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Blog / Jul. 24

What Haiti Taught Me

Nikki Baird

Editor’s Foreword: In 2016, Aptos made a long-term commitment to help improve the lives of vulnerable children in Haiti through our partnership with RetailROI and Lifesong for Orphans. Aptos’ support for the community of Bercy, Haiti has included monetary donations, material resources and hands-on volunteering. A group of individuals affiliated with Aptos and RetailROI, including Nikki Baird and her son Corbin, were on a volunteering mission in Haiti when the riots broke out in early July. Here’s her story and what she learned:

First, let’s get the elephant out of the room. I was part of a group of five people traveling to Haiti in early July as part of a RetailROI trip, and yes we were there when the troubles in Haiti started. We were supposed to leave Haiti on July 8, and instead we were able to squeeze through the unrest on the road early on July 9 to get to the airport, and thankfully, get seats on a plane out that day. Others were not so lucky.

For my part, unrest can happen pretty much anywhere at any time. While I don’t believe in taking unnecessary risks, if you define your life in terms of avoiding anything dangerous ever, personally I think you’re not going to have much of a life. I would go back to Haiti and when I asked Corbin, my 16-year-old son the same question, he said the same thing.

Part of the reason why I feel that way is because Mike and Amy Rivas, the directors of Lifesong MBO in Bercy, are exceedingly competent people who have operated in crazy-dangerous parts of the world and bring that experience and just an overall sense of calm to situations that are manageable. I think it’s also a testament to the work they’re doing – the difference they’re making – that they are regarded more as trusted members of the community, as leaders participating in that community, than as outsiders imposing their will. They’re trying to make Haiti – the community of Bercy, Haiti, specifically – a better place, and they’re making progress. That was why we were able to maneuver through road blocks and “toll” demands unscathed while other groups trying to get to the airport had a much different experience.

So, now that that part is out of the way, here’s what Haiti taught me.

  1. Plastic is a disease.
    Both Corbin and I were immediately struck by the trash in Haiti. There are no government services to speak of, and trash would be low on the list. But it wasn’t accumulated piles of just general refuse. It was the plastic. You can’t burn it (and even when you try, most plastic when burned releases toxic chemicals). You can bury it, but it takes forever to decompose. Haiti is strangling in plastic.

    We have the same problem here but we bury ours – out of sight, out of mind. We have the infrastructure in place to hide all of that plastic away. But the price of that convenience will come back to bite us too – except it won’t be our problem, it’ll be our kids’, or their kids’.

    Plastic is a disease. The cure entails some radical rethink in our definition of “convenient”, and in how we define the “cost” of something – because it’s not just the cost to make and distribute it. It’s the cost to get rid of it that in the end becomes the most important thing.

    My family, eyes open, will be making as many plastic-eliminating changes as we can. My question for you: can you do the same?

    Haiti Plastic
    A local Bercy resident dumps a load of plastic and trash along a river bank already clogged with plastic refuse
  2. Water is everything.
    Nothing makes you more aware of the importance of water than when you pretty much have to carry your own supply of drinkable water with you all day long. Much of the fate and economic health of the town of Bercy is dependent upon access to clean water. On Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, pretty much the only thing higher is oxygen.

    One of the great failures of Haiti as a state is the complete lack of care when it comes to ensuring its citizens’ access to clean, drinkable water. The majority of Haitian household income goes towards acquiring water. Water for drinking, for cleaning. The town of Bercy has 7 wells. Only one is deemed “good” – as in, not too brackish to drink. On Lifesong’s property, one well is brackish and needs desalination, one well is okay for cleaning but is dangerous to drink not just because of salt but because of dangerous levels of metals in the water. One is drilled, but capped because it awaits funding for the pumps and piping to get the water to where it needs to go.

    Every idea to help the people of Haiti comes back to water pretty quickly. Families could have money to spare to invest in their future – if they weren’t spending it all on water.

    Haiti water
    Two young girls pump water at a local well, hoping for clean water in a town where only one of the seven wells consistently provides water that is not too brackish to drink
  3. Electricity is life-changing.
    We saw one power station in Haiti on the way back to the airport. Bercy has no such facility. Lifesong runs generators – diesel-powered. There’s some solar too, but getting solar panels in Haiti is not easy or cheap.

    Having power is not about lights. It’s not about cooking. It’s about refrigeration. It’s about preserving food for more than the meal you prepared it for, so that you can buy, prepare, and live beyond day to day.

    It’s also the sticking point – right after water – for any idea on how to help Haiti. There are very complicated economics when it comes to “helping”, rife with unintended consequences. When the US sent rice to Haiti after the earthquake with the idea of feeding people whose lives had just been destroyed, one unintended consequence was to destroy the rice farmer industry in Haiti. You can’t compete with free.

    This “giving” problem extends to pretty much everything. You donate clothes, you put the seamstress out of business. You donate food, you undermine the farmer. You donate equipment, you undermine industry.

    But let’s say you want to fix that. Instead of donating clothes, you want to donate cloth and sewing machines. That’s great – if you’ve thought about how to power them. You need the benefits of automation – an electric sewing machine, for example. But that means you need power.

    Power is access to refrigeration. And it’s the cornerstone of industry. Haiti can’t become self-sufficient without it.

    Haiti students
    Students in the LifeSong school, always eager to learn, lean into their latest lessons
  4. Talent is evenly distributed, but opportunity is not.
    I know this is a stolen quote from a Southern New Hampshire University ad, but nowhere is this more true than in Haiti. One of the emotionally hard parts of my visit was seeing just how hungry those kids are to learn. We brought coloring books – the pages they tussled with each other over were the activity pages, like “match the picture to the word” or a sheet of practice math. To see all of that potential – I don’t want to say that it’s wasted, as that’s not entirely fair. But it lays fallow. Untapped, except for the lucky few who happen to be within the realm of influence of organizations like Lifesong MBO.

    If the people of Haiti could be freed from a life of subsistence, what would they be capable of? If the families I met are any indication, anything.

Conclusion
I’ve done plenty of volunteering in my life, but never for something as intense as going to a third-world country and walking even a hundred feet in the shoes of the people who live there. I highly recommend it. You can read articles and feel bad and give money or donate clothes. But I feel like I used to do that basically to assuage some kind of privilege guilt. I was lucky to be born in the United States, and to a fairly upper middle-class family, and before I went to Haiti, I thought I “knew” that and guided my giving in line with that.

Nothing beats the in-person experience, seeing it for yourself. It will make you a more discriminating donor – one who demands that the help you’re funding doesn’t have the unintended consequence of hurting more. Haiti is littered with abandoned schools and churches and administrative buildings built in the name of good intentions. They don’t need more empty buildings. They need clean water and power. They don’t need handouts, they need industry. You don’t feel the injustice of their plight until you experience the absurdity of Americans donating Merino wool sweaters and 2XL skirts to people who live in the tropics and have to prioritize household spending on water over food or clothing.

I care about the environment. I believe that industry in the first world has operated for far too long without having to pay the true cost of the products they make – the cost that includes what it takes to dispose of that product at the end of its life. But never before have I seen just how out of balance our world is. How the plastic bag I throw away or the water I carelessly send down the drain while brushing my teeth is truly strangling someone else’s community, or stealing water from the mouths of their children.

We don’t have to live this way. We shouldn’t. And if you don’t believe me, then I encourage you to go to Haiti – or someplace like it – and see for yourself. I can’t build a desalination plant or install a wind turbine. And a farmer I am definitely not (though, man, the potential in Haiti’s coffee alone…). But I can be a voice for advocacy back home, to help people understand. And I can help direct resources that can actually help. So that’s what I’m going to do.

To learn more about upcoming RetailROI trips, click here.