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28 March 2013

A new version of Haiti: My week in Port au Prince with Team Tassy



Adam Freedgood (center with cinder block) with Team Tassy's founder, Ian Rosenberger, Team Tassy Executive Director, Vivien Luk, members of the Adme family, Team Tassy staff and volunteers
Up until last month I thought I knew something about the poverty in Haiti. I knew just enough to care just enough to donate just enough that I felt good about helping a place that needed helping. My few dollars ended up in the gridlocked pile of post-quake contributions to large charities who promised millions of donors and millions of Haitians that they would help Haiti rebuild. It turns out that I really didn't know Haiti very well at all. And I didn't help enough or through the right channels.

I knew just one version of Haiti -- a UN occupied, US AID supported, charity infested, Google Earth mapped, rubble filled, blue tarp roof version. The 2010 earthquake brought horrific images of Haiti to primetime. I certainly didn't know the depth and tenure of Haiti's poverty before the quake. And it turns out the world did not know how deeply persistent that poverty would be. As the months following the quake turned into years, this version of Haiti was simply reinforced and obscurity returned.

Around each anniversary of the earthquake I watched as fresh doubts about Haiti's future were churned up in the media by the wake of restless and vocal disaster donors demanding to see the impact of their donations. In Haiti, emergency tents had become permanent homes. Tropical storms claimed more lives as treeless hillsides funneled diseased water into already devastated villages. People who had worked in Haiti over the years wrote books and dissected the country's problems. People like me bought the books and caught up on the history. All of the money and food aid and interference by the U.S. in Haiti's politics over the years had not created a better Haiti after all.

Urban migration, deforestation, U.S. occupation, foreign investment, embargoes, economic collapse, cruel topography, brutal nature. The more I learned, the more I felt that there was a complexity to Haiti's poverty that was just too big to grasp. How do you help a place that has perennially suffered from too much of the wrong kind of aid?     

Last month, my perspective on Haiti changed dramatically and permanently.

Team Tassy invited me to join them on the ground in Haiti for a week. The agenda: meet with families, understand their needs, deal with immediate problems, tear down rubble, and find new resources for lasting change. I agree, piece of cake. A three hour flight from New York City transported me from the pixelated one meter resolution of a Google Map and a news broadcast to a completely
personal experience speaking with Haitians, swinging a pickax with friends, and frantically trying to learn Kreyol basics from an iPhone app.

Before committing to the trip, many questions went through my mind. With all the aid that went to Haiti and with all the NGOs working there, why do we need another one, especially a start-up with limited experience? What can I accomplish with a group of friends from the U.S. that existing charities, or the Haitian people, cannot simply do for themselves? Do Haitians even want my help? I'm not a doctor. I'm not a contractor. I'm not a social worker. I have to be back in the U.S. for work on Monday. What do I offer? I realize now that I'm not the first or last person to ask these questions.

I expected to find answers through research, by talking to other people who are in Haiti to help, or through some other form of personal discovery. I forgot to consider an obvious source -- the families. The Team Tassy families showed me firsthand exactly where my individual effort plays a role in helping Haiti.

In many ways flying from New York City to Port au Prince feels more like time travel than air travel.

The total lack of infrastructure in the areas where Team Tassy works means that every single day is a struggle for families to keep ahead of malnutrition, disease and unemployment. The very same conditions create tough work for Team Tassy. It's sweltering, dirty, unpredictable, remote and potentially isolating work for a small charity. But the need for their presence is both obvious and immediate. The well-funded international aid groups that we expect would be getting the job done in Haiti just aren't making a dent.

Despite the outpouring of aid that went to Haiti post-quake, the charity presence is now muted. I was surprised to see barely a sign of the organizations that have high brand recognition in the U.S. and spend millions on Haiti. Once while driving through Pétionville we saw a couple of SUVs on the road marked with charity logos we recognized. Otherwise, the only contact we had with other NGOs consisted of intense conversations with tiny grassroots groups each struggling to find a foothold and each making an impact one person at a time, on a shoestring budget.

We met with a community of builders working on sustainable housing at Haiti Communitere. They have some amazing solutions for homes that are strong, cheap and made with local materials. Their funding is drying up fast and few homes have actually been built outside the walls of their compound near the airport. A lot of technologists, builders and social entrepreneurs visited after the earthquake eager to have their solutions implemented in Haiti. The flow of visitors has since slowed down. Now, Communitere needs help keeping their doors open.
Me outside an Ubuntu Blox prototype house at Haiti Communitere. Team Tassy is adopting this design, made with recycled materials, to create safe homes for families currently living in tents and unstable makeshift dwellings. The organization needs funding to start construction. 
Haiti needs hundreds of thousands of homes built. Like here in the U.S. the storms battering Haiti each hurricane season are getting stronger. Every August that arrives with people still living in tarps and on unstable hillsides brings the risk of another catastrophe. Somehow need plus solutions does not equal success in Haiti.

There are fundamental deficiencies in Haiti that make traditional aid inefficient, and even risky for those who arrive with the best of intentions.

We shared a guest house with a group of nurses visiting to conduct clinics for a couple weeks. They brought all their own supplies and will treat hundreds of patients per day, until their kit runs out. There's no national office in Haiti. No full-time Haitian staff or team supporting them. They arranged the clinics ahead of time by making phone calls from the U.S. Haitians living in New York City phoned friends in Haiti who knew what towns desperately needed a pop-up medical clinic. The nurses got on a plane, some of them making their first trip to Haiti. During their visit, things got rough at one point.

Tensions ran high at a clinic in Carrefour as hundreds of people lined up early in the morning and endured the blazing sun waiting for treatment. As the day wore on, it became clear that daylight and supplies would not allow the team of nurses to help everyone in line. Fights broke out in the line and people started turning their aggression toward the medical team and their translators. They realized they were cornered with no way out of the courtyard where they had set up the clinic. The situation was dangerously out of control. One of the more experienced nurses had the idea to hand out IOUs -- pieces of paper that were "vouchers" for future treatment. In Haiti a piece of paper with a U.S. signature can function as a prescription for medicine or even a complete diagnosis and order to perform a medical procedure at a local hospital.

On this day, the slips of paper were the team's ticket out of a bad situation, just barely. For the people they helped, most of them grateful and civil, it was another day getting by. People they examined with conditions such as high blood pressure and diabetes require long-term treatment with monitoring and adjustments to meds. It's as if "long-term" is a first world word that doesn't translate. When the nurses fly home, treatment is over until a new volunteer team arrives in weeks or months.

Haiti seems to operate moment to moment.

It's been more than three years since that moment the ground shook in 2010. The rubble is cleared from the roads. Any intact blocks of concrete have been rebuilt into shelters even more precarious than the ones that fell down three years ago. Life goes on at a frenetic pace. People are not sitting idle in the shade. Business is happening everywhere in a stinking blur of pollution, noise and activity.

People haul scrap metal and plastic soda bottles to Haiti Recycling on pushcarts. Anything with a wheel is considered a road-worthy vehicle. The shrill car and motorbike horns scream out last second warnings like Haiti's third official language. Mobile pharmacies feature medications strapped with cords to huge plastic storage tubs balanced on womens' heads. Everything from aspirin to birth control pills bakes all day in the relentless tropical sun. There are a few factories still operating in Port au Prince near the industrial park. Tap taps shuttle workers to and from their shifts. People are crammed in, bodies turned in every direction like a human jigsaw puzzle on the back of a pickup truck.

I could not reconcile the unfiltered energy of the city with what I knew about Haiti's poverty on paper. I did not expect a country with 40 percent unemployment to be full of people rushing about with more purpose and urgency than I've ever seen.

The towering concrete cistern marks
the heart of Cité Soleil
Beyond the sensory overload of the streets, the scale of the poverty in Port au Prince is what is most difficult to wrap my head around. We visited neighborhoods including Cité Soleil (where Tassy is from). It's a slum housing some 300,000 people, at least according to Wikipedia. It's Haiti so there's no way to count for sure. There is no rule of law or improved sanitation. On days when the streets get especially "hot" with gang violence, it's a no-go zone. It's a shockingly bad place to spend an hour, let alone a childhood or a lifetime. Team Tassy spends a lot of time there, meeting with families, understanding their needs and getting people job-ready. It's a monumental challenge. Thanks to the determination, ingenuity and long-term outlook of my Team Tassy friends, a small organization is truly poised to make a big difference in the worlds of the Haitians whom I met and spoke with.

Right before the Team Tassy trip, I began reading "The Big Truck That Went By: How the World Came to Save Haiti and Left Behind a Disaster" by Jonathan M. Katz. The book chronicles the experience of the only AP journalist on the ground in Haiti when the quake hit. Apparently the challenge of making a difference in Haiti has both captivated and mystified people from wealthy countries for decades. I fully admit to being captivated by what I saw in Haiti and by the kindness and determination of the people I met. Haiti has been in my thoughts every day since returning home. But I am managing not to be mystified.

My connection with Haiti is no longer defined by curiosity, statistics and someone else's story. 

I am more determined than mystified because thanks to Team Tassy I know people in Haiti now. I have their phone numbers. I met Tassy's mom while she was battling malaria last month, bedridden in a barren hospital at the center of the slum. She's one tough woman (and doing fine). I swung a pickax with Mr. Adme at his home in Manelas. So did my friends as we knocked down unstable concrete block walls to make room for a new, safe, earthquake and storm-resistant home that Team Tassy is building.

While taking a break from the heat, we showed Mr. Adme how the game "rock, paper, scissor" is played. It took a few demonstrations and I didn't know the best french word to use for "shoot" but we got the job done.  


The family's current house is a disaster waiting to happen. Every time it rains, the family cannot sleep because water inundates the home. They worry it will fall down at any moment. Nine beautiful children live there under constant threat of being crushed when the crumbling concrete walls finally give way.

The new house won't be a U.S. design or any major charity's design. It's a simple ingenious design made using compressed styrofoam garbage as the wall insulating material. The garbage is collected by Haitians, the house will be built by Haitians, to be lived in by Haitians. This approach looks nothing like the aid that I once assumed charity dollars should buy in order to help Haiti.

Like everyone who donated to Haiti after the quake, I pictured typical third world aid flowing in the form of rice sacks, bottles of drinking water, and cases of medicine. Well, it turns out that the free bags of rice undermine the local farming economy.

With no system to process garbage, the millions of plastic bottles of drinking water just clog up drainage canals causing sewage to overflow into homes and streets when it rains. The medicine couldn't fix the traumatic injuries people faced after the earthquake. Today basic medicine and the consistent care of a doctor remain both geographically and financially out of reach for millions of people, most of whom live on less than two dollars a day. Over the next decade, more people in Haiti will die from preventable illnesses than were killed by the earthquake.

Appropriately, the principles guiding Team Tassy's approach to helping in Haiti are not linked to arbitrary goals, such as "scale," that define many broken concepts of aid to Haiti. The Team Tassy families we spoke with were extremely aware of their ability to shape their own futures and engage in their own path out of poverty. "Team Tassy is not like other ONGs ['NGOs', or 'charities']." I heard these words from the families over and over again. "They make an effort to learn what we need and help. They don't tell us what we need."

Team Tassy's approach takes an immense amount of time and patience that supporters back home must make the effort to understand.

Team Tassy did not arrive in Haiti overnight nor do they expect to make a difference overnight. For three years they have been building relationships with Haitians based on mutual trust. I can see the results of that fledgling trust building into something great. It's visible in the way that the families openly discussed their aspirations as well as their skepticism. After all, countless other charities have come and gone with their tents, bottled water and blankets. It takes tremendous courage to engage at the resolution of a single person, family or neighborhood in Haiti while the rest of the world looks on from one meter resolution, if at all.


Team Tassy Executive Director Vivien Luk with Nathaniel,
one of many Team Tassy kids who needs a supporter
to ensure he can stay in school and stay healthy while his
parents work on securing good jobs. 
Team Tassy is getting extremely close and incredibly personal with Haiti's poverty. To keep the trust and momentum going, Team Tassy simply needs a few dedicated supporters who care enough to be in it for as long as it takes to help one person, or one family. Maybe that's what Ian, and Viv mean when they say "going deep." Team Tassy has made promises to families who want to work their way out of poverty. It's up to us to back those promises up while the families do their part.

The work takes courage and patience. Supporting this kind of work can be equally challenging. It requires us to rethink longstanding ideas on how to provide aid and even how to measure impact.

We know that far too often the social systems and markets in our world prioritize short term gain and quantity over quality, long term solutions. It's how our capital markets work and unfortunately it's shaped our charity system as well. The stagnant pace of development in Haiti offers the harsh lesson that we cannot define success in terms of helping 6,000 people or 600,000.

Team Tassy is slow charity at its best. When they're confident that they've got the model right with six families, they'll help six more. There's zero arrogance that Team Tassy has found "better" or more brilliant solutions than both the global aid community and the Haitian people have been searching for. Scale is going to be a byproduct of getting it right with one family at a time. In the meantime, getting it right with supporters at home is just as important and I think Team Tassy is on the right track.

The "121 Campaign" represents a one-to-one partnership. It starts with people like you and me who care enough about really making a difference. We support families in Haiti who are committed to following a path out of poverty. Our ability to make a difference is not contingent upon grand structural changes in Haiti's political system or the promise of a certain level of impact per dollar invested in a large nonprofits' temporary fixes. It starts with embracing a new version of Haiti. One where confidence that each person's inherent desire not to be poor is the key to a sustainable future. This hopeful, humble beginning is something that I know we can build on together.

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