In his recent piece in the McKinsey Voices on Society, Olivier Barrau (@obarrau), CEO of the Alternative Insurance Company in Haiti, makes a strong case for changing the fatalistic mindset in Haiti, which he considers to be one of the reasons why the insurance market in Haiti remains highly underdeveloped. Olivier’s focus on changing the cultural mindset in Haiti is a common principle of many successful entrepreneurs in Haiti. Haitians must be convinced that they can shape their own destinies, or they will give up at the first obstacle, let alone take actions to prepare for the future, like insuring their assets or investing in a new business or idea.
This conviction must also be shared by the international community. Humanitarian assistance and disaster relief, while crucial in emergency situations, do not sustainably address the real causes of poverty. Haiti’s complex and difficult past has evoked genuine desire to help, but many well-intended actions can do more harm than good. For example, consider an international organization that pays Haitians to clean trash from the streets; at night, the same people throw trash back on the street, so that the next day they will have more trash to get paid to pick up. For another example, consider the story of a Haitian social entrepreneur who locally manufactures ceramic water filters at competitive prices, but cannot sell them because everyone expects to receive them for free from international organizations.
Perpetually treating Haitians as victims only creates a culture of victimization, which in turn strengthens the fatalistic mindset in Haiti. To help Haiti, we must stop treating Haitians as victims and start seeing them as part of the solution. We must first unlearn the way that we have come to see Haiti—as the hopeless country and constant aid recipient —and begin to see it as a place of great potential.
Executives Without Borders founder Robert Goodwin is one entrepreneur who sees the potential in Haiti and its people; his initiative, which locals call Ramase Lajan—“picking up money” in Creole—trains local entrepreneurs to run plastic collection centers and connects them with Haiti Recycling, a 30-year-old local company, which purchases the recycled material at fair prices. Today Ramase Lajan provides sustainable value-creating jobs for over 1,500 people and has so far recycled over 60 million bottles and trained over 170,000 people in health and sanitation. Ramase Lajan has taken the leap from treating Haitians as victims who are only capable of collecting trash (unskilled labor) to seeing them as potential entrepreneurs capable of self-management and innovation.
Necessity is the mother of invention. Precisely because of Haiti’s history, one does not need to look outside Haiti to find some of the most innovative and resilient entrepreneurs: Alain Villard and Edouard Carrie, whom Olivier mentions in his piece, and Mathias Pierre, Hans Garoute, and Fr. Joseph Philippe, to name just a few. For example, serial entrepreneur Fr. Joseph Philippe has pioneered what today is one of the most innovative microfinance institutions in the world, Fonkoze. In 2003, Fonkoze received an innovation award from the Consultative Group to Assist the Poor ( CGAP) and was recently ranked #33 in the 2013 Global Journal “Top 100 NGOs” in the world. Again, key to Fr. Joseph Philippe’s success has been his vision of the rural poor as assets, not victims, capable to make their way out of poverty if given the chance.
There is a group of entrepreneurs who merit special recognition for their vision of a self-empowered Haiti. These social entrepreneurs have set the success of Haiti’s youth as their goal. This is a tremendous task, given that 60 percent of Haiti’s population is below the age of 25. For example, Ashoka Fellow Guy Etienne, director of College Catts Pressoir, focuses on empowering young people with the self-confidence and skills required to initiate positive change in Haiti. His program requires even the youngest students to think about how to apply their learning to solve community needs. Etienne is convinced that young people, no matter their eventual career path, can be a force of positive change in their society. Conor Bohan, founder of the Haitian Education and Leadership Program (uHELP), focuses on developing leadership and retaining Haiti’s top talent. His innovative leadership program provides opportunities for top-tier Haitian university students to apply their talents within Haiti so that they can transform their own country. His results are impressive: 86 percent of uHELP graduates stay in Haiti compared to an estimated national average of only 1 percent. Robert Duval, founder of L’Athletique d’Haiti, has built a sports academy for youth that uses sports and games as a platform for instilling in children the skills needed to become changemakers in their communities—empathy, teamwork, and self-confidence.
Etienne, Bohan, and Duval have clearly chosen to treat Haiti’s youth as an asset, rather than a liability, by proactively fostering the talent that already exists there. These entrepreneurs teach us that leveraging Haiti’s potential requires empathy, and a crucial element of empathy is the humility to recognize that relative wealth and power do not privilege pity. Local entrepreneurs must lead development efforts, and the international community can best contribute to this by supporting this growing number of business and social entrepreneurs.
Linda Peia is the founding entrepreneur of the Ashoka Caribbean Chapter. She has worked with Ashoka since 2007 in Mexico, Brazil, and Washington DC. An economist by training, she covers topics that reside at the intersection of behavioral economics and entrepreneurship. Linda is also the co-author of ichoose2b: A Changemaker, an illustrated handbook that captures insights from 150+ scientific studies on happiness, success, productivity, creativity and teamwork.
Image courtesy of Collège Catts Pressoir.