Assisting Haitian Communities

Assisting Haitian Communities

David McNamee, Assistant Professor of International Business in Portland, United States hopes to bring his skills and experience to farmers in a small Haitian community.
Photo Credit: David McNamee
Etienne Francois (left) has figured out how to grow grapes in Haiti - not an easy feat in such a tropical climate. Photo Credit: David McNamee
Violence along with political instability and corruption has plagued the country of Haiti for years. Revolution in the 1900s eventually led to an economic collapse, leaving the nation with a series of corrupt leaders. Only recently has Haiti been able to work towards establishing national stability. Approximately 54 percent of the Haitian population lives below the poverty line. This, a country surrounded by such vacation hot-spots as the Dominican Republic, and not far from the Florida Keys is only sought out as a means for humanitarian aid. Witnessing the substantial affect his local church had on a small village in Haiti, David with a background in International Business seized the opportunity to help. David has now visited Haiti twice and is working to implement plans for the future.

Q: What made you interested in Haiti and when did you first visit?

David McNamee: The first time I visited was in February of 2006. I went with my local church, Our Savior's Lutheran Church located in Lake Oswego, Oregon. With the assistance of Reciprocal Ministries International, a Florida nonprofit, our church has been sending teams of people to Haiti every year since 1991 except in 1994 during the revolution. As I watched a PowerPoint presentation describing the trip, I was particularly inspired by the work of a Haitian man named Etienne Francois. This man had figured out how to grow grapes - in Haiti, not an easy feat in such a tropical climate. What really grabbed my attention is that he was able to sell his grapes and make a profit of 250 USD - enough to send one child to school for a year. Etienne had been experimenting with grapes for several years and grapes take as long as three years to produce a sizable crop.
What really grabbed my attention is that he was able to sell his grapes and make a profit of 250 USD - enough to send one child to school for a year.

2005 was the first year that Etienne was able sell enough grapes to make a large profit. We visited that first arbor on my first trip. It's approximately 30 feet by 30 feet. The secret, according to Etienne, is that the vines need constant pruning and watering. It requires a dedication that is a bit of a foreign concept to Haitians who are a bit laid-back about those kinds of things. Only a few of his farmers have managed to even get the vines to grow, much less produce more than a few clusters of grapes. As I pondered the presentation, a little light went on in my head and I decided that maybe, just maybe, I could use my business experience to make more of a difference and help more kids go to school by helping Etienne and others like him.

On your first trip to Haiti how did you prepare for the journey and upon arrival what resonates in your mind from the experience?

Before I left there were a lot of preparations including meetings and language and customs courses. There were 12 of us in the group, most of us were making our first trip that year, and we stuck out like a gaggle of geese as we came out of the airplane in the international terminal at Port-au-Prince.

It was chaotic and dangerous in the city especially because it was 2 days after the first democratic election. Blue-helmeted United Nations troops were guarding the international airport so it was a little unsettling to be under the watchful eye of guys with machine guns. Our RMI hosts did a wonderful job of shepherding us through customs and getting us and our luggage to where we needed to go. We kept hearing about kidnappings and other things. But we had people protecting us, and things were safe once we arrived in the village of Les Anglais.

When you arrived in the village what was it like?

Les Anglais is a small farming community literally past the end of the road in the southwest part of the country. They don't have a lot of the things we take for granted and, as I quickly found out, hosting visitors from their sister church in the U.S. is a big deal. The day we arrived, after a domestic airplane flight, a four-hour drive and crossing several rivers in a caravan of four-wheel drive Toyotas, all of the kids and people from our sister church met us and led us in a parade through town. It was a dirt road and we were hot, sweaty, and tired. But we piled out of the trucks and walked with the kids. You would have thought it was a Macy's Thanksgiving Day parade for all the hoopla. Somebody was banging on drums and clashing cymbals, others were blaring on trumpets and blowing whistles, and everybody was singing and chanting in their Creole language. Up the street we marched, waving at all the locals who turned out to see the "blancs" - white people. Arriving at the church compound we were met by the Pastor and all his deacons, their wives and more kids than I could possibly count.

What do you do when you arrived?

After introducing baseball to the kids, a very foreign concept, I visited some classrooms and spoke with the children about the importance of education and using that education to help their community. I could tell they understood the difference it could make in their lives. They are so hungry for education that it tugs at your heart to think of all the things they can't do because of this lack.
They are so hungry for education that it tugs at your heart to think of all the things they can't do because of this lack.

At the school and church, which had been built by us in previous years, we did electrical work. This included installing fans, a sound system and outdoor lighting. Everything is powered by one of two diesel generators that were donated by our church. At night, the generator is turned off because fuel is so expensive. But by then, we were so tired that even the buzzing of mosquitoes or the barking of the mongrel dogs that provide security for the compound couldn't keep us awake. Our group also operated a medical clinic that trip. Two of our group members were registered nurses who brought supplies donated by what used to be Northwest Medical Teams. They provided basic medicine such as Tylenol and diarrhea medicine. Everywhere I witnessed dysentery, dehydration, and poor sanitation. This area of 30,000 people has only a small clinic staffed with one caregiver so we always bring a small medical team to help.

What did you accomplish and observe the second time you visited?

The second time was in August of 2007. This time we hooked up plumbing and a gas powered pump to provide running water in the church and school. When we turned the cold-water shower on for the first time, the locals reacted as if it were a small miracle! A previous team brought back a sample of the church's water. We had that sample tested at a lab here in Oregon and the health hazard is off the charts. As a result, we looked at the water system that was being used, and are hoping to implement a water filtration system in the near future. We met with the local Les Anglais water board. In the course of asking them about their town water system, they told us that the reservoirs used to supply the town's water supply had a capacity of about 40,000 gallons and were originally designed to service 300 families. They also told us that the current population of the town is approximately 3,000 families or about 30,000 people. The water is not sanitary; they purify the water by pouring 1 gallon of Clorox every month. The bleach is poured into the filter system at the reservoir, or more accurately, the bleach is dripped into the filter at the rate of approximately 10 drops per gallon of water pumped through the system. At the rate of usage described to us, we figured the gallon bottle lasts maybe a day. The rest of the month, the water is untreated.

Were there other projects you worked on?

One thing we don't lack for is projects. On my second trip I also spent a lot of time with Etienne Francois. Our church paid for Etienne to get an Agronomy degree and he now has 1500 farmers to whom he teaches sustainable agricultural skills. These farmers are taught skills to manage mango fields, plantain fields, fish ponds, coffee trees, and bean fields. I was able to witness first hand this network of farmers that Etienne was able to help out of poverty.
My challenge is figuring how to export the coffee to the U.S. in a way that is cost effective.

Since my first trip, I've been working closely with Etienne to help him figure out how to properly process and export the coffee that his network of farmers is producing. I've recruited a Portland company, K & F Coffee in SE Portland, to help us with the project. Don Dominguez, the CEO of K & F Coffee told me that if I can get the coffee into the country, he would process it, package and label it to our specifications, so that we could have a fundraiser. My challenge is figuring how to export the coffee to the U.S. in a way that is cost effective. Etienne has also asked me to come back to put on some workshops on the basics of business planning and how to do a microfinance program. Some of my Concordia University students are helping me pull that information together.

Have any of your students from Concordia been involved in these programs?

On my most recent trip this past summer, I was able to take along one of my business students from Concordia University. Audrie Lambert has a real outgoing personality. Combine that with her red hair and she was an instant hit with all the kids and more than a few of the young men. In addition to just learning about the different projects that Etienne has going, Audrie also pulled together a "high tea" for the ladies of the church and an impromptu game of "Simon says" for about 40 Haitian kids. She also presented a short testimonial on the importance of ethics in business that was very well received. I hope to be able to take more students with me in the future.

Are there other ways Etienne helps farmers out of poverty?

Etienne gives pigs for free to his farmers with one stipulation: that the first pig of any resulting litters is given away for free. He also uses the money our church sends him to buy seed from a Florida-based non-profit, ECHO. He distributes the seed to his network of farmers and works with them to build sustainable farming methods. I know very little about farming, but I'm able to make suggestions about how to market and distribute the products and teach a little about strategic planning and business processes. He also is able to make coffee, so I am currently working on a project to help export this coffee and have a fundraiser for Les Anglais. There is a project similar to this that is successful in Nicaragua, so I am planning a trip there in January, 2008 to study how to export and sell the coffee profitably.

Has your role as an Assistant Professor of International Business assisted you in your work in Haiti?

Absolutely! In my previous professional lives, I've done international consulting work and traveled to many countries. I've seen the grinding poverty that keep people from living quality lives but, frankly, I was just too busy to be concerned about it. As a full-time professor at Concordia University for the last four years, I have been teaching students about the relationship between globalization, poverty, and economic development. It really just opened my eyes as to how lucky we are to live in a country with such an abundance of…everything. My position as a professor gives me access to resources and channels that I did not have before. So I've been able to do things that wouldn't have occurred to me before. For example, on this last trip I visited The American University of the Caribbean in Les Cayes and through the generous help of faculty at Concordia University, where I work and the help of one of our textbook publishers, McGraw-Hill, we were able to donate several crates of books to them.
Etienne gives pigs for free to his farmers with one stipulation: that the first pig of any resulting litters is given away for free.

Haiti has an illiteracy rate of about 80 percent and most of the school systems that exist are run by NGO's. I'm told that as many as 40,000 Haitians leave the country each year to seek an education, and never return to their native country. Most kids have access to very few books, so by spreading the word about this need there have been a lot of books donated from Concordia as well as McGraw-Hill Publishing. The American University of the Caribbean has asked me to help implement an online business degree program to encourage citizens to stay in Haiti and help improve their education system. I am currently working to structure this program, which in its first step will be an online Introduction to Business course.

Why do you think there is such extreme poverty in Haiti?

There are two primary reasons. One has to do with its past as a French colony. The people did not get the treatment or education they needed or deserved. They were brought to Haiti as slaves. More recently a series of corrupt dictators exploited the people and did very little to eradicate poverty or illiteracy. Haiti is listed by Transparency International as one of the most corrupt counties in the world. One percent of the population controls most of the wealth. This has led to lack of jobs, drug problems, gangs, violence and kidnappings as poor young people migrate to the cities in search of work. Sometimes it seems like the only way people can make money is through corrupt means. Most people live on 350 USD per year; less than 1 USD each day.

In 2006 Rene Preval was elected President and he has promised to clean up the corruption, but this is going to take decades. Jared Diamond, in his book Collapse suggests a third, related reason: environmental destruction. Haitians traditionally cook with charcoal. Over-logging of the Haitian forests for the production of charcoal has left the Haitian half of island (the Dominican Republic with its dense forests occupies the other half) nearly devoid of trees. As a result, tropical rains and storms are literally washing away all of the soil that might be suitable for growing food. During this last trip, just before Hurricane Dean brushed by the island, we witnessed torrential tropical rains that caused huge floods and made some of the roads nearly impassable. The sad part is that those rivers were brown with the topsoil that was being washed right into the ocean.

Do you think it can improve?

You bet. But it is going to take time and a lot of help. I am trying to do my small part. If I can find a place to sell Etienne's coffee maybe I can help provide more jobs and a chance at an education for the people in Les Anglais who might not otherwise have a chance. We also discovered that black beans thrive in Haiti so we are teaching the farmers how to grow and sell the beans at the local market. I believe it can happen slowly over time if we give Haitians the tools and capacity to use them. You know the old quote: "Give a man a fish feed him for a day. Teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime." It's like that.
One percent of the population controls most of the wealth.

On my first flight to Haiti I sat next to a young French-Canadian woman who for nearly 20 years has run an orphanage for HIV/AIDS positive kids in Port-au-Prince, the Haitian capital. Her name is Danielle Reid Penette. I asked Danielle what she thought people should know about Haiti. She responded with something that has really stuck with me. She said, "Tell people that Haitians are proud and patient people and that someday they will take their place on the world stage." I also really want to put a plug in for the work Etienne is doing in Haiti. If there were ever an example of a servant-leader, that is, someone who consciously and selflessly enables other to reach their full potential, it would have to be Etienne. The changes that he is making, which I am thrilled I am able to assist, helping this one Haitian community "bootstrap" themselves out of poverty and illiteracy is the only way that lasting change is possible. True change can only come from within.

David plans to visit Nicaragua in February, 2008 as part of a Lutheran World Relief study program to learn how to export Etienne's coffee. And he will continue visiting Haiti as much as possible in the future. David is an Assistant Professor of International Business and Director of the Bachelor of Science in Business Program, at Concordia University in Portland, OR. He is currently working towards his PhD in Leadership at Gonzaga University and is on the Board of Directors for Global Envision.

Contributed by Cami Martin, a writer for Global Envision. Cami has a BA in English from the University of Oregon and works for Mercy Corps.

To read another Global Envision article about economic development in Latin America, see Latin America's Next Growth Challenge.

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