A conversation with Bill Holbrook

Haiti, January 19, 2010

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    New Haiti country director Bill Holbrook is no stranger to Mercy Corps. He held chief of party and country director posts in Azerbaijan from 2000-2005. Photo:

I spoke this afternoon with Bill Holbrook, Mercy Corps' newly appointed country director for Haiti, who leaves tomorrow for Haiti from his home in Maryland. He'll work in conjunction with our growing emergency-response team, which has been in country for nearly a week.

Bill is a 20-year veteran of international aid work, including two tours in Haiti, relief work in Sudan and a five-year stint for Mercy Corps in Azerbaijan last decade.

Your ties to Haiti run deep, don't they?

You could say that. Six years and family. My wife is Haitian, so I guess that says a lot. I went in '96, was country director for ADRA (a large humanitarian agency) in Haiti from '96-'99. We were one of three agencies that essentially took responsibility for all of the assistance that came to Haiti during that time. Then more recently I went back to launch a $100 million job-creation program, so I was there another 17 months.

What kept you going back to Haiti?

Hope. It's a country that everyone falls in love with. You can't help but love the people. Haitians are amazingly resilient. They have a troubled 200-year history, and you can get carried away with all the bad stuff, but the reason I've spent as much time as I have there is because I continue to be optimistic and hopeful that Haiti can become a viable economy, a viable state, because the people deserve it.

I know you have friends and in-laws in Haiti? What have you been hearing from them?

Chaos. They're in shock, many of them are dealing with profound grief. And others are trying to figure out how they will survive. There's concern about the speed of the recovery and the potential violence and some of the natural reaction you get from people who are just trying to survive. This is a country that has very little in the way of functioning government institutions.

What are the first things you'll do once on the ground?

First thing I'm going to do is figure out what more Mercy Corps can do and do quickly. And to do everything I can to build relationships with key implementing organizations, with donors, with the government, and especially with local organizations. And I'm going to focus really hard on building Mercy Corps' capacity to work effectively in Haiti.

What's your definition of success in the recovery phase and in the rebuilding phase?

A stabilizing economy, some measurable success in job creation, and a plan -- a plan that the Haitian people believe in. There is enormous opportunity in Haiti still. But it will never be reached until Haitians and their government and the international community can come together and find a way to take Haiti out of its past and into the future. The best thing Mercy Corps can do is help Haitians realize their own dreams.