That's an ongoing issue that all people are concerned about, who follow charity. So I'd like to ask you, are you saying that - you said that mistakes were made, is it that you didn't know what the rules were? Or that you did not pay sufficient attention to it as you should have? What mistakes are you saying were made and what are you going to do to fix it?

Mr. JEAN: Well, I mean, we already fixed it. One of the mistakes in this scrutiny is that we faced as Yele Haiti was you see in the early days, it was, like, well, Yele did not pay their taxes on time, you know. One of the issues that we dealt with was automatically we have a new accounting firm, you know, which is important. The governance is important in the sense of you have to make sure that all of the paperwork is up-to-date.

MARTIN: And what about the production expenses? Do you feel that the administrative expenses are in line with that of other charities? Or is that another area where you think you need further work?

Mr. JEAN: No, I don't think in that area that we need work, you know what I mean? I think, you know, with that, I think watching our charity, grassroots organization versus how much money other people are getting. 'Cause we work more on a smaller base, you see what I'm saying to you? We're not going to be able to take care of a million people, you know. But if we're taking care of a few thousand, we always make sure that the expenses are balanced out well.

MARTIN: So, if people wanted to say, I want to know whether your last tax year has been filed, let's say, for 2009, for 2008 - has that work been done so that people can look and say, hey, whether they feel good about it or not?

Mr. JEAN: Yes, definitely, people could look. Like I said, you know, the governance is very important when you want to take the foundation to the next level and transparency is key.

MARTIN: And so, finally, as I understand it, you're working on a new album, right?

Mr. JEAN: Oh, the fun questions now.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. JEAN: Oh yeah, what do Wyclef really do? Oh yeah, he's a rock star.

MARTIN: You do both, right? You do both, right? Wouldn't you say, I mean, wouldn't you say you do both? You're both a philanthropist and an artist? Or what do you think?

Mr. JEAN: Let me tell you. I'm going to tell you this, everybody listen in. Like, what I do for Haiti is something that naturally I feel that I should do. Like, I never wanted any title for it, you know. So the album is called "Wyclef Jean: The Haitian Experience."

MARTIN: I think we may have a little bit to play, right? A little bit of a preview.

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. JEAN: (Singing) Working on the job with a T-shirt on (unintelligible). Yele, Haiti's cry for freedom. Yele, the whole world join the movement. Yele, you're going to do this for the future and do this for...

Y'all is good with the leaks, huh? Y'all follow me online.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: So tell us about what we just heard.

Mr. JEAN: The song, this song is titled "Yele Haiti" and basically it's just a narration of my trip, but saying, okay, that was then and this is how it's going to be. And we describe Yele, you know, hey, Yele means cries of freedom. As you can hear, it's struggle, but music of hope, you know what I mean?

MARTIN: And, finally, just to clarify, are you planning to direct any of the proceeds from this album to Yele Haiti?

Mr. JEAN: No. You know, once again, I don't play when it comes to church and when it comes to state, you know. And my work for Haiti and raising money for Haiti is definitely going to continue. The Wyclef Jean album is, you know, it's definitely a Wyclef Jean album. It's coming out through Columbia Records. So it's not, like, oh man, I'm about to do a gimmick and do an album for Haiti, no, no.

MARTIN: It's not a project of your charity.

Mr. JEAN: No, no.

MARTIN: No, this is your thing?

Mr. JEAN: It's back to Wyclef's life.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. JEAN: And then my tour is called "A Haitian Experience." So, if you never seen me in concert, I'll give you a few heads up of a few things that you need when you come to a Wyclef concert. Make sure you bring a few bottles of water and bring two outfits with you. Because whatever outfit you're in, you're about to sweat in it in, like, an hour and 30 minutes into the show, so you'll need a change of clothes.

MARTIN: And where will we be changing our clothes?

Mr. JEAN: Y'all got to find - this is probably going to be like Woodstock, you know what I'm saying? So we'll make sure that there's bathrooms for y'all.

MARTIN: Wyclef Jean is a Grammy award-winning artist, singer and producer. He is the founder of Yele, Haiti, it's an organization helping Haiti in areas of health, education, the environment and community development. And he joined us from our studios in New York, where hopefully he didn't have to change his clothes. Thank you...

Mr. JEAN: And I hadn't changed my clothes yet. I'm not on stage yet.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: Thank you for joining us.

Mr. JEAN: Thank you so much.

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