Are Non-Profits Doomed to Fail in Haiti?

With the 3rd anniversary of Haiti's Earthquake upon us, I asked Kona Shen, Founder and Director of GOALS Haiti, for her perspective.  Kona has a long-standing passion for Haiti and has lived there for the past 3 years. She's seen what has and hasn't worked with the aid that has flowed into the country. This is Kona's second post here and third mention.  Her insights give us pause to think, especially about 'social' enterprises.

It’s hard to know anything in Haiti. Take the unemployment rate: it may be 52%, it may be 70%, or it may be higher. Like everything in this country, it depends whom you ask, and why.

This lesson is one of the first I learned in Haiti. I began volunteering in Haiti in 2007, and moved to Léogane in 2010 to begin my work with GOALS. The more time I spend here, the less I know. This is especially true following the January 12, 2010 earthquake that killed 230,000-300,000 people.

The earthquake was one the largest natural disasters in modern history. About half of American households donated, and aid poured into Haiti, determined to do good (New York Daily News). This year, the media marked the three-year anniversary with a review of aid efforts. The Independent published, “Haiti: the graveyard of hope,” while TIME published, “Haiti Three Years After the Quake: There’s Good News, Too.” Clearly, there is a wide range of opinion. And if there’s something Haiti has plenty of, it’s opinions.

Parts of Haiti have achieved remarkable progress in their recovery since 2010. In Léogane, where I live, streets are now paved, there are more public wells, and new businesses have opened their doors. The town is starting to look more and more like its pre-earthquake self: poor, but bustling with entrepreneurial activity.

Foreign aid is complicated everywhere, but perhaps especially so in Haiti. Historically, Haiti was fiercely independent. In 1804, a thirteen-year slave rebellion was won and Haiti became the world’s first black republic. In the following decades, Haitians successfully fended off foreign invasions while simultaneously succumbing to a long cycle of internal upheavals.

Today, Haiti is infamous for deep-seated aid dependency and its heavy reliance on remittances from abroad. Throughout Haiti’s history, people have survived slavery, dictators, and disasters. As with everything else, foreign aid has become another opportunity for families to strategize new ways to create better lives for themselves and their children.

Knowing all of this, what role do non-profits have in Haiti?

There are an estimated 3,000 non-governmental organizations (NGOs) working in Haiti. In 2005, only 343 were registered with the government (Schuller). Today, the number is still under 600. Granted, it’s not an easy process to register; GOALS has not yet completed it, and our application is currently being reviewed by the Haitian government. But there is a systematic reluctance for non-profits to recognize a need to play by the rules in Haiti. The wasted funds, the sloppy results, and the lost opportunity to “build back better” – if it ever existed – are closely tied to this disregard.

Compounding the problem is a poor allocation of the resources that do exist. A study published in the Fall 2010 edition of The Journal of Haitian Studies showed that “it is 125 times more likely for someone outside of metropolitan Port-au-Prince to be in need for water, food, medicine, clothing or tents,” but that only 4% of NGOs focused outside of the Port-au-Prince area. Too often, foreign aid becomes oriented around donor’s preferences and opinions, and not real needs on the ground.

A recent article in The Wall Street Journal (“Why Charity Hasn’t Done Much for Haiti”) argues that non-profits disrupt market economics because freely distributed resources reduce pressures on politicians to enact needed reforms. Foreign donors, of course, have their own agendas. Of every $100 of Haiti reconstruction contracts awarded by the American government, $98.40 went back to American companies (National Public Radio).

On the ground, the story is more nuanced. Non-profits that hire locally, buy locally, and build locally are injecting funds from foreign donors to boost local economies. It is a tertiary effect – beyond direct and indirect social impacts – but an important one. These programs not only provide services, but pay salaries and increase local business, too. Ultimately, non-profits can be stakeholders if they deliver results, partner with governments, and stay committed.

There are no easy answers to solve Haiti’s problems. Non-profits do have the information needed, though, to adopt recommended practices to better serve those in need. We must recognize the role of the Haitian government. We must create services based on real needs, not perceived ones, when such information is available. We must support local economies. We must be realistic. Real change is often slow, long-term, and riddled with failures along the way.

Most of all, we must keep an open mind. There is rarely one right answer, and solutions come in many guises. Haiti has taught me many lessons, but this tops the list: the less you’re sure you know, the better.

How to Have an Impact without Electricity and the Internet

This is a guest post by Kona Shen, Founder of GOALS Haiti, mentioned here.  What she has done for youth and their families in Haiti demonstrates courage, compassion, purpose and leadership savvy few CEO’s of any age possess.  Kona shares the starkly different definitions of ‘basic needs’ between the USA and Haiti and how it affects her productivity and impact…a lesson for us all!

Sometimes, when I get accused of being a workaholic, I laugh. I do work hard, but I don’t think I qualify. My schedule typically consists of a nine-hour workday, Monday through Friday. I don’t have internet on my phone, don’t work on projects late at night or on weekends, and almost always take a real lunch hour.

Mostly this has to do with living in Haiti. I began traveling to Haiti as a volunteer in 2007 and moved here in 2010 to launch an organization called GOALS. GOALS uses soccer to engage youth in public service and education that improve quality of life and develop new leadership. We’re up to 600 kids per month with a staff of 18 local leaders focused on long-term, community-driven development.

There are times when full-time electricity, internet, and air-conditioning would be nice. Most days, communications and logistics take more forethought and I can’t always be reached.  It took me a while to figure out what a meme was, and I can barely name any movie, song, or YouTube clip that’s been famous in the last two years.

Of course, I don’t want to minimize Haiti’s long-term infrastructure needs, including electricity and internet. But personally, I don’t miss the 24/7 access to power much. In Haiti, I read more books, do more yoga, write more essays, and cook more meals. I actually studied French instead of putting it off. Without the temptation of the internet and fewer gadgets, there seems to be more hours in the day.

In the U.S., electricity at night and streaming internet is usually enough to derail me. I find myself hammering out emails at 11PM on Sunday with the TV on and my phone lighting up with messages. Clearly, I don’t have the discipline to pretend that turning electronics on isn’t an option.

Why does it matter? Because, for me, more work doesn’t produce better work. It turns out, my light bulb moments come to me when I step back. I get so many new ideas out on walks or runs that I carry a pen to make notes. When I make an effort After Isaac: Cleaning out a kitchento do less, the truly important work gets done first, the biggest breakthroughs happen and GOALS is better for it. Best of all, I find myself looking forward to Monday morning instead of burning out before the week even begins. 


GOALS Haiti just won Beyond Sport’s award for Best New Project.

2 Degrees of Separation? Last month, Kona was in San Francisco meeting Arnold Ambiel, Director of Operations for One World Futbol.  He suggested she get in touch with Deb Mills-Scofield. Not letting on, Kona asked how he knew me.  He replied that he followed me on Twitter but didn’t know me personally.  Little did he know we were already connected – through bonds of purpose, passion and our alma mater.