On our first full day in Haiti we had the chance to visit an industrial park, located right near the airport. We were visiting an organization called Maxima, which markets itself as an innovative woodworking company. We crossed under the gate welcoming us to the industrial park and into a different Haiti, leaving the chaotic streets of Port au Prince for a clean and orderly park with the mark of foreign investment.
Foreign investment, whether it be in the form of industry or nonprofit organizations, has a notorious reputation in Haiti. Even the new Carocal Park in the north of Haiti, championed by its supporters, the Clintons and friends, as a revolutionary method for creating jobs has its critics. So going into this experience I was hesitant to see what Maxima offered. But as soon as we entered into the pristine building I felt automatically foolish for assuming that every industry in Haiti comes in with selfish intentions.
A Haitian woman greeted us at the desk and as we waited for the director to meet us I looked around the office space. Rather than seeing foreign nationals, I saw Haitians behind the screens of the computers designing the programming, individual desks for each person, and Haitians consulting with Haitians about the project. As we toured the warehouses with Maxima’s Belgian founder, I felt like I was in a Home Depot warehouse, so far from the crowded and bright streets of Port au Prince. The warehouse was spacious, with signs posted around the facility with Maxima’s mission statement and values written out in French, Creole, and English. I followed the founder, Julien, and Evan, hanging back to speak with Johnson, the man who had driven us to the industrial park from our hostel. He was in awe of the conditions of the warehouse, the opportunity to move up in the company, and of the school.
The school was the “innovation” in the innovative woodworking company. As the founder explained to us prior to starting the tour, in Haiti, students are taught practical skills but rarely are they taught the logic behind these skills or the purpose behind each task. So to fix this skills gap, Maxima created an on-sight school for locals to come and not only learn the practice of woodworking, but the logic behind each step in the process and the fundamentals needed to work wood. The students have the opportunity to pay for the tuition in segments during the three months they attend school. Finally, upon their graduation, they may be offered a permanent position with Maxima or they may leave with the skills needed at a different carpentry school. Regardless, Maxima offers more than just a place of employment for a small number of Haitians; it offers a place for Haitians to learn valuable skills, contribute to the Haitian economy, and boost their chances of employment outside of Maxima.
As a student of International Affairs and Public Health, I have been trained to think critically about projects, to look for the smallest flaws or cultural insensitivities. Studying this for the past four years has made it extraordinarily easy to look for flaws in development initiatives. It’s always easier to offer criticism than praise just like it’s always easier to turn a blind eye to our own flaws, while promoting our assets. But it’s more difficult to remember that no project, no idea, no organization is perfect for a community. If it was perfect, the community would have created it themselves, regardless of the resources. So instead, I made it a goal of this trip to look for the givers, for the innovators, and for those who sought to engage with the community, rather than benefiting from it.
With each passing day, I think each of us, as individuals as well as members of the Asepsis team, have realized that community focused projects are not only the most beneficial for the community, but they are also the ones that are the most likely to succeed.