I returned home last night after spending a week in Haiti – mind reeling, heart overflowing, and with a hopeful vision pulsing somewhere in between. For lack of a better term, and clearly because of my technical/analytical bent, I am referring to the vision as Haiti 4.0.
Haiti is the poorest nation in the Western Hemisphere, victim of a perfect storm of colonial domination, political corruption, natural disasters and disease. The first “version” of Haiti was its thousand-year habitation by the native Taíno people. Then came the time of the western colonialists, who enslaved the Taíno and essentially worked them into oblivion, ultimately replacing them with vast numbers of African slaves. The Haitian Revolution of 1804, said to be the only successful slave revolt in history, initiated the current independent Republic of Haiti. Sadly, even with slavery eliminated, this third era bears the earmarks of greedy political manipulation, from within and without, as well as horrendous unintended consequences of well-meaning relief efforts.
It goes without saying that a one-week visit can by no means make an individual an expert on any society, particularly one with a history as complex as Haiti’s. My intention here is not to propose a “solution,” but simply to offer some observations behind the unanticipated sense of hope I now experience.
My trip was with a team of ten, under the banner of Sonlight Power, an organization that builds and installs solar energy systems to provide electricity to schools, clinics, churches and missions, in areas with no dependable electric service. We were able to set up two complete working systems, the first in a school and church in a blighted and crowded urban setting, and the second in a larger school on a remote mountainside.
We installed lighting for all rooms and meeting areas, as well as the latrine buildings, and provided a limited number of outlets for plugging in other equipment they might have and for charging cell phones. The exciting thing is that each of these projects was completed in a single day (with one requiring a brief return visit to finish up), with community members of all ages spontaneously pitching in and working hard to help out in any way possible.
The solar power systems use very economical and durable components that can provide power for many years with minimal maintenance. No moving parts! This type of inexpensive and sustainable system, unavailable a couple of decades ago, is now relatively easy to provision and continues to increase in efficiency as it decreases in cost.
We visited other sites in the country to troubleshoot existing installations, including a solar-powered water pump, and to assess potential locations for solar power systems and opportunities to partner with other organizations. The day before we left, we stopped by a large compound built and run by Extollo International. I was deeply impressed as I observed the Extollo staff, mostly Haitians, training other Haitians in construction trades, such as bricklaying and welding, and teaching them to apply techniques that make structures more resistant to damage from hurricanes and earthquakes. One secret to Extollo’s success is that they have patiently and tenaciously pursued relationships with local community leaders, and are seeking to size their training programs appropriately, so as not to damage local economies by flooding the market with too many skilled craftsmen of a particular trade.
On our final two nights, we stayed at Bel Fle Missions Hotel in Port-au-Prince, a project of Matthew 25 Ministries. Bel Fle is an oasis, beautifully engineered to provide safe and restful lodging, clean water and healthy food to teams such as ours, while partnering with the community to bring employment and training in skills that can be used in the hospitality industry. Plans are also firming up to make Bel Fle a showcase for Sonlight Power’s solar energy systems.
There are, in this 21st century, entirely new types of resources that can help to level the playing field among nations as they do among individuals. In First World nations, small, agile corporations, and even individuals, use the internet and leading-edge manufacturing technologies to compete effectively with much larger entities. The same advantages can be harnessed in developing countries such as Haiti. Cell phones, community wi-fi, solar power, educational video, even new engineering techniques and training procedures, can serve as tools and catalysts to release untapped human potential, perhaps even assisting in loosing the chains of injustice.
The three entities I have referenced – Sonlight Power, Extollo International and Matthew 25 Ministries – are representative of a larger new wave of such organizations, each working in similar ways and having the Very Good News of God’s love, as revealed in Jesus Christ, as the central focus of their mission statements, and, from what I have seen, seeking to authentically live it out. And I believe this is where the true spark of hope lies. I no longer place much stock in the power of even the best governments, laws and movements to effect the kind of change the world (and Haiti) needs: the kind of change that would make a selfish person generous, give a fearful person peace, cause a cruel person to love his enemies, even transform arrogance into respect.
It is my hope that a new fourth era, Haiti 4.0, anchored in faith, driven by technology, infused with respect, will surprise a cruel and callous world that has long dismissed this struggling little country.