Mission Report Haiti: Why We Do What We Do…

Thursday and Friday of last week were spent doing the kinds of things that make relief work sexy. It was spent engaged in the activities that writers see fit to feature in TV, movies, and books. It’s the kind of stuff people contemplate when they dream of traveling to a far off, exotic, locale, amongst a people speaking in tongues: Budgeting and accounting.

You see, relief work is all fine and good. But effective and sustained relief work is dependent upon our credibility in the eyes of our government, our donors, and the people we’re trying to help. While I dream of a world where accountability is a lesser attribute than reckless abandon and “making it rain,” I live in a world where every once in a while it’s necessary to sit down, sort through myriad receipts, figure out which currency they represent, do conversions, enter all that shit into an excel spreadsheet, and then pray to the Olympian God Dionysus that all the numbers and formulas and little squares come out right. Why do I pray to Dionysus? Because Dionysus was the god of fertility and ecstasy, and the pleasure I get from budgeting could only be described as sexual.

Maybe I’m exaggerating a bit. Maybe I’m trying to make budgeting seem more enticing than it actually is. But, attractive or not, it is a very necessary part of the process and something we take seriously. Sure I’m just, like, a tattooed ne’er-do-well, gallivanting around the foreign countryside with thousands of dollars at my fingertips. But you should see how symmetrical and aesthetically pleasing my spreadsheets are. The way the numbers march out across the chart… breathtaking. And I’m old school. I don’t use templates. I make that shit from scratch. Like how grandma and grandpa used to do it.

The only thing more fun than budgeting is having a serious talk about the need to scrimp and save at every opportunity with the few people around here for whom that information is actionable. Rightfully so, the US is viewed by every third world country to which I’ve traveled as a land covered in fields of gold where money flows from a spigot. While this obviously isn’t the case for most of us, we do, as a country, consume a disproportionate amount of the world’s resources. So I had to drive home this point. We do not have unlimited funds. We are a grassroots effort. Friends and family all working toward this goal, contributing not even necessarily from a surplus of personal resources, but making sacrifices to see this through. (Knowing this is why I can set aside my personality to be responsible for a few hours each week so that nothing gets wasted, inasmuch as possible.) They understood. But just to be safe, I inserted myself into negotiations whenever possible.

There is a certain apprehension as an outsider in this place. Each nation will have it’s own way of doing business. And no amount of forcing will ever convert everyone to the “American” way. So it’s a process of learning, and compromise, and trying to simultaneously trust and be suspicious of swindlers. I couldn’t do anything here by myself. Without contacts and translators, this whole thing would be a non-starter. But that doesn’t mean I can’t dispense a little bit of sophisticated manipulation. The problem is, it doesn’t matter what things cost in the USA. What things cost in Haiti is in no way reflected by prices in the US. But the one thing I can exert some influence over is labor costs. This is a negotiation culture. But from what I’ve gleaned through translators, the negotiations aren’t terribly purposeful. It’s just sort of an arrive-at-the-middle process.

In the long run, just abiding by this practice would probably cost us a few thousand dollars extra. So here’s what I did. I tapped into my inner car salesman and sold a load of bullshit for a reduction in the labor price. That’s not entirely true. I mean, what I was saying was true. It wasn’t total bullshit. But it wasn’t a tangible thing. And the Haitians usually only negotiate in terms of tangible things. When the mason offered his first price for the labor on the security wall, I nearly halved it and told the translator to tell him that when the clinic is finished it will bring people from surrounding villages all over the region, boosting the economy of Gard Hiram, and it will improve the health of his family, friends, and neighboring villages. I actually used the phrase civic duty, and I guess it translated. I also talked about how we’re all a team. Basically, I wanted to give a speech so moving, that a single tear would well up in his eye, and roll down his cheek. This would be a clear sign that I was about to get a good price.

He never wet the soil with a tear. But he agreed. I think he just wanted me to stop talking. Then he went like ten feet away and wet the soil with his urine. Was it necessary that I share that last detail with you? Absolutely not. I just wanted to illustrate another contrast between American and Haitian business dealings. It’s not often in the US that someone will whip it out and relieve themselves at the conclusion of negotiations. But this is Haiti.

I spent the weekend building hit points. If you don’t know what that means then you haven’t been playing enough video games. Basically, I just tried to make myself harder to kill. Both of the kids that I’ve named Shadow One and Shadow Two (if you thought it had to do with their complexion you’re racist, if you thought it had to do with them following me around because they like me, you’re also wrong, but they do follow me, because I have electronics, back to your regularly scheduled program.) Anyway, those kids had colds all week. When I was a child I never understood why my parents got so pissed off after 35 minutes of me sucking snot back into my nose. But now I do. So much so that I learned the Creole phrase for “Your nose is making me gross.” And then, never did I think in a million-billion years I would also have to look up the constituent words to be able to say “Don’t put my headphones in your mouth.” But I did. So went to war with sickness and I won. And I can only imagine that I’m now immune to any number of horrific plagues that may befall the rest of you who Purell everything and use little rings of pre-manufactered toilet seat shaped paper teeming with absorbed airborne poo particles in the nearly sterile public toilets. So while you guys are all coddling your immune systems, I’m basically becoming invincible. I just ate a piece of popcorn off the ground. Not even worried about it.

I feel that I need to relay another anecdote. During the budgeting talks, our contact and make-things-happen-guy-on-the-ground-extraordinaire, Edelin, began trying to convince me to marry a Haitian girl. His main sales point, and I quote, is that “Haitian girls have Coca Cola style.” You have to imagine that being said in third language English with some hint of a French accent and a little bit of Jamaican sprinkled in for flavor. I explained to him that in English it’s called an hourglass figure, and that marriage would require a few more components. He didn’t see my point. But he understood the need for accounting and budget adherence.

I don’t know how I managed to go from spreadsheets to politician speeches to popcorn, but I did.

Just know that if you’re supporting this endeavor in any way, we are doing everything in our power to protect your investment, no matter how erratically I might relay the story. We’re not Enron. We’re not BP. We’re not Monsanto. We’re not DuPont. We’re not Nike. We’re not AIG. We’re not any number of corporate banks or other bottom line obsessed, exploit anyone at any opportunity, borderless, faceless, above the law corporations. No, we actually give a shit.

Some of you will complain about the lack of photos in this post. Here. This is what a spreadsheet looks like:

2 comments for “Mission Report Haiti: Why We Do What We Do…

  1. Jonna
    04.25.13 at 22:50

    “I just ate a piece of popcorn off the ground. Not even worried about it.” I can hear you and see you saying that and it made me crack up! Keep up the good work ! Sending love and prayers always.

  2. Carly
    04.26.13 at 08:43

    After carefully scouring your spread sheet and a lot of deep thought I have decided I would love to meet Roland Wacker. Oh yeah, good blog.

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