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.
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.”
Global aid advocates and economists like Jeffrey Sachs won’t be let off the hook for the dysfunctional economies created by aid regimes. The UN’s long-touted Millennium Development Goals, that include cutting global poverty by half, come due in 2015. Already critics like New York University’s William Easterly (author of White Man’s Burden and Tyranny of Experts due out next month) are pointing out that “raising enough money to pay for the right combination of known technical solutions” to poverty hasn’t proved the answer.
Sachs has been the darling economist for financiers like George Soros and celebrity philanthropists. But a 2013 book by Nina Munk, The Idealist, examines up-close and in-depth Sachs’ vaunted Millennium Villages Project, a dozen model villages set up across 10 African countries with Soros millions—and chronicles their failure to thrive.
In all the world there’s no better example of the failure of big aid and formulaic poverty-fighting than Haiti: For more than a decade, donor nations have spent per capita more than double the world average on aid here—more even than in places like Somalia and Sierra Leone—without seeing measurable reductions in poverty.
BUT THERE CAN BE A SILVER LINING to making so many mistakes: savvy entrepreneurs watching and ready to learn from them. One is Shelley Clay, who founded Papillon Enterprise in 2008 after quickly surmising the worth for Haitians of business startups versus charity handouts.
Shelley and her husband, Corrigan, traveled to Haiti in 2007 hoping to adopt. “I soon realized most of the ‘orphans’ I was seeing had parents,” she said. They simply could not afford to care for them.
Clay also realized that the thousands of dollars going to adoption fees would end up in government officials’ hands and the bureaucracy, not with poor Haitian families. The more urgent need, she decided, was to help poor mothers earn money so they could afford to keep their children rather than turn them over to orphanages.
Nine months later Clay moved to Port-au-Prince with her husband and went to work in an orphanage. She started classes making bead necklaces with four women. “The necklaces were ugly but people were buying them anyway,” she said. “There’s so much guilt purchasing, and more with the earthquake, but with it we were employing moms.”
Starting Papillon as a nonprofit, Clay used grants—including one from the Clinton Foundation that helped expand her present facilities in Petionville, a hilly suburb of Port-au-Prince—to leverage what’s become a for-profit business. At the end of 2010 she sold $100,000 in jewelry, mostly overseas, through her nonprofit overseas exchange, the Apparent Project. In 2013, Papillon had an estimated $1 million in sales.
In that time the company has grown from 40 workers to about 250 today. Many of them Clay hired as she visited orphanages and then tent cities following the quake. Her employees also now include 30 inmates who are rolling beads for two hours a day and getting paid for it. “It’s huge,” she said, “because in Haiti you can’t go to trial without money.” She hopes to expand job opportunities in prisons, including a nearby women’s prison.
It didn’t take Clay long to learn what leads to success. “Our products have to be beautiful,” she said. And raising the standard and dignity of work for Haitians is key to that. Most Papillon employees earn $15 a day, an above-average wage, plus they receive health insurance, something unheard of. “I would never be able to buy enough rice to feed these people,” she said. “They feed themselves with the money they earn.”
Several single mothers who work at Papillon have progressed from having their children in orphanages to owning their own homes and paying the fees to send their children to school.
Clay came into the business with no design training or art-school background, but has learned on the job with the often-underestimated expertise of Haitian artisans. She’s also taken advantage of local ingenuity at using materials recycled from the street. With the company’s growth, her current challenge is finding upper management: “People coming out of accounting school don’t know how to do a spreadsheet here.”
Given Haiti’s dysfunctional economy, Clay is persistently threading her way through a landscape of NGOs, government entities, and private overseas customers. Papillon goods sold through the Apparent Project are now carried by leading designers like Donna Karan and Chan Luu. Large-scale vendors (including Walmart) want to contract for the company’s Christmas ornaments (in 2013 Papillon sold 50,000 of them).
At the same time, Clay partners purposefully with smaller NGOs and faith-based nonprofits like The Global Orphan Project more in line with her own philosophy. This spring the Kansas City, Mo.–based Global Orphan Project (GO) will carry necklaces and bracelets made by Papillon through its GO Exchange, which sells locally made clothing and accessories from Haiti, Uganda, and Ethiopia.
IN MANY WAYS GO’s learning curve in Haiti has paralleled what Clay and other entrepreneurs have discovered. Initially working as C3 Missions, the organization set up its first orphanage a decade ago and now has church-based orphan care in 20 countries. But GO officers quickly learned that providing “24/7 residential care” wasn’t sustainable and shifted to what they call market-based funding for orphan care. Providing housing for orphans, GO CEO Joe Knittig told me, was “attractively simple and exciting to givers,” but “naïvely simplistic.”
Perpetual financial charity led to dependency and what Knittig calls “the dignity drain.” Better to partner with churches, who make up a vast community-based network in Haiti, provide structural support, but require that orphan care find ways to sustain itself. Using this model GO supports churches and church projects while eschewing its own buildings, a fleet of Land Rovers, or even signs bearing its logo.
Beyond that, GO learned that by focusing on care facilities, “We unintentionally created an incentive for hurting parents and relatives—particularly poor, single mothers—to quit on parenting in the hope that their children could be placed in residential care with the church,” said Knittig. By instead focusing on “local church-based communities,” the priority became keeping families and communities together to prosper.
“We started as an orphan care ministry. We have become an orphan care and orphan prevention ministry,” said Knittig.
Pastor Claude Mondesir is an example of a GO partner. Over the course of 30 years the Haitian, who became a Christian through an American missionary in Cap Haitien, has planted at least four churches and started a school at each. One month after the quake GO partnered with him to open Eben Ezer, a village in Leogane, the quake epicenter. It now houses and schools 95 children, and has one of the only churches in the area.
Mondesir also has developed a knack for spawning business enterprises to support the church-based orphan care. A chicken farm supplies food for the orphanages, but also sells to local markets. It and vocational training with courses in animal husbandry, sewing, and business provide opportunities for orphans ready to “age out” and enter the job market. And when GO needed a place for missions teams to stay in Haiti, it bought property about 10 miles outside Port-au-Prince, but Mondesir built on it a modest hotel now staffed and run by Haitians. It’s housed more than 100 overseas missions teams (who pay to stay there).
“Whatever we do has to serve orphan care in some way. It has to feed kids or provide income for them or their caregivers,” said Jake Barreth, field director for GO. Another dividend of developing community and enterprise around the church—Mondesir’s churches are growing, along with those of other pastors who partner with GO.
Knittig, who left a law practice in Kansas City to become The Global Orphan Project CEO in 2008, said it’s important to embrace “organizational sanctification” to work in a place like Haiti. “We don’t stick our heads in the sand to avoid the pain of mistakes, or hide mistakes in order to raise more money. We actively look for bad facts in the process of what we do, as these are opportunities to learn, change, and serve children and families better.”
The “aid versus economic development” issue to Knittig is “not about how to best guarantee the illusory outcome of ending physical poverty. It’s all about dignity in the process of how we serve the poor; about how to best champion family and community with all of the spiritual, intellectual, and financial capital that we can bring to the table.”
—For the complete interview with Global Orphan Project’s Joe Knittig, see below.
Joe Knittig was a trial lawyer when he made his first trip to Haiti in 2005. But in 2008 he left the legal world to become chief executive officer for The Global Orphan Project (GO). It currently partners with 17 projects, including villages dedicated to orphan care, in Haiti as well as other projects around the world. Knittig travels extensively from GO’s home base in Kansas City, Mo., and when GO sponsors a run in Haiti or other adventures, he joins in that too. Knittig authored The Global Orphan Report (Booktango, 2012) to shed light not only on children who’ve lost parents but what Knittig calls “capital ‘O’ orphans” both overseas and in the United States—children “whose family care networks have catastrophically failed them.” In an email interview following a recent trip to Haiti, I asked him to describe some mistakes from helping in these catastrophe zones, and what his organization has learned from them.
Among non-governmental organizations, GO seems transparent about what works and what doesn’t in Haiti. Would you say that GO has learned from its own mistakes, or the mistakes of others, and could you give an example or two? Absolutely. We have a ministry culture within GO that embraces organizational sanctification. We don’t stick our heads in the sand to avoid the pain of mistakes, or hide mistakes in order to raise more money. We actively look for bad facts in the process of what we do, as these are opportunities to learn, change, and serve children and families better. And we actively look to share our mistakes with others, to help other ministries improve in shrewd ways. This is the very reason that I wrote The Orphan Report—to share with other ministry leaders learning points from our mistakes in the “orphan window.”
Can you amplify that? First example: When we first started in orphan care ministry, our single intervention for children was to help our local church partners provide 24/7 residential care to hurting children in their communities. While attractively simple and exciting to givers, our approach was naïvely simplistic.
Without question, children who suffer catastrophic family failure need the protection of 24/7 care in a safe environment. However, by just focusing on children’s homes, we unintentionally created an incentive for hurting parents and relatives—particularly poor single mothers—to quit on parenting in the hope that their children could be placed in residential care with the church. That was wrong. God is not for dividing families.
We learned from our indigenous partners and our mistakes, and broadened our platform to better reflect the realities of hurting children and families in the communities where we serve. We now work through the indigenous local church to:
- Help keep vulnerable families together (economic development and school access for children on the brink have become “big rocks” of our ministry).
- Provide 24/7 residential care in culturally relevant, family-based safe homes for children who truly need such care (there are many such children, unfortunately).
- Support reunification of such children with extended family members if/when possible (helping in the redemption of broken families is a major “win”).
We started as an orphan care ministry. We have become an orphan care and orphan prevention ministry. And we expect this process of broadening our services to better support family through the local church to continue, including in the area of domestic adoption.
Here’s the second example: When we first started, we overly emphasized a simple “rescue” message to the donor world. In other words, “give to save the life of a child.” This was a huge mistake. While this was really effective in terms of raising money, it significantly limited our true mission: to facilitate inside-out life transformation of all who step into the world’s orphan window.
Our simple “rescue” message didn’t fully align with what we see God doing, it was laced with pride, and it elevated clinical marketing over messy reality. We have changed our messaging. We still encourage and celebrate the hearts of givers to help, serve, and change the lives of children. But now we do better in sharing the full mess and beauty of what’s happening in the orphan window, trusting that deep transformation from the Lord comes from deep truth.
This change in how we communicate what we see the Lord doing has been a critically important—and positive—course correction in our ministry. This “depth over breadth” course correction is not necessarily the most effective in terms of fundraising. But we’ll take more transformation over more money any day of the week, and trust the Lord to grow us financially as He wills.
The aid debate rages in this country, but it seems clear that what works better than charity are income-producing and job-creating enterprises run by locals with outside help in some way. Can you elaborate, agree, or disagree with that? I don’t believe there is some magic “model” that will end poverty. To me, this “aid vs. economic development” issue is not about how to best guarantee the illusory outcome of ending physical poverty. It’s all about dignity in the process of how we serve the poor, about how to best champion family and community with all of the spiritual, intellectual, and financial capital that we can bring to the table.
On the one hand, the Big Aid purists insist that aid is best and more aid is the answer. On the other hand, the free market purists insist that economic development is best and aid kills. So who is right? From our experience serving in the orphan window, both are. Both sides need to bring some humility and objectivity to the table, and stop recklessly tearing down others to promote self.
Without pure, unadulterated charity, we couldn’t get out of the blocks in helping our local church partners provide the basics to children who’ve lost it all. And with too much dependence on pure aid, our efforts to “help” would get swallowed up by the dignity drain from all aid and no production within a community.
We’ve all heard the saying, ”Give a man a fish, you feed him for a day. Teach a man to fish, you feed him for a lifetime.” We believe that both givers and teachers are needed. And we believe that in our über-connected world, we’ve reached an exciting point where an addendum to this saying is appropriate: ”Invest in a man’s fish business and become his customer, and he will feed others.”
In sum, we need pure givers, teachers, and investors. All of the above. And we need a constant check to ensure that the process promotes not our pride, but the dignity of the people we’re privileged to serve.
If there is one thing you want Americans to understand about how best to approach helping Haitians and others in poor nations what is it? The process is the point. Open up to the possibility that Jesus intends way more in the rich-poor connection than one side “fixing” the other through money and intellect. He intends two-way life change in the process of connection.
The world’s orphan window—whether in Haiti, East Africa, or right here in the United States foster care system—is a particularly powerful life change zone right now. Step into the lives of these kids with even a part of your heart, and see what happens.