Viv and I were lost again.
Although driving through the Haitian countryside with a stranger riding shotgun sounds like the beginning of a Joseph Conrad novel, it’s far from metaphor. Viv (who is Team Tassy’s Executive Director and often my counterpart) and I were lost again and looking for a meeting at an NGO which shall remain nameless. As is per usual, we weren’t close and several minutes behind schedule, so I asked a guy. He changed his shoes and jumped in the truck and spent the day with us because he didn’t have anything else to do. He took us where we needed to go (I was WAY off on directions) and after a lengthy meeting about projects and beneficiaries and the usual, the NGO official told me (rather unhappily) they had recently cut several hundred jobs because relief in Haiti was ending.
To borrow a phrase from a literary hero…and so it goes.
This is the way that it is.
If the 2000s gave us anything, they gave us, for the first time in history, a global understanding of just how poor and sick our poorest and sickest are. The Millennium Development Goals outlined the breadth of the problem and our accountability to it, and NGOs and governments have in large part responded. We are making real progress on maternal & child mortality and education. We have halved extreme poverty ahead of schedule. Access to the internet has made amazing things possible. The outcry to end HIV, Polio, and Malaria, and in Haiti’s case, the tireless uphill battle to contain and end cholera by organizations like Partners in Health, is so very encouraging. The 2000’s, led in this development world by giants like Bill Gates and Bill Clinton, gave us the the tools to treat the symptoms, and it’s working.
However, in Haiti, you’ll read article after article about slow economic growth, out of control unemployment, and an unstable informal economy, which undercuts any possibility at a decent tax base. Traditional wages are too low and conditions are often cruel. The best and largest employers in struggling nations are often the NGOs who are there to help; but, when projects end, thousands lose their jobs and with it, an enormous measure of their dignity. Their unemployment creates a dependence on the limited resources of the organizations that once employed them, their destiny is tied up in the budgets of donors, and they stay charity cases. While NGOs can adequately prepare the poor for jobs, I fear that, like a TB patient that doesn’t receive the full course of drugs, without a real commitment to business creation, we are increasing the virility of poverty and its chances of relapse in areas where we have made so much progress.
We must channel more significant investment dollars into small businesses in developing countries. Projects like Caracol in Haiti, while admirable in theory as a step towards a real manufacturing sector, do not do enough or pay enough, and they balance success on the precarious needle of non-diversified investment. I was born in a steel town in Western Pennsylvania. Any one of the old men who come to eat and talk about the old days at The Maple Restaurant just off Merchant Street in Ambridge, PA will tell you that when mills close, towns die. They’ll tell you they’d rather have 200 local businesses with 100 employees a piece, than one business with 20,000 — because people in Ambridge, named after the company that came and left, know a thing or two about the heartbreak that comes when big companies go away. They know a thing or two about (relative) tough times. They also know a thing or two about rebirth.
It’s time we apply the lessons we learn in places like Pittsburgh to the people we serve in the poorest geographies. It’s time we start taking more and bigger chances on viable small businesses in ANY sector of developing economies, as long as they can create and sustain profit driven by dignified employment, with a deliberate nod to social and environmental metrics. It’s time for the aid community to double down and move from funding short-term projects to partnering with for-profit entities. The scope of international non-profits in the 2010s and 2020s must expand to facilitate significant business relationships between every respectable TBL (triple bottom line) business owner and the communities and governments they work with — because responsible profit allows the poor to buy their own drugs, pay their own tuitions, and save their own lives. And it’s time for traditional VCs (venture capitalists) to remember websites aren’t the only way to make money. The largest business opportunities in history sit in the dust of Port-au-Prince and Freetown and Khartoum, and anything less than their full attention is not enough.
You’ll hear from the traditionalists that “we’re getting there,” and it’s true. We have a wonderful example of an NGO/for-profit partnership in Kiva (started by another Pittsburgher). Samasource is proving the digital services industry stands to benefit from investment in the poor. And, we hope soon, our work at Thread and Team Tassy will prove that modern manufacturing can close the loop on waste while creating high quality jobs through for-proftit/non-profit partnerships with partners like Executives Without Borders. The rise of Impact VC is young, but we’re learning that taken over the long term, investment in responsible companies offers healthy return. We’re getting there, but getting there is not enough. Dipping a toe in won’t do it. We need to be there, and we need to do it now.
Until we are, I fear Viv and I won’t be the only ones a little lost in the countryside.