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He's Devoted 15 Years To Helping Haiti. Now This Maine Resident Is Looking For A Successor

Willis Ryder Arnold
Maine Public
Konbit Sante Executive Director Nate Nickerson, photographed at Maine Public's Portland studios,

Nate Nickerson is looking for someone to take over the work he's done for the past 15 years for Haiti. Nickerson is the executive director of Konbit Sante, an organization whose name translates roughly into "working together for health." The group provides equipment, clinical skills training, and management expertise in a particular region of the country. Konbit Sante had been established in Haiti for almost a decade when, in 2010, a historic earthquake reduced much of the country's infrastructure to literal rubble. 

It's been a decade since that disaster. Last week, Nickerson talked with Maine Public's Morning Edition host Irwin Gratz about the aid his organization provided at that time, and how it's addressing ongoing issues to rebuild.

NICKERSON: The earthquake epicenter was in the south, where the capital is. But it was an event that shook the entire country. When the earthquake happened, there were an exodus of people, both injured and non-injured, a dispersal of unaccompanied children whose parents may have been killed, and things like that. So there are a lot of internally displaced people after the earthquake, and many of them came to Cap-Haitien. And that's who we dealt with.

I have to say that this community really rose to the occasion and were provided tremendous support, which we turned into supporting the Haitian health institutions who were, at the time, broke, particularly the public ones. And so they were faced with a situation where they were either, just sit and watch as rescuers came in to take care of the situation, or, I think with the help of many people, we went in to say, "You need to be part of this, you need to play your full role here." And so we applied our resources to helping Haitian health institutions play the role that they should be playing and could be playing had they had the resources.

GRATZ: That, of course, was 10 years ago. What are the challenges in Cap-Haitien and its surrounding areas today?

The earthquake was a devastating disaster on top of a chronic crisis in Haiti, and those underlying factors were not going to change. They kind of exacerbated a number of situations. So those conditions still exist throughout the country. This past year has been a difficult year in terms of the security and social unrest - largely legitimate grievances in terms of exploding inflation, prices of food. I mean, Haiti is a country, while, you know, having an amazing culture and amazing people, still is grappling with instability and poor governance and hunger, and a poorly supported health system, education system and other things. Those problems continue to plague the country and particularly have a disproportionate effect on the poorest people there.

The fact that Haiti has, for so long, had some of these issues - you know, with the earthquake  compounding them - and it just makes me wonder, is it any more difficult now to continue to marshal what resources you want to, to aid people in Haiti?

Yeah, there's something we call what people have their "Haiti fatigue" - that people say, there's just good money after bad. Many people have read about a lot of the scandals from the NGO side that happened after the earthquake, where money was donated in good faith and didn't end up where it should be. The way I framed that is there is a reason to be skeptical and a reason to look at some of those things and how the money that's going there is being used. That's a really legitimate concern.

On the other hand, the big paradox that I point out to folks is that we don't have enough money to fix all the problems in Haiti. We could pour all kinds of money in, and unless some structural changes happen, it's not going to fix that. On the other hand, relatively small amounts of money can have a huge impact on people's lives and on survival. And we work on, particularly, women's health and neonatal health and survival - introducing a new way of doing something inside a system that, in the weeds at the ground level, can have a great impact on health outcomes for local people.

And, of course, you're hoping, too, that through the philosophy of working with Hatians in building up their skill base and their competencies, that eventually they'll solve some of their own problems.

Yeah, I mean, the ultimate thing is, everybody says, is to put yourself out of a job - that things can stand on their own two feet after a while.

In the recent Maine Sunday Telegram story, it mentioned that you're looking, after 15 years, to step down as executive director. I'm just curious - for those who might have some interest in succeeding you, what's the job like?

I spend about half my time in Haiti. So it's a very hands on kind of job. It's really thinking strategically and sitting down and being able to work with people who come from a very different system and a very different world view, and coming up with approaches that can help move the ball. As anybody who's run any kind of nonprofit knows, there's a whole set of skills around development and fundraising, and working with the board and communications. But also the bottom line is you become primary keeper of the mission, not just for the sake of the organization, but for the sake of the mission, really.

Nate Nickerson is the executive director of Konbit Santi, an organization that helps bolster medical care in Haiti, and Nate lives here in Maine. Nate, thank you for your time. I appreciate it.

Oh, thanks for having us.

Originally published Feb. 12, 2020 at 7:54 a.m. ET.