A driver’s perspective on Haiti


I had the chance to chat with one of our drivers on our trip through Haiti this week: a 28-year old local named Holgan who was kind enough to share his perspective on his country. How had the attitudes of Haitians changed in the twelve months following the earthquake, I wondered?

Before I share his response, let me say that Holgan had it better than many Haitians. Having gone through secondary school (the equivalent of high school in the U.S.), he was relatively well-educated. And by working as a well-connected driver in Port-au-Prince, Holgan likely earned a pretty decent income. He even had a girlfriend from the Netherlands he was crazy about, and showed me a picture he kept of a used BMW he aspired to buy one day.

But when Holgan answered my question, he was quick to point out how hope for new beginnings after the earthquake had now soured into frustration at a lack of action. As Haitians haven’t seen their government deliver on moving the country forward, he said, the initial optimism had almost fully waned. I couldn’t blame him – touring Port-au-Prince for the umpteenth time yesterday, I was still amazed at the appalling conditions in which people here live and work. For example, upon seeing a produce market that was half-flooded in runoff and sewer water, with buyers and sellers nearly wading through the filthy river-like streets in order to conduct business, I asked Holgan if the market was always like this. No, he laughed, after the earthquake everything changed. Yet over a year later, daily life still often takes place in squalid conditions.

But just because Holgan was frustrated didn’t mean that he wasn’t bullish on the future. He was quick to smile, proud of his work, and had no problem pointing to some programs and organizations that were truly doing great things. He didn’t share anything negative unless he was asked to. The fact that Holgan still held on to the idea of a more prosperous future showed that at heart, he was truly a “glass is half full” kind of guy.

One of the things I love about being in Haiti is that Holgan’s attitude isn’t unique to him. We sat in on a devotional service this morning in which the preacher talked about the prophet Jeremie’s unwavering faith and optimism, despite the trials and setbacks that he and his people faced. The audience listened closely, nodding as if merely being reminded of an attitude they held deep within. When we toured the home of a poor, jobless woman who was raising ten children herself, all she had for us was a smile and a sweet-sounding “Salut!”. Even most of the expatriates living here are cheerful. The “new” couple I stayed with last night, who moved here about a month ago, beamed with pleasure at showing us the projects they were working on with locals. And the couple of “veterans” from a local mission I had dinner tonight continued to be excited about their work that lay ahead, eager for the next challenge.

The fact that I rarely hear anyone complain seems strange, especially since there’s so much to gripe about here. Maybe this attitude can teach those of us who have a great deal more a thing or two. There’s a lot going wrong in Haiti, but I’ve seen that no matter how difficult the circumstances, human beings have an uncanny ability to find joy in life. What other way could you survive in such a tough world?

Mountain traverse in Haiti


I’m amazed at how Haiti continues to reveal its gorgeous geography when I explore new parts of the country. While Haiti has experienced tremendous environmental degradation, especially from deforestation, there remain some truly spectacular areas to see. Today we tromped around on a Honda “Big Red 4×4”: basically a souped-up golf cart that can go places full-size trucks can’t. As we traversed through some mountainous regions just south of Port-au-Prince (in the Fermate area), the scenery was unlike anything I’d typically seen in the media:

While the landscape was fascinating, equally striking was the difficulty required to access this part of Haiti. While only several miles outside of Port-au-Prince, the area we visited was a real challenge to get to. To give you an idea of how close to the city we were, here’s our location on the map:

Despite the proximity to the capital, the outskirts of Fermate might as well be in the middle of nowhere. As rough as many of the roads in Haiti are, they’re no comparison to the rocky inclines we had to crawl up in our little 4×4 to pass through here. It would truly be challenging (if not outright unsafe) to drive on these “roads” with a standard truck, as the passageways are extremely narrow and quite steep in some places. “Trails” is a more apt term than anything else. Not that this keeps people from living in the area; we passed by plenty of  villages where people made a living by practicing terraced farming on the hillsides.

Having experienced the real isolation these communities face, it was no surprise to learn how few organizations work in the area. In fact, at one of the clinics we visited, a worker told us that it wasn’t uncommon for patients to walk over 10 hours to reach the facility – all because vehicle access was out of the question. Below are a few snippets from the journey today – keep in mind that I couldn’t film the steeper sections, simply because I needed two hands to hold on!

Returning to Haiti


I’m returning to Haiti this morning for the fifth visit in less than a year. Whenever people ask me about going there, they often ask things like, “Are things getting better? How close are they to rebuilding after the earthquake?”

These questions always throw me off guard. I never know quite what to say, because regardless of how much has or hasn’t changed, the environment is so different from what I’m used to that it’s very difficult for me to gauge much of anything. I would liken it to asking a new listener to jazz to explain the differences in style between two John Coltrane albums recorded within a couple years of each other. If you haven’t spent time studying an area, all you’ll pick up on is the obvious.

But as in jazz, the nuances matter just as much in a culture. How are people’s views of the future changing? What is their assessment of the present? How do they feel about foreigners? These types of questions can’t be answered by the casual observer, but hopefully some of my friends here can help me understand things a bit deeper.

Perhaps the fact that I’ll be in Haiti a bit longer this time will allow me to pick up more details this trip. I’ll certainly post anything I come across that’s worth sharing!

Education for Social Entrepreneurs


Bloggers Sam Davidson and Ryan Stephens have been sounding off on how more schools needs to teach entrepreneurship. Couldn’t agree more. But as Steve Blank outlines on his own blog, there are different types of entrepreneurship: small business, scalable startup, large company, and social.

I believe that each area demands its own course of study. Since I’m pretty involved in the social sphere, it became quickly apparent to me that a mere understanding the core tenets of entrepreneurship isn’t enough to be effective in this space. According to Mr. Blank,

Social entrepreneurs are innovators who focus on creating products and services that solve social needs and problems. But unlike scalable startups their goal is to make the world a better place, not to take market share or to create to wealth for the founders. They may be nonprofit, for-profit, or hybrid.

Does traditional entrepreneurship teach one how to address “social needs and problems”? No. So while all entrepreneurs need to understand marketing, finance, and so on, social entrepreneurs really do have to go a step further. The “1 Million Shirts” campaign is a great example of good intentions gone bad because of a culturally ignorant marketer. Haiti Rewired sums it up nicely:

In mid-April, Jason Sadler announced to the Internet that he wanted to collect 1,000,000 used t-shirts to send to Africa. Sadler, who runs a web-based marketing company called IWearYourShirt.com, spread the word about the 1 Million Shirts campaign through Twitter and other social media. By early May, word reached the humanitarian aid worker blogosphere. They did not like what they heard…

Aid workers granted Sadler’s intentions were good and he had made some small-scale efforts to gather information on specific places shirts could be used. But development experts objected that the large-scale project to send Africa 1,000,000 free t-shirts was inefficient, misguided, and could potentially swamp local economies for recycled and locally-manufactured clothing. The short but intense firestorm they created ended the project to ship shirts to Africa.

Think that individuals are the only one susceptible poorly thought out aid work? The Even World Vision, one of the largest non-profits in the world, caught flack for the way it delivered unused Super Bowl t-shirts this year. Aid Watchers has a solid critique that’s worth reading:

1. It’s not needed. Seriously, neither the developing world as a whole nor the specific recipient countries named by World Vision suffer an undersupply of T-shirts.

2. It’s not cost-effective. The cost of collecting, sorting, shipping and distributing bulky, low-value items like a bunch of T-shirts does not justify the (very questionable) benefit. And don’t forget to include the opportunity cost, the lost chance to allocate those same, considerable resources to provide something better, like clean water or medicine. (A World Vision PR rep told the New York times in 2007: “Where these items go, the people don’t have electricity or running water.”

3. It can perpetuate local community’s dependence on free handouts and stifle home-grown economic initiatives, not to mention putting out of business local shirt sellers.

So my advice to educators who want to teach social entrepreneurship? Make sure your students spend an equal amount of time learning about history, political science, anthropology, international development, or a related field. At a minimum, a basic understanding of these subjects is necessary to make sure the efforts of an enterprising person will result in lasting good.

You don’t have to be an expert in any of these area to get things right, but having an appreciation and awareness of them will go a long way to make sure you bring in the right experts before putting your idea to “change the world” into action. Thankfully, if you missed out of any of these classes in school, MIT has a tremendous amount of course material available through its OpenCourseWare site. All for free.

Can you think of other subjects that social entrepreneurs need to be aware of?

How not to design a game around cause awareness


Can games be used to create awareness of social issues? Developers are starting to try, but so far I’ve seen more misses than hits. Let’s look at a couple of examples of what not to do.

#1: Design a game that will put you to sleep

Obvious, right? Take a look at Free Rice. The game is a quiz format that tests you on a series of questions related to a subject of your choice (math, French, etc). For every question you answer correctly, Free Rice donates 10 grains of rice to the World Food Programme. The idea is that by playing the game, you’re not only helping provide food, but you’ve increased your awareness of global hunger.

Great. But Free Rice isn’t exactly fun. It’s more akin to preparing for the GRE than an enjoyable diversion. Granted, quiz format games tend to be a bit less addictive, but even within the genre, Free Rice is pretty bland (sorry, I couldn’t resist the pun).

So the “game” misses out on the full opportunity raise awareness about hunger, since the poor playing experiene will limit player engagement.

#2: Be completely disrespectful of the cause you’re focused on

Contrast Free Rice with Smuggle Truck, a driving game in which the objective is to transport as many illegal immigrants across the border as possible. The game has some good things going for it, especially related to game play; just take a look at the trailer below:

But the problem with Smuggle Truck is that it comes across as completely disrespectful of the people who undergo extreme hardship to emigrate into another country. Pretty tasteless in my opinion. You might be able to make the argument that because of Smuggle Truck’s shock value, it will create more awareness for an issue than a conservative game like Free Rice. But since the method used to create the shock undermines any legitimate education that might have taken place, Smuggle Truck misses the mark just as much as Free Rice does.

These are examples at the ends of the spectrum, and fortunately there are some game designers who are doings a better job of tying games into causes, like Jane McGonigal. But the problem with these two examples is not that they’ve fallen short of their own potential, but that their poor execution undermines the entire idea of games associated with causes in the first place.

Do you know of a good example of a game designed around causes? Let me know!

How the absence of pity changes perspectives


One of my colleagues shared this video with our team today. I was so taken with it’s fresh perspective I had to post it here:

The message here is clear: children in Africa (or any third world country, for that matter) shouldn’t be seen as objects of pity; they’re kids not unlike the ones you might see in your own community. How would this change your attitude about giving if you saw everyone this way?

If want to learn more about the organization behind the video, head over to Mama Hope’s website.

Keeping your fingernails dirty


Two separate people I met with yesterday each brought up the challenge in scaling a cause-related organization. It seems that there are two dynamics necessary for an organization to thrive that pull at each other in opposite directions.

On one hand, there’s the need to stay in touch with the work in the field: visiting sites on the ground (wherever they happen to be in the world), having conversations with the doers and the field teams, and interacting directly with the people being served (the clients). Let’s call this “keeping your fingernails dirty”.

On the other end, there is the need for attention given to high-level decision making, program replicability, and organizational growth. This is time-consuming work that demands plenty of reflection and is difficult to rush. Let’s refer to this as the “ivory tower” work.

The dirty fingernails approach is what matters most at the nascent stages of an organization’s growth. All of the academic research and second-hand accounts of what takes place in the “real world” aren’t nearly as meaningful as spending time on the ground.  In my experience, that’s the only way to understand the context of the work you plan engage in.

I remember being in Tanzania and hearing of how ineffectual the police forces could be. But it was only after witnessing a terrible traffic accident there that I truly understood what this meant. Dozens of school kids had been injured when their bus flipped on its side. The police arrived several minutes later, but instead of helping the children to safety, they stood by and watched as the locals loaded kids into random vehicles that passed by. Those nearby, including myself, yelled at the police for being completely helpless, but it had little effect. A terrible scene, but certainly an effective way of understanding the dynamics of the country. This level of understanding is key; it forms the foundation necessary to become truly effective.

The only problem with keeping your fingernails dirty is that it doesn’t scale well. There are only so many places one can dig his hands into. Let’s say you’re someone like Greg Mortenson, whom I mentioned in one of my posts last week. You’ve targeted an area of the world to support and have built an effective model for working there. Now you want to expand to a new region in order to take advantage of the model you’ve built. But how would how would devote yourself to learning about another culture or country without compromising your existing relationships? How would you remain in touch with the local communities you’ve established ties with? In other words – how would you keep your fingernails dirty?

So the risk is that in growth, one might weaken her connections with a place that remains a core part of her organization’s focus. The result could be a lack of efficiency, in the least. At worst, a gross misunderstanding of a context or culture might result, and I doubt this would ever conclude well. You don’t have to look very hard to find examples of development work gone bad due to a lack of cultural perspective.

Is there a solution for balancing the two, a magic bullet? I haven’t found one, and there’s likely a different answer for each organization. But whatever stage your organization is in, make sure that you, and the people on your team, make of point of keeping your fingernails dirty.