AN OPEN LETTER TO MY FAIR-TRADE PARTNERS AND FRIENDS WANTING TO DO SUSTAINABLE WORK IN THE DEVELOPING WORLD.
When I first moved to Haiti, I had my heart and my head set on trying to create jobs for parents who were at risk for relinquishing their children. What I didn’t really know when I went down there in 2008, was how exactly I was going to accomplish that. My first year, I landed there and worked in an orphanage as a houseparent for a boys’ home which was an auxiliary part of a mega orphanage. We had 24 boys in the house ages 5-16. The main orphanage was just down the road and housed the babies and toddlers as well as the older girls. All in all, there were over 100 children in this orphanage where I spent my first year in Haiti.
Because the house that I lived in with the boys had been the original orphanage before they outgrew it and had to open a second house, many parents who were looking to relinquish their children would come knock at our gate, not realizing that we weren’t the main part of the orphanage anymore. Most of the time, when I would see these mothers with their babies, much to my chagrin, I would send them down to the main orphanage and let the orphanage director sort out what to do. I was new to Haiti and didn’t know what to do, and didn’t want to overstep my boundaries, even though I knew that I was on a path to find solutions for child relinquishment. That part of my journey wasn’t really in place yet.
One day, a lady with a baby knocked on the gate. The baby was only a few months old and this girl was looking pretty desperate. She told us her story about how she was looking for an orphanage and asked me to take her son. It was one of those days where I was feeling braver than usual and I started asking her some questions.
No, the dad was not in the picture.
She didn’t have money to feed him etc. etc.
After assessing her situation, a bit. I asked her what it would take for her to be able to keep her son. She replied that she couldn’t because she just didn’t have the money. I asked her if she would if she had a job or a little business. Her eyes lit up.
“Of course, I would!”
There was a teacher in the orphanage who was helping me communicate with the lady as I didn’t speak Creole yet and I looked at him and asked him what it would take for her to start a little business. We talked back and forth, and it was decided upon that $200 could help her start a little business selling soap and laundry detergent.
The deal was done in my mind. I wanted to try to do something for this woman. The next day, we set out to downtown Port Au Prince, Junior and me and this lady and her baby and we bought all of the things we needed for her to start a little business. We talked to her about what to sell the items for and to make sure to reinvest the profits back into her business.
We felt good about ourselves. Mission accomplished. I felt like I finally did was I came to Haiti to do.
A few days later we decided to drive by where our little friend was working selling her soap and we found her in the line up of street merchants. I didn’t see her baby there with her and so we stopped to talk with her and ask how he was doing. She explained to us, kind of matter of factly that she didn’t have anyone to watch him, so she had set him on the floor- the bare concrete floor in her one room home and left him there while she went out to sell. I was obviously horrified. We urged her to go home and get her son and we went with her. Sure enough, as we approach the room where she stayed, we heard a baby crying, and she unlocked the door as we stared into the dark room with no light and a baby lying there by himself. Alone. We spoke with her about it and told her she couldn’t just leave her son. She kind of blankly stared at us as if to say, “Well what am I supposed to do?”.
A few days later she was out of supplies and out of cash as she used it all to buy food for herself and the baby and was knocking on the gate of the orphanage looking for another handout or to relinquish her baby.
This was my Ah-Ha moment about sustainability. I knew in that moment that if I was going to try to put my efforts into job creation, then I better think a little bit harder about how to make it enduring. I knew that if I didn’t wise up and put my efforts into something that would bring more chances of success, than I was ultimately setting them up for failure but honestly- creating false HOPE.
When helping hurts. When we don’t get it right. When we aren’t’ smart or thorough… we can do more harm than good.
Sustainability. It’s a common “catchword” that is used a lot when dealing with developing world problems and solutions. People want to know that the help they are giving is going to endure and have an exponential impact on the communities that they are working in.
Are you trying to bring sustainable change in a place like Haiti? Do you work with farmers, artisans, coops, micro-loans, children aging out of orphanages? Are you asking yourselves the hard questions about what it takes to make this group an enduring success? Do they have the capacity, resources etc. to be successful? If groups and artisans are taken on, it is a responsibility that I know all of us – founders, partners etc. do with great respect and responsibility. We know that once that relationship is established, and we start selling for them, or assisting them in other ways, that they then look to us to continue the process that was started. They plan on it, just like we plan on our paychecks, and when we don’t deliver, in their world, it is like getting an unexpected pay cut, or at worst, getting laid off.
This past year in Haiti has been particularly difficult for us because of this very situation. The political climate has killed the tourism industry which had been bringing in about 50% of our artisan revenue. All of the sudden our artisans are only working half as much and they still want to send their kids to school. I am doing the best that I can, but they have suffered. It has taken time to build back the revenue that they have lost. Christmas orders are starting to come in, a few new key clients, wholesale buyers and those buying on our retail site make such a difference and gives us so much hope.
But what about you? Are you working alongside people in the developing world? Do you have a heart for Haiti or for other countries? Are you a fair-trade store owner? How do you fit into this equation? You are probably assuming I am going to encourage you to sell more to make things to make Papillon sustainable. That’s not exactly the direction I am going to go with this. (Although I won’t deny I like the idea). Here’s the thing, in order for whatever your mission is to be sustainable, YOU NEED to be sustainable too.
Are you having fun? Are your needs getting met? Are your children’s? Are you making money? Are you able to better your life because of your job? Are you loving what you do? Is the simple fact that you have new purpose? Is the reward more than monetary? Is it your faith? I sure hope that the answer is YES to some or all of these questions. When we are getting something out of our business or mission, when the work we do is mutually beneficial, then it makes it all the more enduring. Many people will volunteer for a season, donate once for a cause etc. but when you as a partner become interdependent on artisans or the work you do and you are both being rewarded, that’s were sustainability really happens. Enterprises and endeavors that are mutually beneficial also tend to take the “savior” complex out of us you come from a place of privilege. Over the years people have come to me and said that they don’t feel comfortable getting paid of making a profit by what they sell or do. I can assure you, that if you want to do THE MOST good for artisans, allow them to be a blessing to you as well. Speaking to my friends selling fair-trade goods, it is absolutely IMPERATIVE that you business is profitable in order for you to sustainably help artisans around the world! This interdependence that you are building with them is what ultimately makes this a sustainable venture both for you and for them.
I want to tell you about Shirley.
When Shirley and I first started out, she was a 15-year-old girl who had been forced to drop out of high school because of the earthquake and was living in a tent with her family. I was a 33-year-old educated white woman who had everything she needed. The balance of power was hardly equal. When she first started, she certainly got a lot more than me out of the job. But here’s the thing- when we work in a way that is sustainable, we are empowering women and men and they are slowing rising up to join us in our place of privilege and the balance of power is leveling out until one day I wake up and I look at Shirley and I realized that I truly need her to run this business as much as she needs me to be working. To be honest with you, I am pretty sure that Shirley could go on and get another job at this point, but I am not so sure that I could easily replace here. Our relationship has turned into an equal partnership that is mutually beneficial, and that is what I see as successful sustainability.
When we give a woman or a man in poverty a job, we will see them grow and we will start to acknowledge somewhere down the road that we need them and what they do as much as they need us. That mutual dependency is a good thing! And the dignity that it brings to our artisans is what we are after.
If we don’t go into our work in development with sustainability as a goal, then we might as well just be doing charity work. Charity work is fine and good and necessary in a crisis but is hardly a long-term solution for getting families out of poverty and changing generations. IF we want to make a long term difference in the lives of the poor, the going might be slow and we might not get the “high” of a charity event, but it is what truly changes the world- when we are steadfast, patient, committed and enduring.