Wyclef Jean: Accountability in Philanthropy


 On October 11th 2012 Haitian American rapper Wyclef Jean’s world shook with a faint rumble: The New York Time unleashed a stark review of the hip hop star’s funds in charity in Haiti and it was a math equation that was found lacking.

Wyclef Jean in his memoir claims he was persecuted like Jesus and Martin Luther King Jr, crucified by the public when he faced questions about his charity’s inability to handle nearly 16 million dollars in donations. His book Purpose: an Immigrant’s Story illustrates a defensive Wyclef, who angrily refutes his creditors claims by saying that “I have a watch collection worth $500,000″ and that “Yele is Haiti’s greatest asset and ally”.

Jean founded Yele, a word which he created to mean “cry for freedom in 2004″. In his memoir the star says he went from sleeping in hut with a dirt floor to “a mansion in New Jersey with Grammys on the mantle”. This inspiring story was his motivation to give back to his homeland.

However there is an alarming pattern of misuse of accounting and tax filing which leaves confusion between Wyclef’s personal and business transactions. The audit thus far has looked at a mere $3 million of the charity’s expenses from 2005 to 2009 and found that $256,580 illegally benefitted Mr. Jean and the Yele board and staff member. This was reported as $24,000 for Mr. Jean’s chauffeur services and $30,763 for a private jet that transported Lindsay Lohan from New Jersey to a benefit in Chicago that raised only fifty percent of that amount. The following four years of operation show millions of dollars spent on travel, and logged under activities that were either questionable or simply did not add up.

The singer remains firm on a stance despite a continuing New York attorney general’s investigation which has already shown there have been many financial mistakes and improprieties with the charity – it went out of business last month with no chance of finishing many projects. Indeed Wyclef himself has not been seen for many months since his presidential bid for Haiti was disqualified on the grounds that the former candidate did not live n Haiti.

“If I had depended on Yéle,” said Diaoly Estimé to the New York Times, whose orphanage features a wall painting of Mr. Jean and his wife, “these kids would all be dead by now.”

The real tragedy of this story is that the disarray and disfunction of Yele is not an uncommon story for nongovernment organizations. Mark Schuller of the Huffington Post reports that the Disaster Accountability Project reported that only one of the 196 agencies surveyed provides an adequate level of information on their website. “Although organizations such as GuideStar and Charity Navigatoroffer much fiscal information regarding relief groups, making public the details of the actual day-to-day activities and programs of relief groups in Haiti is crucial to achieving greater transparency and effectiveness in aid.”

In his study of 791 households in eight camps for internally displaced, fewer than one percent could identify why NGOs selected the aid they did. The aid given did not match residents’ priorities. In one camp, Karade, the NGO stopped coming when local people said that while they appreciated the soap they got, they needed something else.

On Thursday, Mr. Jean’s spokeswoman said he and his lawyers “are working assiduously to resolve any pending issues with respect to Yéle prior to its closing as Mr. Jean continues his tireless commitment to his beloved country.” Neither the spokeswoman nor Hugh Locke, a Yéle co-founder, responded to specific questions.

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It is clear that we need to also create real regulation for organizations and global charities such as Yele: how can we expect countries or regions recently devastated by an unnamed crises to be able to create accountability for the foreign aid that comes in promising aid? The many benefits and fundraisers thrown in these charities names, the 5 dollar text messages we send to donate money make US now somewhat responsible for demanding transparency to make sure that the money we have donated goes to good use. It is too easy to be convinced on a big name such as Wyclef Jean, or a sad song with some hungry children on television. We cannot have our conscience appeased by simply saying “Well, I donated.” We can only say that we have done good when we follow through and understand how much of that money is actually being given directly to those who need it most and relief supplies.

But today, Yele simple is a symbol of how closely we need to look at our non government charities and the figureheads who control them. We all remember the dramatic breakdown of the “Kony 2012″ leader. Last week Jean tweeted a photo of himself oiled up and stripped down straddling a motorbike exclaiming how positive and young he felt on his 43rd birthday:

TODAY I AM 43 YEARS OLD! I look And feel 26! U cant keep à good Man down! Keep à smile when they want you to frown!

On Monday October 22nd, Wyclef actually found himself defending the bizarre and “revealing” portrait. According to MTV, the rapper stated “Just to clarify, the pic with the speedo, that’s an old pic,” said the Haitian-American rapper,” I’m part of this bike club… Wyclef bike club wore speedos at the time. That photo is actually from an old photo shoot and those photos are actually up on Facebook and Instagram… I said I turned 43, I feel 26 based off that photo shot that I had done.”

Today it was also announced that Wyclef Jean will be playing the head of a record label on the new ABC hit drama “Nashville”. It seems that Wyclef will remain on top rising out of this scandal. Whether or not the Yele funds will be recovered to be distributed to those below the celebrity is yet to be seen.


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