Cover Story
RAISING THE STANDARD AND DIGNITY OF WORK: Bead makers at Papillon Enterprise in Petionville.
Iv Whitman/The Global Orphan Project
RAISING THE STANDARD AND DIGNITY OF WORK: Bead makers at Papillon Enterprise in Petionville.

From the work of their hands

Haiti | In Haiti, entrepreneurs who’ve learned hard lessons about charity handouts instead are launching business startups

Issue: "Getting paid not aid," Feb. 22, 2014

PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti—It’s 8:30 in the morning and Papillon Enterprise is a hive. The gift shop has customers and two cashiers at the counter, the café is thrumming with smoothie and espresso preparations. But these are just window dressing. The real industry is in backroom workshops, where Papillon employs about 200 artisans, many of them already bent over tables, busy with their craft. 

Ceramic bead makers—all in soft brown T-shirts—are working outdoors at picnic tables, shaping bits of clay they pull from large blocks on the ground. In another workspace men and women are cutting flattened cereal boxes into thin strips, not more than one-eighth inch wide, each measured then sliced precisely to be wound into paper beads. 

Room after room, the workers are assembling beads into strands, checking the work of others, measuring and mending, forming over time and careful process out of elemental paper and clay and tin beautiful jewelry and housewares. Walk through Papillon with a shopping basket, and you’ll want one of everything. 

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The work to achieve an attractive product line looks repetitive, tedious, eye-wearying—but the workers are talking, listening to music on their iPods, and enjoying a breeze through an open doorway that lets onto a small courtyard draped in bougainvillea.

And this is Haiti.

HAITI IS SYNONYMOUS WITH POVERTY. It’s the place where white people go to do good deeds—and penance for the African slave trading that birthed this island nation. Its economic successes historically have been mostly for the benefit of others, while its failures have stayed on the island. And among the world’s doomed ideas, Haiti has long been an early adopter: from sugarcane slave plantations and voodoo religion to UN stabilization missions, rampant deforestation, and corruptible foreign aid. 

If Haiti’s low standing on just about everything in the Western Hemisphere is legendary, so is its present status as an incubator for ever-more foreign aid—and particularly since the 2010 earthquake that left more than 150,000 Haitians dead and 1.5 million homeless.

Western charities—buoyed by the short 90-minute flight from Miami to Port-au-Prince and the no-boundaries way of doing business with a power structure run one minute by elected officials, the next by the Clinton Commission, or the UN—have experimented here. Notable projects that looked too big to fail, with millions of dollars in donations to back them, notably have failed anyway.

One of the most recent boondoggles: a housing village built as part of a $20 million aid package from Canada that sits empty just off Route Nationale #1 about 10 miles north of Port-au-Prince. Rows of two-story duplexes with carports line level paved streets, all solar-powered and intended to resettle some of the thousands of Haitians who’ve been living in tent camps since the quake. But the village sits on a vast empty plain, far removed from business areas and shops, and out of reach of public transportation. Most Haitians designated to live there have moved elsewhere.

Other examples are longer standing. The United States and other countries ferried so much rice into Haiti after the quake, they put out of business most of Haiti’s rice growers. One farmer told me imported rice sells on local markets for about one-tenth the price of locally grown rice. 

Millions of bottles of Fiji water (shipped in mostly by the U.S. military from 8,000 miles away) also left unintended consequences: As the empty plastic containers littered the streets, filtration and purification systems that before the quake served two-thirds of Haitians fell into disuse and disrepair. Cholera and other water-borne diseases once uncommon in Haiti have proliferated. 

Not surprisingly, donor nations haven’t spent what they promised on post-quake Haiti. According to the latest UN report available (from 2012), those who pledged $4.5 billion in 2010 had delivered only $2.3 billion. The United States pledged $3 billion via USAID but has actually obligated $1.3 billion. Of that, the majority has gone toward funding the operational costs of nongovernmental organizations, or NGOs, rather than directly to Haitian quake victims and consumers, say analysts. 

“Sixty percent [of USAID funds for Haiti] goes to firms operating inside the [Washington] beltway, disappearing in a black box,” said Jake Johnson of the Centre for Economic and Policy Research (CEPR), a Washington think tank, on the fourth anniversary of the quake Jan. 12.

“There is no doubt the international community saved lives in Haiti following the earthquake,” said James English of Texas Christian University, who serves as an adviser to Haiti’s secretary of state for the disabled. But “the international community continues to spend millions of dollars on airline tickets, hotel rooms, SUVs and salaries to put people on the ground in Port-au-Prince,” he said in a Miami Herald op-ed last month. NGOs have created in Haiti what English calls “a complex and dysfunctional dynamic.”

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