Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Big Picture Philanthropy and Personal Vanity

Goofy girls at BRESMA
Some important philosopher once said that balance is the key to a successful life. If so, today is an unmitigated success.

As you all know, ABI is a Hague accredited adoption agency. Therefore, I spend between 40 and 50 % of my time assisting with Haitian adoptions. The rest of my time is spent on ABI’s other mission: the preservation of every child’s right to grow up in a family. The entire agency, and Lucy and I in particular, do a great deal of advocacy and lobbying internationally and with our own government. ABI is very actively involved in the Joint Council of International Children’s Services, and Lucy and I have served as chairpersons of various caucuses. Much of this is done quietly, behind the scenes, using the people we know to get those we don’t know to listen to reason and consider the best interests of children in international policy.

Haiti is sometimes referred to as ‘the land of 10,000 NGOs’. This is an exaggeration. There are only 500 or so registered NGOs in Haiti. But there are thousands more operating here without any coordination or organization.

Haiti was also just declared the poorest nation on earth. How can this be? Every flight I ride down here is at least half full of aid workers and volunteers. And yet it seems we’re making remarkably little progress. Or maybe sliding backwards – Haiti didn’t get the best of the worst award for poorest country on earth until this year. I certainly don’t have all the answers, but I may know this one – lack of coordination. Lack of cooperation. Chaos. Nobody knows who is working down here, what they are doing, or where they are doing it. Not even the government.

USAID put a great deal of money into compiling a list of aid organizations. The result? A large spreadsheet. I am not making this up. Seriously. A spreadsheet. I have a copy, but it’s not very helpful to me when I have a real live grandmother standing in front of me who wants to raise her baby granddaughter after the death of her own daughter, but can’t do it without formula that she can get near her home in Carrefour. I know for sure that SOMEBODY must be offering nutritional support in Carrefour, but I have no idea who or where, and no idea how to get in touch with them. I don’t have an hour or two to read through the USAID spreadsheet and then pray that the contact information hasn’t changed over the last 20 months or so. I have nothing.

It doesn’t have to be this way. Before I started working in Haiti, I used to be a computer programmer. I designed and built online applications for shopping, searching, signing up for events, etc. In Haiti, many lives could be saved with software. I’ve known that for a while, but it’s hard to find someone willing to sponsor an expensive project that has no photo opportunities. There will be no happy photos of children in crisp uniforms or babies eating healthy food at last. Of course, there will be a lot more of that happening if we can get this project off the ground, but it will be indirectly. My pet project just isn’t sexy or glamorous. Lucky for us, we found a sponsor who is far more interested in accomplishing real progress on a large scale – actually trying to fix the problem- than in looking good. Jillian Michaels and Empowered Media support ABI in our efforts to make a difference to millions, not just a few hundred or so.

Jillian paid for me to have a demonstration mock up created, and I’ve been presenting it to various people in Haiti. I’ve shown it to Mme. Villedrouin, director of IBESR. Of course she’s desperate to have the project implemented, as it is her department that is responsible for trying to direct the people to the elusive aid groups. Jillian and I have tried using more conventional channels to approach the Haitian government, but as that wasn’t working very well I’m now using inside connections.

This morning I meet with the Haitian Secretary of State. The appointment was made for me by a friend and business connection whom I’ve known for several years. Port-au-Prince is like a village. Everyone knows everyone, and this friend knows Mr. Robert Labrousse. Fortunately for me, I don’t actually understand who he was until after we start talking, so I do not make an absolute idiot of myself in my nervousness. I thought he was the secretary for the Bureau, not the actual Haitian Secretary of State! He is very kind, gentlemanly, and reassuring. And is English is impeccable. He is very interested in our database offer, which will be designed for and owned by the Haitian government, and paid for by Empowered Media. It’s a gift – a big one. After my presentation he asks me to return tomorrow to present the project to a committee that is actively looking for a database option for NGO registration for Haiti. We’ll see how it goes. In my experience, committees dither and then eventually someone in power actually makes the decision. I hope that in this case, it’s Mr. Labrousse.

After spending the morning lobbying for project to aid the masses, I return to the guest house to do some catch up work. When Margarette gets back, we change gears entirely to vanity.

I’ve never had my hair ‘done’ in Haiti. Or anywhere else for that matter, other than for my wedding. But that’s okay because Margarette’s usual hair dresser has never done a white lady’s hair either.

We drive first to the grocery store, where I buy my own hair coloring. That’s how it’s done here. I’m not really a brunette anymore – if I let nature take its course I’d have almost completely white hair at forty-two. So perhaps I’m already vain. But this afternoon is dedicated to vanity.

We drive to the hairdresser’s new shop, which is a concrete room about fifteen by nine added on to the side of her house. Power is supplied by a generator. She colors my hair and sets me under a hot dryer. I ask how anyone can stand to do this in August. Margarette assures me it has to be done weekly. After I’m good and cooked, I am rinsed and shampooed and my hair is blow dried straight. In Haiti, longer and straighter is better. After a good twenty minutes under the Sahara of the blow dryer, it’s time to flat iron my hair for another twenty minutes. It still won’t lie as flat as ethnic hair that’s chemically straightened, but at least it’s long. I get the nod of approval. I hardly recognize myself! Now my husband is really going to think I just come here to vacation, since I just spent more than an hour and a half at the salon.

Hair is a big cultural status symbol here. Tomorrow for my meeting I will look respectable and perhaps even important. Fingers crossed!


  1. Hi Diana:

    I'm a software engineer , board member of a boys home in haiti, and a parent trying to adopt for over 2 years, but not yet 35. Anyway, I'm very interested in the software project you are working on. Have you already assembled the technical team?

    Thank you

  2. We do have a bid from a commercial company which I know can do the job just right, but with all the interest I've had it might be wise to look at semi-volunteer options. Please contact me by phone or email. The less money we spend on development, the more we'll have to spend on promotion of the system.