Just four months after joining an organization, I was asked, with no prompting whatsoever from my part, to become one of five
directors. There was a catch: I would "leap frog" a colleague who had been with the organization at
least ten years, and had technical expertise that I did not. My promotion constituted a de
facto demotion for him. I would become his supervisor.
At the meeting, my spirit raised a flag. “Let me think about it,” I
The next day, mind still disquieted, I said yes, because,
the logic went, “I just got here, I cannot say no.” My supervisor was visibly
relieved at my decision, as if he had been genuinely afraid that the answer would be “no.” But
it wasn’t. Confronted with a supervisor’s request, I did the thing he wanted, ignoring my personal sense of good and right.
But now about ten months later, I know not to do that again, allowing myself to send messages to colleagues. After all, if a staff's performance leaves something to be desired, then management has the duty to react, and to do so ethically.
In this case, the behavior was unprofessional, and I was party to it.
Explaining that decision away could be easy, placing the "blame" on those who made the initial offer. But this would be the wrong conclusion: they did not have any trepidation about that decision. I did. They did not ignore their conscience. I did. My initial and persistent reluctance condemns me, not them.
A former American colleague from an
INGO told me once that his work here was largely motivated by a desire to see
Haitians “stay at home.”
Far from being offended, I was
elated. What a happy coincidence, I thought: we both want the same thing: a
successful Haiti, clean, green, stable, and prosperous that would entice her
children to choose it as home. No “boat people.” No riots, no public
disturbances requiring a “US response.”
The following list is an outcome of
that conversation. It addresses the United States of America, more
specifically, its all-powerful expression here, USAID.
Here it is:
Dear USAID Haiti Mission, be America here. Think big! Dream the spectacular!
simple. You have so much money and power. Don't believe the doomsdayists and
the ney-sayers. Haiti is not "complex." Not at all. Our society is so
simple so as to be simplistic. Here are seven specific components:
1) As you say often, Haiti will not be successful without full governmental
leadership. So keep working with the Haitian government, facilitating both good
and strong governance. You are the United States of America. All Haitians
want to go there. Some want to live there. No more than a simple threat to
revoke a visa or green card would do wonders. Institute audits by US firms of
presidents, prime and other ministers, and members of Parliament. Help them
understand that their entry on US soil is conditioned on no significant
findings of corruption or serious crimes such as rapes, murders,
drug-trafficking. This is easy. No international law or immunity issues.
You are sovereign over your territory.
2) Support a "visible development." Let the
majority of your precious US dollars be invested in physical infrastructure,
big and small: houses, parks, family centers, tree planting, hospitals,
highways, power plants, airports, etc. Think about how much easier it would be for
the M&E staff: no costly "base-line" studies, no complex
"household surveys," no “confounding factors.” Just before and after
pictures ("In XXXX, children and youths had no safe place to play. Now,
there is a family center in the town square, where children benefit from
wholesome after school activities such as sports and music lessons. Elected
officials and parents work to maintain it, and are ecstatic, and teen pregnancy
has been reduced by 55%).
3) Ban NGO-made, life-sapping language: shelter, cash-for-work, clusters, no
work capacity, distributions, etc. Replace them by success-inspired words:
jobs, houses, businesses, parents, competition, etc.
People are transformed through work,
cash-earning jobs, not endless sessions
Ban the term "capacity-building" altogether, as applicable to a
one-way "knowledge transfer" to Haitians from INGOs. It's a lie, and a
damaging one at that. (Though “skill-building” may be a good thing, such as ESL
4) Find a way to give power and visibility to Haitian professionals working
within INGOs that receive funds from you. It is now clear that those
organizations have not "produced" in spite of the millions you have
poured in their coffers. So take this most American decision, change.
That change need not be drastic. It
can be as simple as a requirement that all proposals have significant input from folks
who understand and are vested in the local reality.
Haitian professionals, almost to the
person, do not have to be in Haiti. Most of us can legally move to Naples or New-York or Nantucket. We are here because
we wish to live at home. We think it will change, and want to work on the ground
for that glorious day. We are your natural partners!
5) Replace the damaging focus on "the poor-est" Haitians, and start
including the "readi-est," regardless of where they fall on the
economic scale. While I don't suggest American money should somehow find its
way to wealthy Haitians, it would be good to consider how the middle class, the
professional class can achieve more. What if "aid" could be used to
"complete" existing resources,
as well as going to those with no monetary resources at all.
6) Implement a "no-harm" analysis for all projects. This
already exists for environmental issues. Add to that list three key institutions: the government, the formal private sector, and the nuclear
family. Outside of those three pillars, Haiti cannot be good.
7) And this is the most important: Be
inspired and optimistic. Decide that Haiti will succeed in the next five
(5) years, not just improve; that it will prosper, not just stabilize. The
"just maintain" approach is expensive, and it is not worthy of the
United States of America. It is simply un-American to settle. Don't do it here, please.
P.S.: I do have some sense that you
are doing some of that: would you please continue and expend?
A 19-year-old young woman I know, from
very modest background, just lost her mother to cancer.
At the funeral, the mother was
eulogized by an older brother who explained that his mother had married young,
but soon became a widow with two small children. As a result, she had to “debwouye-l”
to create a life for those children and her. So over the years, she had five
more children by different fathers, at least one of whom did not stay long
enough to see the baby’s birth.
The eulogy confirmed what was obvious: practically for all of her adult life, that woman and her seven
children struggled for the basics: food, housing, stability, love. Theirs was
an existence marked by not enough of the good things, ice cream outings, comfortable
beds and well appointed rooms, a husband’s affection, a father’s protection; and
much too much of the bad: hunger, abuse, fights, abandonment.
As someone once described the life of
the poor, she was born, she suffered, and then she died. She was only 59.
At first, I found myself judging her:
why did she keep having children she clearly could not afford? Did she not
know that those men would not stay? Wasn’t it obvious that it was better to be
poor with two children than with seven?
Judging the dead: what a crummy thing
to do. And she was the one who stayed with her children, and managed to raise
them, send them to school.
Shamed by conscience, I exhorted myself, “just pray
for the children.”
So thinking about them that night, a
most unlikely connection came to mind. In fact, my husband and I had recently received
an “Unclaimed Property” letter, a genuine official government notification that
we owned money we had not claimed, instructing us on the procedure to follow in
order to appropriate those funds.
Unclaimed property. What a perfect
allegory for that dear departed soul. As a human being made in God’s image, she
had been entitled to much: comfort, safety, peace, joy, generosity, beauty,
laughter, love and affection, all blessings intended for her. Most were never
claimed. She lived and died having gotten little of what was lawfully hers.
Arguably, this is the case with all who
live lives contrary, counterfeit, whether dominated by drug or other addiction,
abusive relationships, bitterness, rage, hatred, fear.
Here, millions of Haitians live in
abject poverty and indignity, seemingly oblivious to their true calling of
goodness and brilliance. Unclaimed property.
That night, limiting my prayer to my
friend and her siblings, I offered the following: “Dear Father, you who create
and love every human being, you intended for Mrs. X a good life, one that would
have reflected your love and goodness, one that would have brought her joy and
righteousness. Father, in the name of Jesus, I now declare that all of the
blessings intended for her that are still languishing in an account somewhere,
or a post office box, unclaimed, Father God, I declare in the precious,
precious name of Jesus, that her children will receive “Unclaimed Property”
letters, addressed to each one, by name. Amen."
When I first moved to the United States as a teenager, Americans
kept asking me, “do you like it here?” As the good Haitian that I was, the focus on this question made little sense to me: what did it matter? My parents decided to
move the family, so there we all were. Besides, being in the US was a good
thing, a benefit of which countless Haitians could only dream.
Americans were right: “likes” are important. My Christian faith says so.
We readily accept that God “calls” missionaries to Haiti, but I do
not believe God calls people to places they do not like. As our creator, God
forms and knows the desires of our hearts, and as our Father, he takes pleasure
in granting them because they both fulfill his plans and make us happy.
So I must now inquire of missionaries: do you like it here? Do you
This question is of capital importance. It demands an answer for
the well-being of all us: missionaries, Haitians – Haiti. For when we like or
love, our actions fall in a protected class. The impact of our good deeds is amplified
beyond our imagination. A simple smile to a stranger sustains him, unbeknownst
to us, for a whole day, encouraging him to show kindness in return to those
around him. And our mistakes, no matter what they are, inflict less damage. It
is as if nature itself says, “I know what you mean.”
My God, Paul was right. Love is essential. I believe it is
essential because it brings joy: we are just happy, almost independently of the
folks around us. (“Happiness floats,” reminds us Naomi Shye.) And a happy
person is a kind person. He goes above what is required or expected, effortlessly. He practices all good
things: gratitude, humility, understanding, empathy, explaining away slights
and wrongs, genuine apologies, beautifying eyes, desire to please. All things needed in Haiti.
If you cannot answer yes to that question, please check the “call.” God means for us all to be happy.