Over the weekend,Jim Chu, the Silicon Valley-based founder and CEO of dloHaiti, updated the Swim for Haiti Facebook page with alternate routes so that participants could bypass the election protests on their way to Kyona Beach.
While 40 participants had flown in from the around the world, several of the local aid workers Chu expected to join the open water swim event failed to show up, not because they were intimidated by the 4.8 miles to Iles des Arcadins, but because they were on lockdown.
Over the weekend, nimble organizations with local staff carried on with their lives, whereas larger organizations with teams far from centralized headquarters stayed behind the gates. The turnout at Swim for Haiti represented a trend Chu has seen over and over again as he’s divided his time between Port-au-Prince, Haiti, and San Francisco, California, these past five years.
The only non-Haitian employee of a 108-person company that is building a network of water treatment facilities working to improve access to and reduce the cost of clean water in Haiti, Chu spoke with Devex about what approaches are needed to ensure the recent political turmoil does not derail the gains the country has made since the 2010 earthquake. Here is an excerpt of the conversation:
You mentioned that, while businesses should not always go around the government, they should be able to move forward even in cases of political instability, and particularly in a country like Haiti. Can you expand on this?
There are fundamental issues in this ecosystem that create this instability and that will always be there. We have all gotten so used to the turmoil and even some of the violence so it’s almost planned into our programs. We have a local team and response procedures and ways to get around it … For example, with Swim for Haiti, we had planned this event for nine months.
As we got closer to the elections people started saying you have to reschedule this event. But the main objective was to show people that Haiti is not just about earthquakes and poverty and instability. It’s actually a beautiful Caribbean island. We sat down and said okay what are we going to do? We looked at the risks and opportunities. And we continued. It was a fabulous event … We cannot let the factors that we cannot control go on to control us. If we do then we can’t get anything done … Stability would be great. I pray for stability. But the reason why this market is so difficult as well as the reason there is suchan opportunity for social impact and financial returns is because of all these barriers. If you get around them, you can accomplish a lot.
Why do you think businesses are better equipped than nonprofit organizations to survive this level of political instability, and how have you seen that play out?
A primary differentiator for a small business versus an NGO is that businesses have to survive. If we don’t solve that problem, we can’t go back to our donor and say, “We’re sorry.’’ There’s no A for effort. You either do it or you don’t. And that makes a huge difference in markets like Haiti because it’s that last little bit of, “oh shit, we’ve got to get this done” that gets you over the line. … The development sector needs more of a business mindset. It needs more innovation. It needs more risk taking … An NGO is just like any business in that it is selling something, an idea or a feeling or whatever it is.
The problem with NGOs is not that people are ill intentioned or incompetent but it’s a systemic issue. You have two customers: your donor — who you always have to satisfy or you’re out of business — and your beneficiary. And many times those two things don’t intersect. So when push comes to shove, you’re going to follow the paying customer.
Devex has written about how the social enterprise movement may be a path to success for Haiti, but you’ve said that you don’t like the term social enterprise, and that Haiti presents unique challenges and opportunities. What can companies do to set themselves up for success?
I can’t tell you how many impact investing conferences I go to where people say “that’s great what you’re doing” and then I mention Haiti and people say “Oh, great work you’re doing, but I need to get to my next meeting.” A lot of companies fall within that crack of too risky for commercial capital but too commercial for philanthropic money ... If you can scale in a way that gets you beyond Haiti then you become fundable.
The idea for us is that we will take our model globally. Haiti is representative of many developing countries, with its lack of public infrastructure, its dynamic informal economy, and its heavy reliance on water trucking. And Haiti is the proving ground for a business model that can be successful in a number of developing country environments.
Building a local team takes a lot of hard work and compromise but it is necessary. You might get better accounting skills and technical skills if you look beyond Haiti but you lose accountability, sustainability, and the ability to actually localize this model … It’s about capacity building. It’s about the development of skills and talent within the organization. And if you always have revolving talent, which at the end of the day is what expats are, then you don’t ever have continuity in your company … Also, bringing it back to Swim to Haiti and the lockdown, how can you really serve your beneficiaries if you aren’t accountable to them?… You have to be directly accountable to the people that you’re serving or else you won’t get it right. In the business world, that’s simply called being close to your customer, and everyone in business understands that, but in the NGO world it’s almost completely forgotten.
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Catherine Cheney covers the West Coast global development community for Devex. Since graduating from Yale University, where she earned bachelor's and master's degrees in political science, Catherine has worked as a reporter and editor for a range of publications including World Politics Review, POLITICO, and NationSwell, a media company and membership network she helped to build. She is also an ambassador for the Solutions Journalism Network and the Franklin Project at the Aspen Institute.
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