Gaining Knowledge on Complex Issues

by James Willard

Whenever people ask me what the Haiti Compact team went to Haiti to do, I have trouble coming up with a clear answer.  It’s complicated.  On one level, we went to Haiti to work on women’s health and nutrition projects with Haiti-based NGO Sonje Ayiti.  On a more personal level, however, I believe all of us went there to gain some sort of first-hand insight and deeper understanding of the world around us.  Haiti is a work-in-progress.  I was never naïve enough to believe that our contribution would mean a world of difference to any group of people, but I believe we played a small part in raising awareness and provoking change.  After the billions of dollars spent and squandered on Haiti’s post-earthquake development, no amount of monetary contribution any of us could come up with was going to solve Haiti’s woes.  From the start, I knew the best way to impact myself and others was to observe and learn from this trip, and that is what I did.

Haiti is a bit of an outlier.  The poorest country in the Western Hemisphere in terms of GDP/capita, the average Haitian earns over 40 times less than the average American does.  The poverty rate is around 80 percent, and thousands die each year from malnutrition and diseases that are generally regarded as treatable.  Haiti stands in stark contrast to the countries it surrounds, making its situation a bit different than that of the Congo or other countries that are surrounded by other poor countries.  Haiti serves as a great example of the gap between the rich and the poor that persists despite globalization and economic development.

As someone who has studied international political economy and has an interest in international development, I really enjoyed spending a lot of time learning about poverty in Haiti and how the international community has, at least in theory, dedicated a lot of money towards eliminating the problem.  By most estimates, all of this has been mildly ineffective.  Traveling on the poor roads, it became immediately apparent that, in many areas, large industry could simply not exist.  Many of the roads would be inaccessible in anything but a 4-wheel drive SUV or truck, so the hundreds of thousands of Haitians who live in rural Haiti are left without job opportunities.  Even those who live in the cities are oftentimes unable to find steady employment and resort to working in odd jobs in the informal economy.  We saw first-hand and listened to others talk about the poor quality of education, the limited access to high-quality healthcare, and Haiti’s persistent woes.

Yet for all of these things, Haiti shows a lot of promise.  We stayed with Gabie, the woman who started the NGO we were working with throughout the week.  Listening to her talk about the promises and challenges of Haiti’s development, I became more optimistic.  During our stay, we met with many people dedicated to the work they are doing.  During our visit to a new university in Haiti that was founded after the earthquake, we met with a group of students who wanted to build partnerships with universities in the U.S.  Their enthusiasm was motivating, and in most ways, they were indistinguishable from college students on any campus in the United States.  They seemed proud of their school and driven to make a change.  Some of us in the group are trying to work with them on a potential partnership of some sort with William and Mary.  We are all trying to put our unique skills and knowledge to work in order to make a positive impact.

As an International Relations major here at W&M, I love learning about IR theory, development economics, history, etc., but no classroom experience can replicate what you experience on the ground.  This Branch Out trip, I believe, really complemented my work as a research assistant at AidData as well as get me a greater sense of where I want my IR major to take me.  I am now more passionate about international development as well as more knowledgeable about some of these complex issues.  I cannot imagine a way I could have put my Winter break to better use.