Philanthropies are Failing Puerto Rico

This op-ed was published in The Washington Post on July 25, 2018.

By Ana Marie Argilagos, Aaron Dorfman and Nelson I. Colón

Ana Marie Argilagos is president and chief executive of Hispanics in Philanthropy. Aaron Dorfman is president and chief executive of the National Committee for Responsive Philanthropy. Nelson I. Colón is president and chief executive of the Puerto Rico Community Foundation.

It is dusk in Mariana, a barrio in the coastal resort town of Humacao, which sits at the epicenter of Hurricane Maria’s landfall. The streets are dark but not silent. Mariana still has no power or running water, but there are voices and laughter as people cook dinner together over makeshift outdoor stoves. Mariana’s residents, like many other Puerto Ricans, are making the best of a desperate situation.

The resourcefulness of the Puerto Rican people in the face of Hurricane Maria’s devastating impact is admirable. But it only goes so far. Puerto Rico is far from recovery, and the 2018 hurricane season is already upon us.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency admitted this month that it failed to prepare properly to mobilize the robust response that Puerto Rico needed. Today, about 1,000 Puerto Rican families taking part in FEMA’s transitional housing program are still living on the brink of homelessness as a result of the storm, and that doesn’t include evacuees who have likely gotten lost in the system as we saw after Hurricane Katrina.

What caused such a massive failure to respond to the needs of 3.5 million U.S. citizens? What is our responsibility now to our fellow Americans on the island?

We have no easy answers, but one thing is clear: We are not doing enough. And it will take longer-term private investment — beyond slow-moving U.S. government relief funds — to build resilience to future storms.

Maria’s 155-mph winds unleashed a full-blown humanitarian crisis on American soil, claiming well more than 1,000 lives and creating the longest blackout in our country’s history. It was one of the most horrific natural disasters in modern U.S. history.

Basic modern-day services are still not fully operational across the island. The electric grid is vulnerable to frequent outages, and the most isolated areas lack water. The elderly are particularly at risk as many simply cannot cope with unreliable medical treatment, oppressive heat and sporadic power.

Yet corporate and foundation support of Puerto Rico in 2017 stood at only $62 million, according to data collected from the Foundation Center and the Center for Disaster Philanthropy. Compare that with the $341 million in support after Hurricane Harvey, which devastated Texas, and the $128 million after Hurricane Irma, which badly damaged Florida. Thanks to these investments, as well as a much more robust government response, Texas and Florida were back on their feet in a matter of weeks. Puerto Rico, however, continues to struggle to meet basic needs 10 months after the storm.

What accounts for this disparity? For many mainland U.S. foundations, Puerto Rico somehow isn’t “American” enough for regional or local funding. But it’s also not “foreign” enough to qualify for international charities. Betwixt and between, philanthropy has found it easier to ignore Puerto Rico for decades.

Prior to the hurricane, Puerto Rico was suffering through another crisis — crushing debt that paralyzed the island’s economy. Yet in 2015, Puerto Rico received only about $5 million in philanthropic funds. Compare that with economically distressed cities such as Detroit, which received $201 million in foundation support in 2015, or Buffalo ($67 million), Fresno, Calif. ($20 million), or Memphis ($263 million).

Puerto Ricans are ready to continue the recovery work needed to put their island back on its feet for the long term. We met with young leaders driving local start-ups and initiatives from technology to agriculture and beyond. Puerto Rican nonprofits and community credit unions are on the ground working every day to build back better.

U.S. donors must step up and do their part. Puerto Rico needs the resources, capital and expertise to invest in hyperlocal infrastructure. The network of small stores in rural areas served as a lifeline after Maria, even as many struggled to stay open due to damage and broken supply chains. These communities need support for communications and preparedness systems that will help them stay online and open to supply basic needs to residents. Every community must have at least one medical facility with the power and capacity to provide care through emergencies.

Foundations and philanthropic leaders from the mainland can also work with communities and institutions on the island on a “homecoming plan” for Puerto Ricans forced to leave in the wake of the catastrophe. Many of these efforts are underway, but they need support to grow to scale.

For U.S. charities and foundations, here is the bottom line: Puerto Ricans continue to show us their tenacity, creativity, ingenuity and capacity. Now it’s time for philanthropy to prove we have the will and capacity to act, before it’s too late.