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admin / March 5, 2015

Haiti: The locals attacked us because they thought we were the doctors who’d promised to return

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Published in The Guardian

Five years after the big earthquake, Elizabeth Schaeffer Brown’s attempts to help Haitians secure a prosperous future have taught her that philanthropy simply isn’t enough.

In 1995, when I was 18, I served as a volunteer for a Columbia University-sponsored aid program in Haiti at a time when the country was in social and political crisis. Our mission in Port-au-Prince – to paint a local school and visit a hospital – made no sense to me. We were neither painters nor medical professionals. We were little more than tourists.

The day after we completed our painting duties, three of us wandered out of the section of the city patrolled by the United Nations Multinational Force and headed for Fort Nationale, one of the poorest areas in Haiti. There, two kind teenage Haitian boys volunteered to show us around. Deep in the neighborhood, a woman, whose face lit up, her eyes cold and piercing, yanked me into a home the size of my dorm bathroom. The air was thick and putrid with the stench of rot and human waste.

She pointed to the ground where a child of about six years old – the age of my own son now – lay listless, flies buzzing around his body. The boy’s eyes were wide open, the irises yellow, and he stared blankly at the wall. His eyelid twitched at one of the flies. The woman screamed at me, and I rushed outside where the air, heavy with urine and rot, swallowed me. A large crowd appeared and hands grabbed me and my friends, lifting us off the ground. Dragged into one hut after another, we saw more children starving or dying of illness.

A friend who spoke Creole yelled that the crowd was talking about Americans who had visited months ago, doctors who had looked like me: “They said they would come back with medicine and food.”

A rock hit my head. Then another. My friend translated that some in the crowd planned to get machetes to kill us. Others said they wanted to hold us hostage. We were tugged in many directions, but with the help of the boys who had brought us, we eventually escaped to Port-au-Prince and found our group.

Back in New York, I could not return to my life right away. I dropped out of college. I had been afraid, and I still felt the reverberations of that terror, but mainly I struggled to form a framework for understanding and responding to the overwhelming suffering I had witnessed. I could not forget the woman in the Fort Nationale neighborhood whose six-year-old son lay dying on the floor.

I did not know how to bridge the enormous historical divide that separated us, so I tried to forget about it. I didn’t know what else to do.

The massive earthquake that shook Haiti in 2010 surprised and horrified the entire world. Amid the nonstop media coverage, my memories resurfaced. This time I could not avoid them. I thought of the woman and her child.

No longer a student, I was now in position to act. As I witnessed the world respond to the crisis with aid and support, I joined a growing number of social entrepreneurs determined to help Haiti build a sustainable, prosperous and secure future.

During multiple trips to Haiti in the years following the earthquake, I never found the woman I had encountered in Fort Nationale in 1995, but I did meet others like her. One of the first women I met when I landed in Port-au-Prince asked suspiciously if I was a celebrity. When I said no, she asked: “Nonprofit?” When I told her I was a business person, her face lit up. “Welcome to Haiti!” she said.

The Haitians I met did not aspire to work as low-wage contract laborers for American companies. They wanted to help their community and be successful.

Six months after the earthquake, we produced the first hundred of thousands of bracelets made from plastic water bottles and recycled newspapers from the streets of Port-au-Prince. Artisans sliced the plastic into rings and covered them with papier-mâché. Soon, hundreds of refugees living in tent camps were trained to make bracelets.

By the end of the project, the bracelets were selling at Gap, Forever 21 and HauteLook. But after the first orders sold, the media shifted away from the Haiti crisis. Retailers refused a second round of orders. I had to face a mother of three, who had been supporting her family by making the bracelets, and explain that there would be no more work. Consumers had begun to experience “cause fatigue”.

Haiti, like many other underdeveloped nations and communities around the world, needs to create the kind of long-term income streams that don’t depend solely on the sympathy and generosity of consumers. Haiti needs to develop economic infrastructure. Markets may not solve all the world’s problems, but if we reject everything that contains contradictions then we reject everything.

Of course we should continue to push markets to become more humane. But conventional marketing around causes – through models like buy one, give one – tends to separate selfish from selfless buying, which also limits its success. We need to push ahead to a model that stops separating mainstream business practices from philanthropic impulses.

Why assume that the motives of markets are always in opposition to the health of producers, workers, consumers and communities? Many consumers already understand that healthy communities and a healthy environment are both good for them and good for business.

In the years after the Haiti earthquake, many of the bold efforts to transform Haiti fell apart. But some businesses and entrepreneurs, such as Industrial Revolution II, Hugh Jackman’s Laughing Man, West Elm and Chan Luu, have stepped forward with for-profit business models in manufacturing and certified-organic farming that have begun to benefit entrepreneurs, workers, consumers and communities.

When I returned Port-au-Prince in October of 2014 and drove through the streets, I noticed the tents that once overflowed the city were gone. Streets once full of rubble were crowded with buses and people selling vegetables. Most of those who had survived the earthquake were back in some kind of home.

After the earthquake, Haitian-based Caribbean Craft employed people to work in the camps and tents in temporary structures. Now they had a factory and offices with working Internet. The ruined presidential palace had been razed, and the government was rebuilding its ministries downtown.

There is still desperation in Haiti, but I see a new future being forged out of the destruction of the quake. To bring that to fruition, Haiti needs more responsible partners who believe that a larger definition of self-interest is a pragmatic response to our interconnectedness.