6 things I learned in 6 days in Haiti

I had been in Haiti before and had even seen extreme poverty before, but I was reminded that we can always learn something new and sometimes we even need to re-learn things over and over again.

1.  I learned that it is important to listen and observe before speaking.  Even though our four-man team determined ahead of time to listen first, I was reminded that it is easier said than done!  We did listen and we did observe but sometimes I was too quick to suggest an idea or to ask the ‘no-no’ “why?” question.  I learned again that the question is much better received if I would say, “How do you go about irrigating this row of bananas?” rather than, “Why do you send the water that way?”  It was important that we send a signal that we were listening and learning before making suggestions.

2.  I learned that change does not come easy – it takes time.  When people who have done things a certain way for generations, a consultant has to first demonstrate the benefit of doing something different and then do it with humility.  For example, we went to Haiti ready to give advice and training for starting a profitable and sustainable business.  However three days of observation showed us that certain things must come first and they take time – such as infrastructure, education and community development.  A well-designed business may be useless if there is no road to it or the electric grid is unpredictable.  Transformation does not usually happen in one fell swoop, nor in a wrenching revolution, or with a solitary lucky break.  Jim Collins calls it an “organic, cumulative process” in his chapter on the flywheel momentum. 1

3.  I learned that just because it is different, it is not wrong.  In our world of financial models and spread sheets – sometimes we learn most from generations of experience.  Some call it bottoms up technology!  In a simple economy change begins with the details of life as it is, and works upward to a higher conceptual level. It is possible that metrics can be in the head of a plantain farmer and that is not wrong just because we automatically default to a spreadsheet.

4.  I learned that faith and work are integrated.  Haiti, like most of the world outside the West, does not dichotomize the sacred and the secular.  God is the God of everything and everything we do is to be for the glory of God (I Cor. 10:31).  God controls the weather – even when there is a drought!  When we spend time bringing water to the arid north of Haiti, as the Robinsons are doing, we are working for the glory of God.  We are exercising our faith.  We are living out our faith.  We are integrating our faith with our work. God uses all our skills as we live our lives by faith.

5.  I learned that relationships can be more important than what we realize.  From time to time we got a glimpse of the fact that we did not know what we did not know.  We only learned it when we built relationships with people. Perhaps the most beneficial half-day of the whole trip was walking around the plantation talking to farmers who lived and worked on the land.  They told us about their families; about their lives; about growing plantains.  As we listened to the stories of their lives, we had a richer conversation about the things we came to talk about – providing more consistent water to the plantain farms.

6.  I learned that we need each other, and as Ben Barr says in his blog, “Faith is a team sport.”  Robert Fulghum in his book All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten says a kindergarten learning is:  “When you go out into the world, watch out for traffic, hold hands and stick together.”  As four of us teamed up together to bring some help to the irrigation project we realized our skills, experiences, and knowledge were complementary.  We were a team and as we honored and respected that, we coalesced to provide a good end result.

1 Collins, Jim. Good to Great.  Harper Collins Publishers, New York, NY.  2001
Fulghum, Robert.  All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten. Villard Books, New York, NY, 1990.

Larry W. Sharp, Director of Training, IBEC Ventures

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