Exploring Alternative Models of Social Change
13 minute read
I sat in the cafe, failing to imagine Port-au-Prince in the comfort of the Vermont winter landscape and a hot cup of coffee. The person I was waiting for, one of my favorite college professors, a young expert on international organizations, arrived, dusty white with snow, ready to send me off to Haiti with a few final pieces of advice.
In most academic or theoretical approaches to the study of development, criticism is harsh. Many theorists believe development projects and aid have created more problems and inequality than they have addressed, that they have hindered the ability of nations to develop independently and justly, or at the very least, that they use money inefficiently and can’t prove success. This criticism defines most articles about Haiti’s recovery and development, and is even present in most of the papers I wrote in college, some for the very professor sitting across from me in Vermont.
As I prepared to return to the field with a relief organization based in Port-au-Prince, my critical eye was already focused. I explained to my professor that I didn’t totally understand the “mission” or the organization I would be working for - that it was too broad and unwieldy. I also knew the organization was mostly volunteer and wouldn’t be able to give me a stipend, in spite of me taking a major management role. Were they also in financial crisis? I looked to the professor for understanding of the dysfunction I was likely to find. I was curious if she would instruct me not to go, or if she, like me, would decide my role would largely be to help build capacity and change the way this small organization functioned.
She looked at me with discerning brown eyes and instead offered a challenge: “The dominant trend in development and organizational theory now tends to expect non-governmental organizations and nonprofits to operate like businesses.” I followed what she said, nodding vigorously in approval: Shouldn’t organizations that take donations and work with world’s most vulnerable hold themselves accountable to goals and high standards? She continued, “But what might we lose in pushing for a professional and business-like standard for all nonprofits? What are we missing?”
I was stumped. Then I got on a plane to Haiti.
In my first few weeks, I quickly learned that many of my impressions of the organization I worked with proved true: the organization was in financial distress, its leadership was unclear, and my role was flexibly defined. The organization had no overhead and little regard for bureaucratic mores of any kind. But it had also been in Haiti much longer than the average NGO, some of which I witnessed leave after only a short and challenging three years. AMURTEL also balanced project management with a commitment that would make most NGOs run screaming: 14 kids.
Unlike most organizations in Port-au-Prince, which function inside small castles with big buildings and bigger walls and are equipped with 24-hour armed guards, the “security” at our center in Port-au-Prince was community support, not guns. We rarely had a working car - a staple of most international NGOs in Haiti, whose staff is usually not allowed to take Haitian public transport. Sometimes the organization’s director went hungry to pay the staff and keep projects running. After fifteen years, she is there when Haiti is in vogue and when international attention (and funds) turn elsewhere. There’s not a lot of talk about integration or hand-over at AMURTEL; with a staff that’s 99 percent Haitian, it’s unnecessary, irrelevant. Even my first night, as I was welcomed into an evening of singing, dancing and meditation with Haitian community organizers and kids, I began to understand what I had been missing in my utilitarian analysis in Vermont.
AMURTEL didn’t just run programs to benefit Haiti’s poorest women and children; its everyday activities fluctuated and adapted to address them. I can’t count the number of times I woke up in my tent on the roof to find a young boy, otherwise homeless, sleeping on the roof because the country director had agreed to a work-study situation. As I learned to drive in Port-au-Prince my first month, when anywhere between one to 10 other people would jump in the car to get dropped off around the city, I learned that everything was shared. I shared food, parasites, time, and often my tent with the fourteen kids in the home, but also shared coffee, clothes, shampoo, and advice with the other live-in caretakers and staff. The organization set the standard: sharing food and living space with the community through a constant revolving group of people helping out around the center. Organizing this influx of support and assigning specific responsibilities would have made the organization work better, or at least smoother, but it would have been nearly impossible.
In any situation, AMURTEL seemed to have a number of options available to it that wouldn’t have been possible with a larger or more professional organization. I was regaled with stories of the former project coordinators who had driven through the Haitian mountains in the middle of the night to take a sick project participant to the hospital, who brought participating families fruit, who sang and danced with women’s groups and facilitators to resolve conflicts and build relationships. The boundaries I had become accustomed to with international aid work didn’t exist. In their place was a kind of flexibility that was both uncomfortable and freeing. I never had to explain my inability to meet the culture where it was because of organizational policy. Instead, I lived with the beautiful burden of actually adapting to how poor communities needed and wanted to function, irrespective of my comfort and the professional standards of my organization.
AMURTEL would take care of children for weeks at a time just to help a parent in need. Sometimes, I watched the country director give away half of the rice we had stored to another orphanage because they needed it. From its vulnerability, crisis, and dysfunction, the organization drew strength to confront vulnerability, crisis, and dysfunction without judgment in communities and partner organizations, a trait I am convinced is necessary to any endeavor’s survival in Haiti.
AMURTEL depends not just on a professional, paid staff to make its programs work; its model depends on a network of parents, teachers, sisters, grandparents, and community leaders to help however and whenever they can. A favorite example: The country director doesn’t drive stick shift. One of the occasionally-working AMURTEL cars is a standard truck. As she regularly needs to travel to the countryside to bring supplies, she relies on a Haitian friend of the organization who isn’t paid but helps out “to do service” and share a few meals, driving more than ten hours over harrowing mountain passes and rocky dirt roads. On that same trip, the director travels without a mechanic or “back-up” mechanics. When the truck inevitably pops two or more tires on the brutal road, she gives away rice and whatever she has to local people who change the tire and get her back on her way. She has spent the night on those mountain passes before, when no one was available or the car would refuse to start. She shares those stories and experiences with the majority of the people living in Haiti. The positive effects of such a network and community model extend far beyond ensuring the sustainability of AMURTEL’s work, or the country director’s safe arrival at a project site.
Rather than assuming the organization and its staff are in some way at risk in the country or operating in an ostentatious way that would make organization a target, AMURTEL, perhaps operating at the other extreme, assumes unity with everyday Haitians and expects to find a network of help and commonality wherever it works. While this model isn’t always successful or the most reliable, it is one of the only ways I can understand how the organization manages four schools, four women’s programs, a children’s home, and a community center on such a small operating budget. There are no safety funds built into the AMURTEL model and no security budget - just trust in community, and that’s free.
Of course, in my year with the organization, I did not always find this lack of boundaries, flexibility, and unclear working style easy. My role as Haiti Program Coordinator involved supervising the finances, reporting, and staff for three women’s programs and one new program for adolescent girls. I met with partner organizations and acted as a representative of AMURTEL in professional settings, acting as a bridge between two kinds of operating styles; in some ways, two worlds of development work. As difficult as I found this balance to manage with few resources and the conflicting ideologies of the organizations I worked with, it was revealing. I also met with AMURTEL program staff every week and traveled to the countryside to conduct a site visit of our biggest program, Women’s Self Help Groups, every month.
In my first few months, I could depend on very little to be constant from one day to another. The programs required additional training of staff that I was hardly prepared to take on, but attempted nonetheless. The reports were mostly written in French, but some required Kreyol, which I was still learning. Finally, the staff of the programs had been on their own for almost half a year before I came to Haiti. They were relieved and also overwhelmed by having a supervisor again, no less a white, French-speaking supervisor from the United States.
Building relationships with the staff was both the most difficult and rewarding element of my time in Haiti. It is one area where I reflect, again, on the question posed by my professor in Vermont. What would AMURTEL be missing if it operated in a more professional and business-like way? What immediately comes to mind is a kind of voluntary confrontation of its power. Though the organization is international and has more money than most families and even some of the small cities in the areas where it works, its willingness to compromise the integrity of a neat and tidy professional model seems to confront this in an acceptable way to Haitians. Rather than establishing a comfort level for work and lifestyle within the organization, and approaching the community from an inflexible set of boundaries, AMURTEL partners first and finds comfort later. Because of this, it works in harmony with the turbulence of Port-au-Prince’s urban poor communities.
AMURTEL, whose staff rarely dresses in professional clothing, whose workers are almost all local and former program participants, whose children are unpretentious and independent, whose meals are humble, has built trust in a community deeply skeptical of outside power. Because of this model, quite antithetical to some of my previous experiences and ideas in development, I was able to build relationships with the staff of four programs in a few short months and facilitate their growth for a year. As I got to know these hard-working community organizers, they taught me how to work with them and be their support, much the same way communities in Haiti have taught AMURTEL how to be effective in meeting their needs. I learned that a theory wouldn’t help me run a bare-bones but effective program in Port-au-Prince, and certainly wouldn’t help me gain the trust and respect of the staff. Instead, demonstrating flexibility and living a humble lifestyle allowed me to do what I did.
Of course, I had the great luxury of not being a paid staff member of an organization. AMURTEL couldn’t have afforded to pay a salary, but it wouldn’t have been an effective strategic decision even if they could have. Reclaiming the identity and lifestyle of “volunteer” went further than most other things I did to gain me trust in the Haitian community (of course, the label functioned the opposite way in the greater, professionalized development community). Unlike many young, white people in the city, I didn’t have a lot of money and that seemed to set me apart as more trustworthy. Of course, after only a month in Haiti, I realized that as much as I loved the work, Port-au-Prince was more expensive than I had expected. I wouldn’t be able to stay longer, or be able to keep learning and keep contributing to AMURTEL. It was the InterExchange Foundation Christianson Fellowship that enabled me to remain a volunteer and remain in Haiti. I am deeply grateful for the support of The Foundation for this opportunity.
Because I could commit to being in Haiti for the year, my role with AMURTEL expanded. In addition to managing four programs, I also began to informally supervise the accountant and eventually took on many of the financial management responsibilities myself. I also worked with the international staff and the Haiti country director to make a budget for the coming year - the first in several years for AMURTEL. Finally, I helped the organization secure a fellow through Princeton in Latin America who started working with AMURTEL in September of 2013. She and I worked together with our staff on the ground and in Vermont to create the “Kenbe La—Stay with Haiti” Fundraising Campaign, ultimately earning $20,000 last fall. She has also taken over many of my responsibilities after a six-month training period, ensuring an effective and smooth transition for the organization and programs.
These accomplishments underscore the areas where AMURTEL can make positive shifts towards a more organized and professional model. I don’t think the organization should or could become entirely business-like without compromising the very ethos and working style that allows it to accomplish all it does. But one thing I have learned this year, working in both worlds, experiencing the instability of Haiti’s poor communities through AMURTEL’s programs and the rigidity of the business-like model through AMURTEL’s partners, is that these models will both work better if they allow themselves to be taught by one another. In building a budget and discussing the different ways to use the budget, we borrowed a tool from the business model that will be adapted to AMURTEL’s working style. AMURTEL’s confrontation of power, its willingness to go beyond professional comfort to build trust and solidarity with a community and its willingness to accept the imperfections of project management - the messiness of poverty - are lessons every NGO wanting to work or working in Haiti should learn.
By living in a tent for six months and sharing most waking moments with children, every meal and living space room with my closest colleagues, I also learned that the boundaries I have become accustomed to and expect in professional development settings are too often a form of cultural imperialism. The individualistic boundaries of the West have come to define professionalism. Whereas in Haiti and so much of the developing world, much of the organic, community-based efforts for change and movements are born in shared living and working environments where boundaries would be an expensive luxury, if anyone could afford them. In the areas of Haiti where I saw the most potential for a women’s movement for human rights and economic independence, I watched as women ran coffee, oatmeal, and rice and beans constantly between their houses. They ensured everyone ate, and never assumed a pot of food was for their family alone, no matter how little they had or that they expected to have nothing tomorrow. Every NGO would benefit from knowing this model of partnership and determination to do good work and make change, without even the most basic safety net.
This year helped me test and refine my ideas about development and social change. However, more than any new theoretical orientation, I leave Haiti with a deeper appreciation of the limits of my education and background. I recognize my own bias in defining success and the best working style for any organization or community and I am more willing to let others teach me alternative models for work. I am deeply interested in finding and supporting more organizations like AMURTEL that stress process and partnership rather than a clean, successful outcome—already so elusive in development. Simultaneously, I hope AMURTEL and similar organizations consider the lessons and tools of the business and professional development industry. In stressing any one model alone, we ignore the plurality of models, some unique and some universal, around the world. Most importantly, we lose the humility so necessary to building working models between and across both cultural and philosophical divides.
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