Education vs Jobs

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Developing countries always seem to need more schools. Primary schools, secondary schools, trade schools, universities, you name it. With so much attention paid to this area, plenty of debates ensue about the best teaching models, the role of technology, fee-based vs free education, what languages should be taught, and so on. Think about all the great ideas that have resulted from the combination of resources and debate. 

However, take a look at the discussion around job creation after school in third-world countries. Hear much? The conversation isn’t nearly as loud. But the opportunity for jobs once school is over is a component just as important as the rest of the equation. If much of a local economy is based on sustenance farming, the resale of cheap imports or second-hand goods, or other low- or no-income producing activities, what types of jobs are even available? Certainly not many that would require a great deal of academic study. This isn’t just a post-university issue; people with with any level of education face this challenge in the developing world.

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How much schooling does making gravel require?

To balance the equation, equal attention needs to be paid to fostering local job creation that improves and sustains the local economy. Yes, grads in Haiti can sometimes find decent employment, but often it requires moving to the United States or working for a local NGO. Yet neither of these solutions provide local, sustainable, economic growth and opportunity.

Why so much focus on the education aspect? We often look at the world through our own context. In the United States, for example, we can focus on education in and of itself, because historically, jobs have been available for the educated, and the benefits of obtaining education generally outweigh the costs of obtaining it. However, what’s the point of going to school if few opportunities await you afterwards? In places like Haiti, that’s an very relevant question.

I don’t have an easy solution for this dilemma, but I think that a focus on entrepreneurship in primary and secondary school could go a long way to help. In a culture that is taught to rely on handouts, the notion of developing a new business is novel and would require a very intentional effort to promote. Since entrepreneurship is an attitude more than a skill, encouraging children to look for ways to create value for themselves and for others using business skills can never take place too early, or be taught frequently enough.

In any case, if the resources and the debates related to opportunities after school matched those focused on education itself, then the resulting dialogue would likely lead us in the right direction.

Connectivity

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One thing that struck me last week was the lack of connectivity among NGOs in Haiti. Imagine a world where Microsoft was only vaguely familiar with Google, and Facebook and Twitter were completely aware of each others’ existence. That’s essentially what I experienced from spending time with various individuals and organizations in country. I expected that players of roughly equal size would know each other at a personal level, or at least be familiar with what each others’ organization was involved in. And I could only assume that the smaller NGOs would at least be somewhat knowledgable about the activities of their more established neighbors.

However, I was struck by the degree of isolation that was present. I’ve heard the argument made that progress in the developing world has fallen short of its potential in part because of such a lack of coordination. For example, if water treatment equipment is being installed down the street, is it really the best use of your resources to build one on your own property? Furthermore, projects executed in isolation tend to have limited effect; what’s really needed are comprehensive, bottom-up approaches to tackling a community’s needs. However, such solutions are not provided by subdividing everything into isolated projects that can be checked off like a to-do list, but by providing wholistic, integrative answers that tie all of the smaller initiatives together into something much more meaningful than the sum of its parts.   It’s not that organizations are necessarily intentional about working in this manner; it’s more the case that there are few tools that NGOs can effectively leverage to find others and collaborate. If there are any resources out there that do an especially good job of promoting this type of collaboration, I would love go hear all about them!

How Not to Build a Hospital

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Just outside of St. Louis du Nord, there’s a pretty significant construction project going on. And by significant I mean they have a crane, blanc engineers, a fence around the site, and even a security guard. A big deal around here.  This is what the site looked like last week. If you are familiar with typical Haitian construction, this will certainly stand out and grab your attention very quickly:

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We had heard they were building some sort of hospital there, so we chatted with the engineers for a bit. It turns out that their approach to construction was nearly opposite of what we are trying to accomplish in Bonneau. Here’s their modus operandi:

Have no connection to the local community. The hospital was being built by an Austrian NGO, who hired a Spanish engineering firm, who had not even visited Haiti prior to beginning construction. How they figured out what services were needed in the hospital is beyond me.

Ignore other local organizations and work in isolation. When asked how they were coordinating with the existing local mission hospital just a few miles away (which contains an operating theatre, an eye clinic, a birthing center, a pharmacy, and special needs care, among other services), our Spanish friends only said, “We think that some of those workers will come here and work instead.”

Do not have an operating plan. Since the engineers had told us that the project had a $2 million construction budget, I had assumed they had already lined up an organization to staff and run the thing. “It’s not our problem”, the project manager stated. Nor did he think anyone would be staffing the place when it was completed in six weeks.

Use prefab buildings to minimize the use of local labor. Bordering the construction site were containers filled with pre-built walls, complete with wiring, attachments etc. All that was left for the locals to do was pour the foundation and bolt everything together. Not exactly the best way to boost the local economy.

Completely clear and flatten the entire property before building. Because flat and rectangular are really, really interesting.

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Prefab walls ready to go.

A $200 Taxi Ride

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When I arrived in Port au Prince, yesterday, I decided to take a taxi (an SUV) to a city called Fermathe, which is just south of the captial, to meet with a mission located there. The driver informed me that it would take 2.5 hours to get there, and 2.5 hours to get back, so if he had to wait at the mission for about an hour we’d be looking at about 6 hours total. I wasn’t super excited about spending that much time in a cab, but no big deal. The price for that much of his time? $80, he told me. We settled on $70. As it turned out, we arrived there barely more than an hour later. However, my meeting ended up lasting about 5 hours, so we had already used up 6 hours of his time.

Good news, though, I had decided to meet another one of my contacts at Hotel Kinam that afternoon, which was only about 30 minutes away. So on the way there, he’s fiddling around with his cell phone, and, grinning sheepishly, holds it to me so I can read what’s on the screen: “200″. Thinking that he was asking me the time or something, I nodded a bit, since it was kind of close to 2:00. Then I realized – no, he’s telling me that the fare was going to be $200. Are you crazy? I asked him. He responded by telling me that he needed to charge me that much for making him wait so long. I just laughed and told him he was being ridiculous for trying so blatantly to take advantage of a blanc. Not knowing what to say back, he typed something on his phone again: “150″. Double the price? I didn’t think so, I said. I was only using up about half an hour more of his time, I explained, and wasn’t using any fuel for most of that duration. We went along like this for about 10 mInutes, and eventually he just stopped talking, so let’s just say that the next 20 minutes were a bit awkward. When he dropped me off, I handed him only $80 (doing my best to hide the remaining money in my wallet). Much to my surprise, he gladly took the money and went on his way, and I could proceed with the rest of my journey without being broke.

Cholera

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You’ve most likely been reading about the Cholera outbreak in Haiti. The outbreak originated in an area called Artibonite, which was just south of where we had been staying in the Northwest Zone, and north of Port au Prince. Since we arrived in Port au Prince yesterday, I have learned that a few cases have been discovered in the city itself. We’re especially concerned that the outbreak would spread to the Cite Soleil slum, where hundreds of thousands of people live in squalid conditions. Cholera would spread much more rapidly here than in the rural Artibonite area.

What’s frustrating about Cholera is that it’s actually a very easy disease to prevent. As a waterborne illness, it’s often contracted by drinking unsafe water. But since many, many, parts of this country lack access to safe water, the transmission of waterborne illnesses is not uncommon. 

Further complicating matters is that Cholera is “new” to Haiti, as there have not been reported cases of this sickness here for many years. Since people are often uninformed about this illness, they do not know how it is contracted and may not be aware that they need medical treatment until it is too late. Cholera is relatively simple to treat – usually patients can recover with an oral or intravenous solution of sugar and salt. 

Because Cholera is so easily preventable and relatively easy to cure, we never have to worry about it in developed countries. But since living conditions, education, and treatment infrastructure are so lacking here, thousands of lives are threatened. Be sure to say a prayer for the people here, and if you want to help more directly, please make a donation to Partners in Health, Doctors Without Borders, or Operation Blessing.

A 3-Wheeled Truck

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On our 4 AM drive to the Port de Paix airport this morning, a wheel on one of our trucks fell off. I don’t know how else to explain it, but the entire wheel and tire literally just fell off the axle as we were traversing over what is termed a “road” here. A better definition would be a “strip of land that happens to be devoid of buildings or trees”, but you get the idea. How did we solve the problem?

Fortunately, due to some anomaly in the universe, there is virtually no limit to the number of people you can fit in the bed of a Haitian pickup truck. Since we had two such vehicles at our disposal, we were able to take advantage of this property. You’d think that departing the mission campus with two pickups fully burdened with luggage and passengers would mean that we’d need to replace the truck that broke down, but you’d be wrong. We simply took the people and luggage from one completely full truck and added everyone and everything to the bed of the other already full pickup truck. And for some reason everything fit. Drive on.

If you decide to visit Haiti, and prefer another mode of transportation, there are basically two other options available to you:

At the small end of the spectrum, there’s the taxi, which sounds nice, but it’s really just a guy with a moped. Judging by the way these drivers weave through traffic, you’d think that accidents were more of an annoyance than a real danger. I rode on one earlier in the week, and they’re actually the fastest and most comfortable way to travel, as long as you don’t mind the driver experimenting with new and exciting collision avoidance techniques along the way.

At the other end of the spectrum is the “deuce and a half”, one of the most indestructible vehicles in Haiti. Originally built for military use, these six-wheel drive behemoths have been repurposed by many NGOs. If you feel the need to drive a Jeep or Hummer in the US, you will drive a deuce in Haiti – they’re great for transporting a dozen soldiers and some heavy artillery, or just a few of your friends. They are the Chuck Norris of Haitian vehicles: the roads do not break the deuce; the deuce breaks the road.

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Taking care of the deuce when it’s not terrorizing the roads.

Bonneau community workshop #2

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With the printed photos from Thursday’s community workshop in hand, we returned to Bonneau this morning for the second round. After witnessing our driver nearly destroy the transmission in his ancient Toyota pickup yesterday, in a lengthy attempt to traverse a mud bog with 7 passengers in the bed, I was kind of surprised that his truck functioned in good order today. How times can you switch from 1st to reverse at full throttle without blowing something up? Many, many times, apparently.

We skipped the formalities today, and asked our groups to explain waht they chose to photograph. Sabine and Chelina had made paper maps of the site, and also cut out 20 paper “buildings” that represented the various functions the community wanted to see on the site. One guy suggested a hotel yesterday, and the crowd basically laughed at him for thinking there was a need for a Holiday Inn at Bonneau, but we even included that in the mix. We then asked each of the three groups to narrow down the list of 20 buildings to 15. At that point, they were then tasked with arranging the paper buildings on the mock-up map. Every single group picked a church, and placed it at the western corner of the property against the road. The welding shop and the poultry farm got mixed reviews. Nobody picked the Holiday Inn.

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Our translator, Jack, explains how the first group laid out its map.

Photo op

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The second part of Thursday was a sort of photo journalism exercise for the community. Chelina and Sabine came up with a list of questions, created three groups of about ten people, and then send them off to take pictures of the following in Bonneau:

  • Places you like to be alone
  • Places you consider beautiful
  • Places that need to be improved
  • Buildings that you admire
  • Buildings that are ugly
  • Places where children play
  • Places where you go to buy things for your family

The idea is to get feedback from the community about what they admire and what they dislike. It’s especially hard to do this with a language barrier, and even more challenging when you have a large group of people offering different opinions. However, forcing the groups to agree on and photograph sites that met these criteria is a great way to convey this information.

One of our translators, Jack, and I set out with a group, and of course we began with a hike to the top of small mountain. I was kind of a haul, but worth it. Put another mark down for Bonneau as one of the most stunning places in Haiti:

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Of course, if pictures like this were indicative of the entire country, then we wouldn’t need to be here. From the top of a mountain, the country can look breathtaking, but when you look beneath the tress, sometimes you find things markedly different. This is a home that my group selected as one of the “ugliest” buildings in town. I got differing answers, but apparently 4-6 people live here:

I knew the group felt the exercise was important when I heard them in heated debate about where to visit next. I was surprised that they argued so much at first, but I tried to put myself in their shoes. Had anyone visited their town before to learn what they really valued? Probably not. So yeah, they’re going to take this seriously.

An hour or so of walking around, and we came away with a much better understanding of the town. When you get a group of locals to give you a tour of what they want to show you, and tell you how they feel about their community, it’s a much more meaningful experience than one could have by visiting alone. Here’s the crew at our last stop for the day:

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Bonneau community workshop #1

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I really didn’t know what to expect today, as we had scheduled our first community workshop session. We arrived in classic Haitian fashion, nearly an hour late, but our tardiness did nothing to reduce the size of the crowd. In attendance were the mayor, a security guard (who made sure to keep his dark sunglasses on the entire time), and about 60-70 people from Bonneau. Couldn’t believe how many people turned out listen to a few “blancs” (as white people are called) talk to them in a language they couldn’t understand a word of. I loved the fact that there were plastic-wrapped silk flowers placed on the table to make things “official”.

Our translators quickly helped us get things underway. Chelina, who heads our partner organization, the Kounkuey Design Initiative, led the discussion. It quickly became apparent that she had done this before; the crowd was nearly silent in response her inquiries at first, but it wasn’t long before she won them over and struggled to keep them quiet! The residents of the town had really thought out what their community needed, and once they realized that we were genuinely interested in improving their lives, it was all we could do to keep order.

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Chelina listening intently.

We had to laugh at ourselves for asking questions that I’m sure the townies thought were quite obvious. When we inquired, “Are there enough toilets here?”, the crowd shouted “NO!!” in unison. No problem getting a response on that one. Despite our lack of familiarity with the town (or perhaps because of it), the residents provided some useful insights into what they value and what they perceive as community problems. What’s the most important project?, we asked. More schools! Why are the roads in disrepair? We have no tools! Could you use a community washing facility? Please!

Chelina continued to work her magic with the audience, and after a couple hours of discourse, we ended the session with a much better understanding of what Bonneau wants in a new campus. The hardest thing we had to do was convincing people to leave; even after thanking them for their time and letting them know that they were free to go, no one seemed to be interested in going home!

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Wrapping up the discussion for the day.