Last week we traveled with Yele Haiti down to Haiti to see if we could help to provide professional design and building services for a couple of projects on the ground. What I found was a country very different from what was reported in the media or gleaned from You Tube. However, it is still a world away from the three and a half hour plane ride from New York City.
Founded by musician Wyclef Jean, Yele Haiti is working around the country on a variety of issues from access to food to empowering art and culture. It isn't the biggest N.G.O in the country and certainly not the most flush with funds, but they seems to have navigated through difficult terrain of development to get things done. Over the course of four days my intrepid team visited the culturally rich Jacmel, the dangerous streets of Cite Soleil and the still devastated city of Gonaives.
60 minutes piece on Yele Haiti
I found Haiti closely resembling post-Tsunami Sri Lanka. Conflicted by inner turmoil, struck by natural disaster of biblical proportions yet wrapped in unbelievable beauty. Both countries resemble living in a fractured paradise. While Sri Lanka is buoyed up by an enormous textile and tea industry, Haiti has been left without investment for decades. Ironically both of these industries are viable in the heartland of the country. This lack of controlled investment is something that has to change if Haiti is going to push itself out of poverty.
Remarkably, despite being constantly referred to as a poorest country in the Western Hemisphere, not a single one of us were asked for money on the streets. Perhaps an anomaly but it is what our hosts referred to as true 'Haitian Pride' - while the island is suffering deep social ills, its' people will not beg for help. However, they are more than willing partner on programs and projects.
Given the open fear of misappropriated international 'aid' in the country, support for local social entrepreneurs with micro-loans and micro-investment can be a tangible catalyst to growth. Allowing a distributed funding mechanism across all communities, while 'investing' in the conservation of the environment will allow for true anchors to take root. Here in Haiti we can empower the youth with jobs not handouts and use programs like The Green Belt Movement, Grassroots International, IDE and the Appropriate Development Infrastructure Group as seed social investment groups.
Yele Haiti and its' fellow tug boat NGOs have cut out a path for others to join. They have shown that instead of trying to launch thousands of $1M+ programs, you can empower a million local investment programs with only tens of thousands of dollars. Yes, there is tremendous risk in getting involved, but the bigger risk is not helping and allowing Haiti to again submerge into a near failed state situation. You will face a barrage of criticism for trying but remember, the negative nitpicking usually comes from those not willing to get their hands dirty.
As the great rural architect Samuel Mockbee once wrote "Go above and beyond the call of a 'smoothly functioning conscience'; help those who aren't likely to help you in return, and do so even if nobody is watching."