While some organizations entered Haiti for the first time after the January earthquake, others have been helping the country for years. Among those is Plant with Purpose, an organization dedicated to development and helping those living in extreme poverty rise above their circumstances. Here, we talk to Plant with Purpose founder Scott Sabin about how Haiti’s turbulent past has affected its people, his organization’s focus in the country and how misapplied aid can ruin Haiti’s long-term development.
What are the unique aspects of Haiti?
When you get to know it a little bit better, you see that it is remarkably buoyant. But you don’t see despair, what you see is people who are somehow coping. The music is all upbeat. You ask anyone how they’re doing, and the standard answer in Creole is, “Not too bad.” They never express the positive, it’s always a moderated negative, but it’s something I really end up admiring. That you-take-it-in-stride-and-keep-on-going perspective. I don’t really see that in the U.S. You kind of fly into a tizzy if something goes wrong, and their people just seem to pick up and go on.
How has their history of unrest affected them?
There is a tremendous amount of dependency. Basically what we call “welfare mentality” here. And I think a lot of it is that the aid tends to be misapplied in ways that make people passive rather than empower them. And I’ve gotten to where I maybe look beyond that, but it does create a lack of initiative, and that’s too bad. But one of the things you hear all the time is, “Gosh, so much money is being poured into Haiti, why hasn’t it gotten any better? So much aid has been given!” And really, all you have to do is look at the ways that aid has been given, and it’s really no surprise why things haven’t gotten any better. Some of it has just been simply misapplied. Some of it is applied well, but it’s applied to things that will never help Haiti to advance. For example, an orphanage; a country isn’t going to get better because we’re supporting an orphanage. We’re just going to keep it from getting worse. And similarly, right now, all this aid is being put in their emergency shelters, and setting up camps for IDPs, and so forth, isn’t going to help the country to advance. It’s just going to keep people from dying in the short-term. It’s absolutely necessary, it’s well applied, but you can’t expect a country to lift itself out of poverty on disaster aid.
What is Plant With Purpose’s primary focus in Haiti right now?
Right after the earthquake, about 600,000 people left Port-au-Prince and went back to their country, back to their family homes or sometimes friends of family, and so the villages where we work in, although a lot of them were not directly impacted by the quake, they all had this added burden of new people. Houses that had six people in them before, all of the sudden had 10. And a lot of times, students whose parents where killed, and so they went to go stay with a friend’s parents. And a lot of people who moved to Port-au-Prince to educate their kids, and now they were back where they grew up, and in many cases had never lived in the country before. So these are a lot of people that we’re providing jobs to, and that’s why there is so much of a food security burden in the countryside. We’ve been measuring, a, the migration back and forth, and b, food security over the last month or so. There has been a steady downward movement in the number of meals per day. It used to be, in good times, a good share that we work with will eat three meals a day, slightly over two when we started measuring after the earthquake, and now it’s 1.4 on average. So that’s some indication of the burden there.
What do you think is the key to long-term success in Haiti?
I think being very careful in doing things that empower the local people. One of the things I tend to hear a lot of is people trying to solve the Haitian people’s problems: “What Haiti needs is ‘X.’” Haitians need to say more what they need. But I think it’s things that encourage initiative. So you have to look very closely at the incentives. Are your incentives to promote initiative? So I hesitate with a lot of Americans going to do, unless it’s alongside people who are taking the lead, because those things can rot local initiative. Those rules change, they flip-flop. I think one of the reasons we get aid and emergency relief confused so much is because the rules flip-flop. In emergency relief, you have to do for people, but in long-term development or long-term aid, you better not be doing for people what they can do themselves, because that will achieve the wrong result. So transitioning from one to the other and making sure we get our incentives right, I think is really important.
Have you seen the money coming through UN clusters?
It just drives me crazy when people hear about Haiti and they go, “Oh, gosh. We’ve wasted so much, those people are hopeless.” All those things drive me crazy, because it’s not the real story. There are so many stories there. It is such an amazing place, it’s one of my favorite places in the world. It’s very complex, like every place is. We tend to see someplace superficially and say, “Oh, I’ve got this figured out.” Then before you know it, you realize you didn’t know anything when you started.
Education is the key to Haiti’s long-term recovery. Realizing this important need, RELEVANT and Convoy of Hope have teamed up to help rebuild three schools in Haiti. To find out how you can help, visit RELEVANTmagazine.com/HaitiSchools.