Helping Countries Recover After Disaster: An Interview With Hunter Payne

Did you know it takes at least ten years for a country to recover from a major natural disaster?

hunter payne, haitian girl students

In 2017, seven years after the 2010 earthquake that took 316,000 lives, 2.5 million Haitians were in need of humanitarian aid.

Today it can feel like every day brings a new disaster headline. The accelerating speed of the news cycle can leave those still struggling to recover from devastating natural disasters quickly forgotten.

Hunter Payne is the CEO, President and Founder of a 501(c)(3) nonprofit called Aid Still Required that addresses what happens after the media moves on. A longtime musician, the organization unexpectedly grew from his musical roots and has created innovative, custom-tailored programs to facilitate self-sufficiency in vulnerable communities and awareness campaigns that have reached over a billion people on television, radio and social media. What sets ASR apart from other organizations is its long-term commitment to and collaboration with vulnerable communities to help them determine their own futures — rather than short-term foreign aid.

I got to chat with Hunter to learn more.

Public Goods: What inspired Aid Still Required’s mission?

Hunter Payne: When the 2004 tsunami hit Indonesia, I wanted to put together a CD compilation of independent musicians like myself and send the money from the sales over. I later thought, if I’m going to do this, I might as well see if there’s someone famous I can lure into the project. One of my friends was an ambassador for President Clinton and I thought, well, he plays saxophone, let’s see if we can get Clinton on the record. Clinton said no, but he did endorse the project from his UN office.

His endorsement made going out and involving artists like Paul McCartney, Eric Clapton and Maroon 5 to give tracks to this compilation a lot easier. When the CD was complete, the UN, the Clinton Foundation and UNICEF all told us they were fully funded, so we decided to go to Indonesia ourselves. We arrived sixteen months after the disaster and it still looked like it had just happened. That’s when we realized that after the cameras and first responders leave, people are left with their infrastructure decimated and they experience what they call “a second disaster.”

PG: How did Aid Still Required grow into what it is now?

HP: After Indonesia, we started working with some groups led by Mia Farrow to Darfur and built an awareness campaign with the support of NBA players like Kobe Bryant and Lebron James. After Darfur, we launched a social media awareness campaign about the earthquake in Haiti, with the support of household names like Alicia Keys and Kevin Durant around the idea that “just because it left the headlines, doesn’t mean it’s left the planet.”

A few months later, we went to Haiti and saw that the people were still in shock and living in rubble. We brought a trauma relief program designed for PTSD and rape survivors to the settlement camps where we learned that incidents of rape were very high and most everyone was experiencing PTSD from the earthquake.

This is how we started working in Haiti. We have since branched out into four field projects there, all working toward the goal of self-sufficiency.

PG: Could you tell us about how these programs began and where they are now?

HP: While we were doing the trauma relief program, we received a picture of a group of women holding signs in French that said, “I want to learn how to read and write,” which lead to the trauma relief program morphing into an Adult Literacy Program, which then developed into a vocational program.

Our school in Deuxieme Plaine started from a reforestation program to produce diesel-alternative fuel. We saw that the community there was starting a school without proper resources, so we built a 3,000 sq ft schoolhouse that doubles as a community center.

We eventually became very involved by first training the teachers and then managing the school 100%. Because having computer skills and speaking English puts one in the top 2% of hireability in Haiti, we installed a solar-powered computer lab at the school and teach English and computer skills.

The third program is a children’s center in Cap Haitien. We were inspired by the work a very small center of 32 kids was doing in a very tiny run-down building, so we leased a larger, nicer building for them. The center now provides 216 kids with a myriad of programs, including computer skills in another solar powered computer lab, English, Spanish, dance, soccer and more.

The parents there requested an adult literacy course as well, so we trained the literate community members to teach their peers to read and write. The center has also trained teenagers to teach yoga and reading to younger kids.

Our fourth program got started from visits to an orphanage in Port-au-Prince. We usually gave notice ahead of time when we were going to visit, but on one occasion we dropped in when we happened to be passing by and had an hour to spare. We found the kids locked in the back alley, unattended, naked, bloated bellies, red hair from malnutrition, and we didn’t know when they last ate or drank anything.

Due to laws, we couldn’t just take them with us, so over the next several months we contacted the Haitian Child Services. They initially thought we were just hysterical foreigners, but when they finally went there, they were also appalled and wanted to get the kids out of there immediately.

We then found out that 24 out of 28 of the kids actually had parents. They were “economic orphans” because their parents couldn’t afford to take care of them.

So the project became a self-sufficiency project for each family. The kids who didn’t have parents got placed in this beautiful, state-of-the-art orphanage. We found the siblings of the other 24 — which ended up being about 70 kids — back to their families.

Then we helped the parents live in decent quarters through micro-loans and grants that they take on more responsibility for over a few years. We provide literacy, financial literacy and place their kids in schools.

We’re now looking to scale this approach through larger organizations. The economics of keeping families together are better for Haiti’s recovery than a system of corrupt orphanages where kids are treated awfully.

PG: What is the main issue you see with international aid today?

HP: Far more funding is needed for long term-redevelopment than first responders but the vast majority of funding goes to first responders. While we clearly need first responders like the Red Cross, if we’re really going to take care of our brothers and sisters around the world, we need to develop vulnerable communities over the long-term.

PG: How does Aid Still Required’s presence in Haiti differ from other organizations ?

HP: We stay under the radar in Haiti. All of our projects are associations registered in Haiti, but ASR stays in the background. Because officials and gangs don’t like large groups having pull with the nation’s citizens, it’s to our benefit to stay on the small side.

One of the keys that’s missing with most groups that go to Haiti is endurance. Haitians are very wary of Americans coming down to help, and it takes a long time to develop trust in these communities.

Our aim is to create pathways to self-sufficiency, so the communities must show they are motivated as well. We develop the relationship over time to make sure we continue to be on the same page and will keep finding the next right thing to do together.

Where can folks find out more about Aid Still Required and how can they support its mission?

The best way to support Aid Still Required’s work in Haiti and beyond is to donate. ASR is highly cost-effective. For example, $250 sends a kid to school for an entire year, including classes in English and computers, and healthcare for their families: https://www.aidstillrequired.org/donate/

Find out more at www.aidstillrequired.org and follow on Facebook.

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