Wyclef Jean’s Celebrity Sainthood Postponed

13 Oct

Photo: S. DeBine

Now that it has collapsed so dramatically and shamefully, I wish I had saved the few brief messages I exchanged with the media staff at Wyclef Jean’s failed Yéle Haiti Foundation. They began with me asking how I might visit its agricultural village project near Croix-des-Bouquets, and ended with me grousing that the shuffling of responsibility and lack of interest in getting back to me was probably not all that surprising in an organization no one in Haiti had any good to say.

That was in February — after I suggested in an earlier post that Yéle’s plan to work with Haitian peasant farmers sounded like a “really interesting project,” and a New York Post article, which I only read now, indicated that there were substantial indications of graft and corruption in the hip-hop star’s charity as early as 2011.

No wonder no one wanted to get back to me. There was never any project in Croix-des-Bouquets or anywhere else in Haiti for that matter.

Instead, a small charity that, according to a devastating New York Times article yesterday, had only $37,000 in assets, reaped millions in donations — and spent all of it on Jean himself, his employees and friends.

Well, at least Madonna can take some satisfaction from this debacle I imagine; compared to the $16 million Jean burned through in two years, the $3 million she managed to fritter away on consultants, trips and chauffeured limousines looks downright thrifty.

Indeed, Jean is made to seem even more ridiculous when we learn that he blew more than $30,000 for a private jet to bring Lindsay Lohan, of all people, to a fundraiser in Chicago that raised only $66,000.

Yes, one is kind of tempted to sneer, to indulge in a bit of schadenfreude, but really, the increasingly ubiquitous connection between celebrity and poverty-alleviation projects is becoming a cynical and tragic aspect of the whole world of humanitarian aid.

I can understand why a popular performer might want to enter this world. It brings them a new level of adulation their public success just can’t supply. It makes them, in their own eyes and those of the mainstream media (if not the people they are meant to be helping), charismatic champions of good. It lends their glittering personae a cloak of seriousness and saintliness, one borrowed from people who can’t complain, who don’t realize how terribly their horrible living conditions are being exploited and who get little more than a few hand outs in return.

What I can’t understand, however, is why they then think they feel they know how to effectively fight poverty, even when so many other, more experienced actors have failed. Why they think they can bring about change in places about which they know nothing more than the average person who sends $50 to the Red Cross. Or that they have solutions when they haven’t taken the time to think about the problem, let alone the roots of the problem.

I’m not sure which is the worst part of this pathetic and predictable saga. The fact that so much money was wasted on crap when it could have done so much good were it thoughtfully and carefully disbursed? Or the certain consequence that these cautionary tales, from Jean to Madonna to the Three-Cups-of-Tea guy, will turn off more people than ever from “donating to help the poor.”

The NYT article goes into a lot of painful detail about where the millions entrusted to Wyclef Jean ended up, but the most devastating quote comes from Diaoly Estimé, a woman in Port au Prince promised money for the orphanage she runs. “If I had depended n Yéle,” she said, “these kids would all be dead by now.”

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