He was born and raised in Croix-des-Bouquets, one of the poorest communities in Haiti. He grew up to become an international music star, but he was willing to sacrifice all that success by launching an unsuccessful bid to become president of Haiti after the country was devastated by decades of political corruption and struck by a horrific earthquake that killed more than 200,000 Haitians in 2010.
Wyclef Jean, an accomplished singer, musician and producer, continues to provide humanitarian assistance to his native country and offer consultation to organizations that undertake efforts to help Haiti. Although Jean is not involved with Ezra Vision Ministries’ current efforts, he agreed to talk about his ties to the country and his own experiences.
“Haiti has been suffering since the dictatorship of ‘Baby Doc,’ who tried to kill all the educators because he wanted to get rid of anybody he thought might be smart enough to overthrow him,” said Jean, who was 10 when his family relocated to the U.S.
The efforts of “Baby Doc” — or Jean-Claude Duvalier — were successful enough to keep him in power from 1971-86, when he was overthrown. By then, though, the country’s smartest, most skilled people either had been killed or fled the country, Jean said.
“He crippled the economy,” said Jean, noting that much of the country is still trying to recover from Duvalier’s deadly and corrupt leadership. “He literally killed the smartest, most intelligent people in the country.”
The 2010 earthquake only brought more devastation to a country that has continued to struggle with weak and corrupt political leadership, said Jean, who after the earthquake created a charitable organization, Yéle Haiti, that has raised millions of dollars to help rebuild Haitian communities.
The most successful aid efforts are those like Ezra Ministries, which take a long-term, multipronged approach to help Haitians, Jean said. Those strategies include improving educational opportunities for youth and helping to build basic infrastructure such as school buildings, electricity and indoor plumbing.
“We can’t just bring in aid,” he said. “Aid is good, but if I’m bleeding a Band-Aid is good, but it’s temporary.
“We need to start investing in the youth capital based on our youth’s talents.”
Jean, who has helped negotiate peace treaties between youth gangs in Haiti, said part of the education must be teaching young people to believe in their self-worth and potential. Years of being denied education and opportunity has created an “institutional prison” mentality among the Haitian youth, he said.
“Use the talents that can be found in the slums to fertilize the kids’ talents,” Jean said. “If you set up the right infrastructure you can help the people to become self-sufficient.”
For example: Haitian soil is very fertile and can grow just about anything, Jean said.
There are also many misperceptions and stereotypes about Haiti that need to be dispelled, Jean said.
“Haiti gets this bad press, just like Africa,” Jean said. “There are not just slums in Haiti. There are prosperous rural areas and lots of incredible entrepreneurs. There’s a lot of success stories in Haiti that also must be looked at and recognized.”