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Haiti Onward, Part 1: The Wisdom of Youth

3p Contributor | Friday November 12th, 2010 | 1 Comment

By C. Sala Hewitt

In this series, TriplePundit captures perspective from innovative, sustainability-centric Haitian relief organizations on approaches that aim to boost the resilience of Haitian communities for the long-run.

Despite the involvement of major organizations and an outpouring of donations—over $1 Billion in US emergency assistance alone—roughly a million more people remain displaced or homeless.   Criticism can be hurled amidst this landscape of distress, given lack of water safety, hurricane season flooding, and food scarcity. As some areas like Artibonite continue to struggle against an onslaught of worsening conditions, little news of the triumph makes it through the airwaves.  However, the seeds of sustainable relief efforts are taking root, as ecopreneurial and values-based organizations demonstrate more holistic models of response and to help Haiti claim a more sustainable future.  Relief work is a complex dance between delivering short-term response and long-term stability.

Each featured organization is a collaborator in the Haiti Onwards relief network, and were featured at the Net Impact Conference “Vision for a Sustainable Decade” at Ann Arbor October 30, 2010.   The Haiti Onwards coalition was formed in March 2010 following the Sustainable Haiti Conference in Miami, and includes over 15 organizations.  The network deploys sustainable community development techniques—from low-cost earthen architecture to yogic stress relief to microfinance—to help equip Haitians with tools for self-sufficiency and resilience n housing, agriculture, schools and business.

The first in this virtual roundtable on Haitian relief response is Nouvelle Vie, represented by Uma Viswanathan, Director.  Nouvelle Vie is an off-shoot of International Association for Human Values, and is specifically focused on youth leadership development.  Nouvelle Vie helps Haitian teens and young adults “leapfrog” into sustainability as they lead DIY solutions to issues like housing and agriculture in Haiti.

3P: You spoke recently at the Net Impact Conference on sustainable business.  What big idea did you take away that will be useful in rebuilding a more sustainable Haiti?

VISWANATHAN: If we try to imagine what industries to invest in now, where and how can Haiti possibly grow, there’s a sense of frustration that grows – who will be there to take on these businesses? How will we, as an international community, and Haitians not enter into the same patterns of aid and sweatshops? If we just think band-aid investments and endless handouts without moving in a long-term direction, we are doing more harm than good.

In rebuilding a more sustainable Haiti, the big idea I walked away from NetImpact with is that we all have to devote ourselves to a long-term vision – not 5 years or 10 years, but 50 or 100 years. At the heart of this vision must be education. We have to commit ourselves to developing a generation of leaders and entrepreneurs rooted in innovation and sustainability who have the commitment, skills, and support to solve Haiti’s challenges in entirely new ways. We have to work as a network of interdependent agencies – large and small – who plug in at different stages and with different capacity to support the growth of local Haitian leadership.

3P: How do small enterprises like this communicate your success, in order to scale up those successes and advance greater improvements?

VISWANATHAN: Nouvelle Vie communicates our success through a combination of qualitative data – testimonials, video, photographs – and quantitative measures of our impact with individuals and communities. This impact assessment not only gives us valuable information how to tweak our programs and approach for scalability, but is a huge teaching tool for our youth leaders. Rather than being employees of an international NGO following orders from the top, they are the ones now beginning to ask themselves “How can I achieve bigger impact?” Total ownership of impact by the locals is a sign of local leadership, which is the key to greater impact and scalability of any venture.

3P: What sort of skills, training or expertise are in highest demand at this stage of Haiti’s redevelopment?  How are you preparing Haiti’s youth to meet these needs?

VISWANATHAN: Capacity building is at a premium in Haiti – both vocational skills for immediate employment and professional skills. In the short-term, Nouvelle Vie trains our youth leaders with vocational skills in agriculture and trauma relief, simultaneously building professional skills in project management, financial management, and communications. After a few years of experience, these Haitian youth will not only be able to create and work for a range of ventures in Haiti, but will also be able to train other Haitians in the skills they’re learning now.

3P: Nouvelle Vie is a non-profit.  What ways have you considered incorporating social enterprise into your model?  Has there been any consideration of partnerships with private businesses?  Or, How can business leaders help you move Nouvelle Vie’s mission forward, to achieve greater sustainability?

VISWANATHAN: Nouvelle Vie has a goal of total financial self-sufficiency within the next 5 years. We are training our youth leaders as entrepreneurs who will design and run a series of social businesses starting in 2011 whose profits will support Haitian operations. Business leaders can invest in these businesses and mentor our youth leaders in business. In addition, the Youth Corps will contract out their services to NGOs and UN agencies, providing steady revenue. We have already started with this, through a pilot contract with the FAO for our food security programs.

3P: What moment in the course of your efforts has been the most inspiring?

VISWANATHAN: The most inspiring aspect of my work is seeing how the young Haitians we are working with are developing into mature, sensitive, and capable leaders. Just two weeks ago, we were invited by the World Bank to present our work to the Haitian government. I brought along Samuel and Samson, brothers ages 20 and 21 from a poor family in Les Cayes, to join me. They were confident, clear, and professional, presenting our work to decision-makers, networking, strategizing partnerships. Samson was even invited to join a task force with the Haitian government! It was incredible to see how much they’ve grown since I just started working with them 2 years ago!

3P: Even though news coverage maybe somewhat waning, how are you able to keep international communities engaged and invested?

VISWANATHAN: Keeping media attention on Haiti is a challenge. Our main strategy is by connecting people not to Haiti as a charity case – as pity quickly wanes – but as a deeply personal story of inspiration and individual triumph. Our youth leaders are heroes, and with all the darkness and despair that surrounds Haiti, hearing about these heroes inspires both Haitians and the international communities.

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Take a closer look at Nouvelle Vie’s impact here.

C. Sala Hewitt confesses to having lived life as a double agent as an ad strategist for multi-million dollar brands by day, while in her off-hours pursing a shared vision of a more socially and environmentally just world through indy arts & social dialogue.  She now strives to unify her expertise and passions by sharing the good news of sustainability through brand and community engagement.  Visit her her blog, RootsInWater.


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  • Greg Berry

    Great story — thanks for taking the time to revisit this issue.

    My interest lies specifically in the application of leadership training to such a young community of leaders. Haiti is an interesting paradox — so close to the US, but so much like many developing countries that have so much more of their often unrealized power structure in the youth. As an American, I often wish for such a shift. Of course, the collective pain in Haiti is too horrible to imagine on the US scale.

    I am thankful to Ms. Viswanathan for her hard work with the next generation of leaders, and encouraging social entrepreneurship and fiscal responsibility, even in the founding of this “train the trainers” / “lead the leaders” initiative.

    More, please. : )