What I Learned from Haiti

I’m finishing up my second trip to Haiti. I’m sitting at (what most Haitians would consider to be) a rather posh hotel near the airport. By American standards, this is, at best a 3-star hotel.

The economic poverty here is breathtaking. When you come here, you’ll quickly learn that for most Haitians food is a luxury, employment is scarce, education is too expensive, health care is a dream, public services are acquired through favors and hope for a better life is non-existent. I’m not exaggerating.

The unemployment rate for adult males in Haiti is a staggering 85% and most have no more than a 3rd – 5th grade education (here) and the literacy rate among Haitian adults is a low 61% (there is no public education in Haiti, so if you want to be educated, you must pay for it). Even if they can find work other than manual labor, it is questionable as to whether or not they can fill out the employment application.

On Sunday, I talked with the step-father of a child we’re supporting through Reach Global’s Fingerprints program. (The program offers spiritual support, education, food supplements, life kills and medical support to children from (roughly) age 6 through age 18. Kathy and I are sponsors in this program.) He works as a mason and carpenter. He complained that while he wants to work, there simply isn’t enough work for him to remain steadily employed. His reading and writing skills are limited, so his employment opportunities are limited. He has been known to go a year or longer between jobs. He has four children. In any culture, it is tough to support a family when employment is intermittent and scarce.

Add to this the lack of a good transportation infrastructure that limits the geographic area in which workers can realistically travel to/from work and employment opportunities become more limited. Most Haitians do not own their own car or motorcycle. The “Tap-Tap” buses (private drivers driving smaller Toyota or Chevrolet quarter-ton pickups) can be used to get a person around, but they are not always reliable and they always cost money. And traffic moves slowly. It’s not unusual for a 10 mile drive to consume 45 minutes of time. In short, the farther the job, the more impractical it is to try to work it.

Haiti is a humbling and refining place to be. You might be surprised to learn that you can find happy, content people there in spite of their economic poverty. It is a nation of contrasts – some would say contradictions – but lessons can be learned from anyone and here’s what I learned in Haiti:

  • We need the rich
  • Running a small business is hard work
  • Education and business are the vehicles for personal and professional growth
  • Americans and Haitians are not that different because real poverty exists in every nation and people group

Like it or not, we need the rich

Here in America, when we want to start a new business, we raise start-up money from investors to capitalize the business. In Haiti, such an investor class doesn’t exist. Those who do have the wealth are politically connected and it is those connections that keep the money flowing into their pockets. As a consequence, entrepreneurs in Haiti have few, if any, who can invest in new businesses without having to worry about money flowing back to the political class.

Back here in American, we bash the rich. We complain that too much wealth is coalesced in too few people. t takes capital to start businesses and that start-up capital doesn’t come from banks, it comes from investors – the rich.

Today, we’re behind in creating new businesses and the new jobs that they create. The number of jobs created by businesses less than one year old has decreased from 4.1 million in 1994 to 3 million in 2015 (here). The number of startups has not fully rebounded since it hit bottom in 2010. We need to be encouraging entrepreneurism in the younger generations. And we need to stop bashing the rich as if their wealth is inherently evil. Without their wealth, we’ll have a much more difficult time starting new businesses.

By the way, who is the “rich”? Personally, I use this term to talk about the top 20% – many of whom are reading this post now (here and here). If your annual household income is at $120K or higher, then you fall within the top 20% of wage earners. And if you’re in this class, please don’t post back and say how you’re not “rich”. Being in the top 20% of wage earners in the most affluent generation within the most affluent country this world has ever seen certainly qualifies you as “rich”.

Running a Small Business is Hard Work

Haiti is teeming with entrepreneurs. I love this part about Haiti. Drive the main national highway and all you’ll see is small business after small business on both sides of the road. Haitians are a hard-working and surprisingly resilient bunch. At times, they can be an optimistic bunch as well. The entrepreneurs I met are smart and really don’t want a hand-out. Like the rest of us, they want encouragement and, at times, some wisdom from someone who has “been there, done that”. But they don’t want to be pitied. They simply want opportunity to be all they can be. And they are willing to work hard – very hard – in difficult circumstances to take the opportunities they have – however imperfect those opportunities are – and turn them into sustainable revenue. They demonstrate their hard work every day by showing up and running their micro businesses.

I seriously admire the Haitian entrepreneurs.  My fear – and what does happen sometimes – is that the most talented of them see better opportunities in America and move here to fulfill their dreams.  It’s not that they are unfaithful to their homeland, it’s just that they can have a better life here in America (to their way of thinking, anyways) and so they leave Haiti.

Any country needs to try to keep its’ top talent.  Haiti is no exception.

Education and Business are the Vehicles through which Human Potential is Realized

Before doing our medical checks for the teen-agers in ReachGlobal’s program, we had a time of singing and music. One day, before the program officially started, the musicians started “jamming” together – drums, guitars, bongos, keyboards and so forth. The teens (at least they seemed young enough to me to be teens – perhaps they were early 20’s) playing the guitar was impressive. He has serious talent. The singers were – no kidding here – studio quality voices. Back in the day, I once considered going professional with my trumpet. I was that good. I’ve hung around professional musicians. I know the quality required to reach that level. These kids were given the talent for professional work – talent that will likely never be fully developed. I was later told that they all play and sing “by ear” – meaning that they don’t know how to read music.

While listening to these talented young people, my mind wandered to the human potential sitting in the room. As I noted earlier, most adults don’t have much more than a 3rd – 5th grade education. I was near kids who have the intellect and talent to excel at math, science, engineering, technology, business, leadership and so forth. Yet – would any of that raw talent be developed? Would they have the chance to be educated? Or would their lives be lived in survival mode? You see, Haiti doesn’t have a public education system. If you want education, you must pay for it. Starting with elementary and going through college – you must pay for all of it. If you can’t pay, you don’t get educated.

The truth is that our talents and passions don’t develop by themselves. We need education (not just knowledge, but coaching and direction) and work opportunities (think “chances to succeed and fail”) to develop those talents and passions. Schools and businesses – working together – will develop a communities’ human potential. Haiti is wasting much of their human potential, frankly. It’s sad to see.

Americans and Haitians are really not that Different

The World Bank commissioned a study of the poor and interviewed over 60,000 people in economic poverty in 23 countries. In its’ series Consultations with the Poor (here) and the outcomes of that research, such as Voices of the Poor, we learn that poverty isn’t simply an economic issue. Poverty affects every aspect of a person’s life. It damages their dignity, places them in a power imbalance, robs them of their joy and hope in life and they feel invisible to those who have more than they. They live with real pain and often find it damages their most important relationships. Quoting from the book When Helping Hurts:

“While poor people mention having a lack of material things, they tend to describe their condition in far more psychological and social terms than our North American audiences. Poor people typically talk in terms of shame, inferiority, powerlessness, humiliation, fear, hopelessness, depression, social isolation, and voicelessness. North American audiences tend to emphasize a lack of material things such as food, money, clean water, medicine, housing, etc.”

Hence, real poverty is about much more than a lack of material things, it is about significant damage and separation in the four core relationships that God cursed when Adam and Eve sinned. Those relationships are:

  • Relationship with God
  • Relationship with Self
  • Relationship with Others
  • Relationship with Creation

Many see the economic poverty in Haiti and think that the solution to their plight is to give them money. We look in from the outside and define their problem in economic terms because we’re using outside appearances as the totality of our definition of poverty. What we need to come to grips with is that poverty is something that affects the entire person and separates us from ourselves, our family, community and God. I think this is one of the core reasons that America’s “War on Poverty” has failed so miserably – it simply threw money and programs at the problem and didn’t address the entire personhood of those living in economic poverty.

Therefore, how we define poverty is important. If we define it in more encompassing and not just in economic terms, then how we alleviate it will require more encompassing solutions. If we define it narrowly, then we’ll have narrow solutions. For example, if we believe the primary cause of poverty is a lack of knowledge, then we’ll try to educate the poor. If we believe it is oppression by powerful people, then we’ll work for social justice. If we believe it is the personal sins of the poor, then we’ll try to evangelize and disciple the poor. If we believe it is a lack of material resources, then we’ll give material resources to the poor. If we believe the primary cause of poverty is concentration of too much wealth in the hands of too few people, then we’ll try to redistribute wealth.

In his book The Dignity of Difference, Rabbi Jonathan Sacks argues a good case for distributing wealth to the poor:

“The two words tzedakah and mishpat signify different forms of justice. Mishpat means retributive justice or the rule of law. A free society must be governed by law, impartially administered through which the guilty are punished, the innocent are acquitted and human rights secured. Tzedakah, by contrast, refers to distributive justice, a less procedural and more substantive idea.

It is difficult to translate tzedakah because it combines in a single word two notions normally opposed to one another, namely charity and justice…it arises from the theology of Judaism, which insists on the difference between possession and ownership. Ultimately, all things are owned by God, the creator of the world. What we possess, we do not own – we merely hold it in trust for God…[hence] we are bound by the conditions of trusteeship, one of which is that we share part of what we own with others in need. What would be regarded as charity in other legal systems is, in Judaism, a strict requirement of the law and can be enforce by the courts, if necessary.

What tzedakah signifies therefore, [is] that no one should be without the basic requirements of existence, that those who have more than they need must share…with those who less.
This is absolutely fundamental to the kind of the society the Israelites were charged with creating, one in which everyone has a basic right to a dignified life and to be equal citizen in the covenantal community under the sovereignty of God.

Hence, the Bible’s insistence that a free society cannot be built on mishpat, the rule of law alone. It requires also tzedakah, a just distribution of resources.”

I like his concepts of combining justice and charity. But a proper distribution of wealth in and of itself doesn’t solve the core relationship problems that constitute a fuller definition of “poverty” (and to be fair to Rabbi Sacks, that wasn’t his main point). Those who have wealth still have problems with self-esteem (separation from self) issues, family problems, difficulties in community and problems connecting with God. This is a common experience across all economic strata. And if you live without what you really need, are you not in poverty?

Think about it:

Money can buy a house, but it cannot buy a home
Money can buy medicine, but it cannot buy health
Money can buy sex, but it cannot buy intimacy
Money can buy choices, but it cannot freedom
Money can buy entertainment, but it cannot buy happiness
Money can buy education, but it cannot buy wisdom
Money can buy satisfaction, but it cannot buy contentment
Money can buy membership, but it cannot buy friendship
Money can buy safety, but it cannot buy peace
Money can buy a Judge, but it cannot buy justice
Money can buy status, but it cannot buy maturity
Money can buy an image, but it cannot buy a reputation
Money can buy religion, but it cannot buy a Savior

You see, the things we really value in life – things we want and need, such as health, intimacy, freedom, happiness, wisdom, friendship, contentment, peace, forgiveness, a good reputation and so forth – none of these things can be purchased with money. But if you have these things, then I would submit that you are not living in poverty.

Reconciliation is at the core of my Christian faith. Christianity is about reconciling all things to God because sin has infected all things:

19For God was pleased to have all his fullness dwell in him (Jesus Christ), 20 and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether things on earth or things in heaven, by making peace through his blood, shed on the cross (Colossians 1.19-20)

Hence, what I have learned is that if we are going to lift people out of economic poverty, we need to address the more comprehensive reconciliation needs in the four core relationships: God, self, others and creation. This is why Christ came – to reconcile to God all things infected with sin. This is why the most effective poverty alleviation programs address all four relationships. Assistance with medical care, education, life skills, work habits, relationship skills, professional development, spiritual formation, clean water, farming techniques, entrepreneurism and so forth combine to address the comprehensive needs of those in economic poverty.

But here’s the catch – those of us in America have experienced similar damage in our four core relationships, just like the Haitians. Our relationships are just as damaged – it’s just that we enjoy the conveniences and comforts that wealth brings so we look different on the outside. Our wealth allows us to manage our appearances better. But I will suggest that we live in as much poverty as any other people group. I would submit that a “rich” person living on the North shore of Chicago or in Beverly Hills or on Long Island may be living in as much poverty as the Haitians I have worked with, because real poverty is about living with damage and separation in the four core relationships all of us need in life and not having what we really want and need in life – those things that money cannot buy. We settle for what money can buy and we live without what money cannot buy.  We live in poverty.

In this, Americans and Haitians are not that different.

When God reconciles us to Himself, He doesn’t always give us vast amounts of wealth. But He does reconcile these four core relationships and we find that when these four relationships are reconciled, we are lifted out of poverty.

This is what Haiti has taught me.

Bill English