GOALS was excited to be featured this week by Ray Shader on Mathaba News! The article is the second in a series on NGOs working in Haiti. The full text appears below.
"In my previous article I wrote that the larger NGOs (Non-Governmental Organizations) had separated themselves from the community they were attempting to serve. They had separated to the degree that they were wasting the resources and funds available to them.
This week I was able to sit down with Kona Shen, founder and director of GOALS Haiti. Actually as I spent time with her and discussed GOALS I saw that she was not only the director but she filled the roles of: intern, accountant, receptionist, file clerk and appointments manager. It was refreshing seeing someone hold themselves accountable because they know their responsibilities, both to the donors and the recipients.
Kona became interested in Haiti at age seventeen. This was in 2005 after the exile of Jean-Bertrand Aristide and due to the civil unrest at the time Haiti was not readily accessible. Two years later, as a freshman in college, she made her first trip to Haiti. She had hoped to start laying the foundation of a public health program. She admits now that she was unprepared for this endeavor and became involved with a Haitian organization in Leogane, Haiti as an English teacher. This organization, The NEGES Foundation, is a completely Haitian organization and laid the groundwork for her to work as a facilitator and guide later on instead of being the big chief in charge."
I would like to pause here to point out a big difference in what this college freshman recognized that many of the numerous academicians of the various NGOs fail to see. CS Lewis compared progress to doing an arithmetic problem. At times, as you work through a difficult problem, you realize your calculations are wrong and you need to go backwards in order to make better progress forward. Kona, recognizing her original plan wasn’t a good one, backtracked and set off in another direction, one that had the potential of true progress.
An example of the opposite are the transitional shelters built by CHF here that, many times, as soon as they are erected and the building team leaves, the owner dismantles them and sells them for the materials or they sit empty, used only for shade during the day. Why? They have no doors, no windows and the walls are tarp material and afford no security. I believe that this was a problem that was recognized early but I believe there is an NGO playbook somewhere that says, “If a plan isn’t working, force it. NO RETREAT.” By not backing up from a bad plan they have only accomplished the sale of scrap materials and have not had much of an impact on the shelter and security needs of the people.
This willingness to revisit a plan has given Kona, I believe, the ability to be flexible in an environment where things are in a constant state of changing. Most plans should evolve in Haiti; they have to because there is nothing that remains constant here. The weather, political climate or an outbreak of illness are among the uncontrollable variables constantly changing the conditions in which the work is being done. A rigid and static plan will not bear up under the pressures of Haiti’s ever changing times. It will crumble like the buildings that couldn’t roll with the movement of the earth and it will be as useful afterwards.
She believes another benefit of her time teaching English with The NEGES Foundation is that it wasn’t a burdensome workload. She had time to walk and visit with the surrounding communities; she was able to start building relationships with the people she wanted to serve.
I mention relationship frequently. I believe that it is an important, if not the most important, thing that an organization can offer. It is where all good work starts. I do realize in the immediate aftermath of the earthquake that action was needed, resources had to be made available quickly and emergencies countermanded the ability to form these relationships.
We are not in the immediate aftermath now though. We are a year down the road and we are bringing in foreigners for every important role and for every important decision.
The Haitian people, between an indifferent government and an equally indifferent -- for a great part -- NGO community, have no say in what happens in their own country. I have talked to many employees and staff of different agencies and they are constantly in meetings, filling out reports, reading reports, scheduling more meetings, reading and writing grant requests, etc… and have no time, or freedom, to actually have time with the people of Haiti.
These relationships, that Kona formed early, are the foundation of how she does what she does in Haiti. In her free time she involved herself in the culture of soccer here. She played and practised with local youths and went to the stadium in Leogane to watch matches. The stadium became an IDP camp after the earthquake and is still the home of 4000+ displaced people. It is these relationships that keep her aware of the changing needs of the people she serves. The involvement allows her to form and change plans as the needs arise.
After returning to the U.S. she was speaking at Brown University. During that afternoon she spoke of how something as simple as a sports program in Haiti could reap amazing rewards. One person in attendance, Paul Sorensen, thought she was onto something. After a couple of meetings GOALS Haiti was born.
Haiti has a very different culture than the U.S. or Europe. I hear many people after initially trying to get the people here to accept a different way of doing things, without success, proclaim, “You just can’t teach them any different.” Beside the fact that remarks such as this smack of racism they also demean the people as unable to be educated. Haitians have learned through the generations how to do everything they do from the generation before; childrearing, healthcare, building, etc… and here comes John or Jane Blan saying, “Here is how you’ll do things from now on because I know better.” Regardless of whether they do know better or not the people don’t know him/her well enough to trust them. They do know that there are constantly people showing up out of the blue to “help” them and the next thing they know all their pigs are dead, their rice is worthless, their land is gone or their government has been stolen. After these things, if they weren’t resistant to what these strangers told them it would be reason for concern.
Kona has put in the face time. She has earned respect and trust not by doing big things, but by doing the small things well. She has visited their homes, eaten with them, played with them and talked with them. In short she has become a trusted member of their community and they know through experiencing time with her that what she has to say, even if it challenges cultural norms, is worth listening to.
Trash on the streets of Haiti is something you grow used to. There are no trash trucks nor a street department. There is no department of sanitation or recycling centers. Culturally, to put forth the effort to pick it all up is ridiculous because where do you put it? It is effort that can be better used to provide for your family and home. The community Kona serves is a small fishing village. Because of the amount of trash that is tossed in the canals and then washed out to sea there is a constant flow of trash ending up on their beach. As Kona has put it, “To keep the beach clean is a Sisyphean task.” Nevertheless she spoke with the community about the benefits of a clean beach and the health and safety concerns of a dirty beach. Each day now the young people that are members of the soccer club sponsored by GOALS go clean the beach. Not only do they clean it they set aside the plastic to be recycled. That’s amazing because there are no recycling facilities in Haiti but there is the hope for some in future.
They could listen and respond not because they were any better equipped to learn but because Kona had their trust. When she put forth the idea of weekly village meetings to discuss the issues and needs of the village it became the plan. In one of these meetings the need for housing was discussed. Various types of shelters were presented for the village to decide among. She was surprised when they chose a shelter by Samaritan’s Purse of similar design to the CHF shelters that didn’t work. The reasons they work for this community; they do have doors and windows and as the community is small crime is not a problem. Kona facilitated the available resources and the community, very capably, made a decision based on their needs and what was available.
Next on the village agenda was a public toilet facility. Sanitation cannot be addressed enough here especially in the aftermath of the outbreak of cholera. A mason was found that volunteered his services. Materials were bought and the project began. Part of the way through it was realized that there were going to be more blocks needed than what was estimated. Instead of stopping and waiting for materials, the community, young and old, brought their own blocks from their properties. They brought the blocks they were going to use to rebuild what they had lost, to finish their toilets.
Before you start thinking about how amazing it is what Kona has accomplished, remember I have described her as a facilitator, a liaison. She has a staff, all Haitian; a director, Emilio Jean Paul, a program manager, Nadege Exillhomme, and two coaches, Jerson Jean Paul and Elbrane Rene for the everyday. She helps to guide them, makes available the resources they need to accomplish their goals and is available as a sounding board for their ideas. The staff is now responsible for introducing the program into surrounding communities.
I asked Emilio what he felt were the three most important things that have come from this. Quickly he said first; the impact on the kids, they are engaged in the community now and addressing environmental concerns and receiving skills that will make them a catalyst for more change in the future. Also the kids were enjoying the health benefits of playing and practising soccer regularly. Second; the impact it was having on the environment because of the toilets and regularly cleaning the beaches. Third; that they were able to approach other communities with the program. He didn’t say more on the third but I think that due to a lack of a central government, Haitians, especially in small outlying communities, feel disconnected from their country. Connections between communities will alleviate that.
Because of GOALS Haiti, doctors have been brought to the community to monitor the health and well being of the people, scholarships have been given to the school aged kids, seeds are made available for those that wish to properly prepare a garden and sports equipment has been donated for the soccer program.
In the small building used as a community center there is a poster. It was drawn up by the kids in the program and lists what they feel are the principles that form the foundation of GOALS. Almost all of them say something about respect. They do not say here is how you earn respect but these are the people you show respect to. The list is about twenty items long so they did not leave anyone out. They know, as children, that community begins with respect and that it is the tool they will need to lift themselves and their neighbors, maybe not out of poverty, but as Jean-Bertrand Aristide writes in his book “Eyes Of The Heart”, up to poverty with dignity. Hope begins in respect. NGOs, are you listening?"