Haiti Needs Purpose, Not Pity

With the anniversary of the earthquake in Haiti upon us, I’ve seen a fair amount of predictable media coverage that recounts the devastating events of January 12, 2010, and an equal amount of coverage that focuses on the continuing plight of the Haitian people one year later.

I’m pretty ambivalent about the media coverage.  It’s not that I don’t think the situation in Haiti is worth remembering – I remember it all the time.  I was there 2 weeks after the earthquake struck last January and the sights and smells and sounds of the scared and the mourning, the sick and the dead, the endless, massive piles of rubble – those are things that stick in my mind.  I do remember.    My wish is that there could be a greater purpose to all the “anniversary” coverage of Haiti’s demise … that we could realize more than just remembrance and renewed sympathy, do more than shake our heads sadly and turn the page, or change the channel.

Sympathy has its place – compassion can be an incredibly powerful driving force.  But compassion in this case hasn’t proven effective.  For all the good that’s been done over the past year – longer, even, since we’re talking about a country that was plagued by economic and environmental hardships long before last year’s earthquake  — for all the support that’s come in to Haiti in the way of supplies and volunteers and money, it’s not enough.  Much of the aid, it’s been reported, isn’t even getting where it needs to be.  And even if every tent, every dollar, every box of food to date had been successfully directed and applied – relying on the good will and offerings of the rest of the world simply isn’t sustainable.

No, Haiti doesn’t need another telethon or more donations.  The best philanthropy efforts in the world haven’t and won’t solve for the more than 3,000 deaths to date due to cholera, or a more than 80% unemployment rate, or the fact that 1 million+ Haitians are living in makeshift shelters and unsafe, unsanitary tent cities.  As Nicholas Kristof aptly pointed out in his New York Times op-ed last week, Haiti’s people don’t need food and clothing, they need to be able to care for themselves and support their families.  They don’t need a handout, they need a ladder to climb.

There are pockets of progress to report on this front … Kristof cites Fonkoze, an organization which provides rural Haitians with economic support in the form of loans, education and training.  And Konbit, a program established by a team of MIT students, matches unemployed Haitians who might not otherwise have access to information about prospective job opportunities by way of an automated phone system.  Positive, meaningful programs like these do exist and are making a difference in Haiti … but a handful of organizations aren’t going to raise the country out of the mud and make it whole again.   It’s progress, but it’s still philanthropic progress.  I do truly and deeply appreciate philanthropy – but we can’t expect humanitarian giving to replace a sound and sustainable business model – which is what Haiti needs most of all.

Think about it: what if Haiti could present a compelling ROI to potential “investors” and demonstrate a meaningful return for their contribution there?  It would be a stretch — we’re talking about a country with a crippled infrastructure, corrupt government, widespread disease … and that’s just the headline.  Think about the challenges of doing business in Haiti when everything from their sanitation system to their roadways to their power supply is unreliable or in some places, nonexistent.  But changing the way we think about Haiti – regarding it not as the focus of philanthropy but as the source of potential opportunity – is the most compelling and promising way I can see to break the vicious cycle that’s got the country in dismal paralysis.  Haiti needs the resources and opportunities businesses could bring to bear in order to start solving for its widespread instability … but that instability is precisely what’s keeping many businesses from going there.

Note that I said “many businesses,” and not “all.”  There are many brands that have had manufacturing operations in Haiti for years, successfully … although like the nonprofit sector, it’s going to take more than the current roster to create any sort of discernible impact.  And starting this year, there will be one more name on the roster: we’re in the process of establishing a Timberland manufacturing facility there. The factory is being built in a trade zone located in Oanaminthe, a town that sits on the eastern border of Haiti adjacent to the Dominican Republic.  Oanaminthe is about 200 miles from Port au Prince, where the earthquake struck last January — but like Port au Prince, and most every other region of the country, it is an area of critical, persistent need.  The unemployment rate there mirrors the rest of the country, the living conditions are dismal and the local community is desperate for a ladder to climb.  With any luck, our factory will be open and operating by early summer … and while we’re starting small – 30 or 40 jobs to start – we’re hoping to grow to a point where we’ll need a workforce of 300 – 400 employees in the next few years.

Importantly, opening a factory in Haiti has some clear advantages for Timberland.  It will help us build our manufacturing capacity in a region that’s closer to our major markets; the abundant, motivated workforce is pretty attractive, too.  If the goal is to expand our manufacturing capacity in a manner and a location that makes economic and logistical sense, Haiti looks pretty good.

And as a company that’s committed to creating positive social and environmental impact at the same time we’re earning a buck, Haiti makes sense, too.  For nearly 2 years now, we’ve had a program in Haiti called Yele Vert which is all about reforestation and sustainable agriculture.  A little over a year ago we broke ground on the first Yele Vert nursery, with a vision of training local farmers to grow and cultivate trees, which would be sold (an economic boost for farmers and their community) or used to reforest the local hillsides.  While the earthquake took us (along with much of the rest of the world) temporarily off-track, it never took us off course.  A year later there are 6 Yele Vert community nurseries up and running at full capacity, with nearly 300,000 nursery-grown trees already planted by local farmers, and more than 100,000 slated to be planted in the next few months.

Since we’re already making social and environmental investments in Haiti, it makes sense – and is in our own best interest, if we want to see the Yele Vert vision become a blossoming reality – to invest our business there, too.  And with the establishment of a Timberland factory in Haiti, we’re completing the equation and living up to our own business model, which prescribes that commerce and justice should coexist and be mutually supportive.  I believe in our model of commerce and justice completely … and I’m as anxious as anyone to see it succeed in a country that is sorely lacking both.

Haiti probably doesn’t present as many compelling opportunities for other businesses as it does for Timberland, and I get that.  It’s a unique combination of right-place-right-time factors that have convinced us to make the leap and give it a try.  But the mentality that brought us to this point – regarding Haiti not as a repository for charitable giving and donations, but as a country that might in fact have something to offer us in the way of bottom-line business benefit – that’s the kind of shift in thinking I believe could be more valuable than check-writing and more profitable than a fundraiser.

Is going into business in Haiti a smart business decision?  That remains to be seen.  It certainly isn’t without substantial risks … but life, and business, is full of risks.  I for one choose not to dwell on “what if” and focus instead on what might be … more trees, more jobs, more stability for Haiti; a stronger, healthier relationship between an historically downtrodden country and the businesses and organizations that engage with it.

Crazy CEO fantasy?  Could be.  But as long as the fantasy is better than realty, I’ll be working toward it.

  • Tom Roberts

    I am pleased you are continuing your support for Haiti Jeff. Proud to know you and proud to have worked for you. Keep the faith.

    Tom

  • http://twitter.com/avrilfg Greg Avril

    that is a fine example for foreign investors and local companies alike.

  • http://www.nosvoix.com/the-business-of-recovery-haiti-needs-investment-more-than-aid/ Nosvoix

    [...] on a longstanding philanthropic presence in Haiti focused on reforestation, last year the company opened a factory in the country to manufacture shoes, hiring and training local [...]

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    [...] on a longstanding philanthropic presence in Haiti focused on reforestation, last year the companyopened a factory in the country to manufacture shoes, hiring and training local [...]

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