Haiti: Learning to Fish
So this was part 2 of the project: Morgan Ashenfelter and I spent a week in Haiti, mainly in Port-au-Prince, speaking with local suppliers and international buyers.
I wasn’t sure what to expect from Haiti. What you see a lot in the news coming out of there are, of course, relief and post-earthquake efforts. But what is the country really like? Is Port-au-Prince just a big pile of rubble? How are the people?
Both this trip and our previous one to Kabul had similar objectives, so I couldn’t help but make automatic comparisons. Unlike Kabul, this place was hot – like Kabul, there was dust everywhere. But enough comparisons, we were there to experience a place we’d only heard such limited news about.
What hit me first was just how huge Port-au-Prince is. I’m used to big cities, but wow. Because there are practically no buildings, the city is extremely spread out. And traffic is intense. So logistically this meant we had to plan for about an hour between each place. Inside the city, roads are good in some places, inexistent in others – there was a lot of bumpy riding in the 4×4. And along these streets, practically every street in Port-au-Prince, people sold things. Bananas, oranges, sugar cane. Clothes and shoes. It was all done on the street. Any time of day or night.
The people we spoke with were extremely friendly. Some of the businesses are doing better than others – and a good number of them had to start from zero after the earthquake. People had lost everything they owned – home and business. But now, they were all back on their feet and hustling.
A clear example of this was a group of women who PDT was helping to create an association of women entrepreneurs. These strong-willed mothers and wives were hard at work organizing themselves, sharing experiences and helping each other’s businesses grow. So exciting to see!
One of the businesses we visited was a small company that sold and installed eco-friendly air conditioners. In a country that’s traditionally reliant on coal, realizing the importance of saving energy is a great step towards greener sources. They had had successful contracts with international organizations, who contacted them through PDT’s database, but had also secured some big local clients.
We also attended an event that was co-sponsored by PDT, where we chatted briefly with international organizations who’ve used PDT’s services. These groups of all shapes and sizes were excited about using the Business Directory to find local Haitians who can supply them with what they needed. Why import when you can “buy local, help build Haiti”?
Our big story was following Ernest Charles, the head of a business that exports sea cucumbers as a delicacy to Asia. We visited his soon-to-be office building in Port-au-Prince, where the final step of drying the sea cucumbers is done (and where I was promptly attacked by a mother chicken!). Two days later, we took a day trip to the southern coast of Haiti, a tiny fisherman village called Saint Louis du Sud, where we visited the men, women and students who harvest, clean and dry the sea cucumbers. Entire families make a living and send their children to school. We were happily greeted and enjoyed a wonderful meal of fresh fish and coconut juice.
Lastly, a very eye-opening take-away for me was learning a bit about how international aid operates in different countries. In Afghanistan, we heard about how some of the international operations were – at first – not worried about the long-term sustainability of their projects. Only now were they realizing the importance of “teaching to fish” versus doing everything themselves, which often seems easier. On the ground, this meant taking into account the fact that local people needed to learn how to operate and maintain these projects themselves. In Haiti, this meant realizing that the country might no longer be in a state of emergency, as it was after the earthquake. The needs are different now. I’m no expert, but what I saw and heard in many instances was that aid money was not being applied in a way that would help the Haitian economy grow from the inside. In fact, it often had the opposite effect. Free or cheap items being donated from around the world to Haiti meant the local suppliers had no market and thus their businesses couldn’t grow and fewer jobs were created. It’s a vicious cycle. Seeing this, I can’t help but hope that people take the time to really investigate how their donations are helping the country. As Ernest wisely put it: “This notion that Haiti is in need so we give and give doesn’t work. PDT doesn’t come here and gives free stuff,” he said. “It is helping Haitians who are helping themselves.”