This article was originally published on Sustaining Capabilities.

In early January 2017, I was awaiting my departure in Haiti’s crowded, fan-cooled Toussaint Louverture International Airport at the end of my third week-long church-affiliated service trip to the Eben-Ezer Mission community outside of Gonaïves. At the time, I was involved with the search for a new project for UW-Madison’s Engineers Without Borders chapter — we had recently cancelled our plans for a solar project in Ethiopia following a bout of political violence. By August of the same year, a small group of us had cut ties with EWB, re-branded as Zanmi Limye (Haitian Creole for “Partners in Light”), and taken an assessment trip for a solar project at the orphanage run by Eben-Ezer. In January 2019, I found myself back in Toussaint Louverture Airport after having overseen the installation of a solar electricity system to provide the orphanage with constant lighting. As someone who made up the career “humanitarian energy engineer” for a job report in high school, I should have been filled with a huge sense of pride. There was indeed some pride, but in truth I felt somewhat more conflicted.

Plane rides from the USA to Haiti and vise-versa make me uncomfortable — large groups of Americans dressed in sweats and matching t-shirts, lugging musical instruments, and talking excitedly about “doing God’s work” or something, combined with a relatively smaller number of Haitians. Among the things that make me uncomfortable is the fact that these Missionaries have the means to enter and leave the country at will, returning home with “changed lives” after encounters with the “poor-but-happy” Haitians. While it is probably true that people in poor countries are used to being poor, having more money would almost certainly make them happier. As Tyler Cowen points out in his book Stubborn Attachments, wealth simply makes life easier in absolute terms. Happiness surveys notably consider only the voices of those who have not suffered early deaths by an inability to afford medications for curable diseases.

Once in Haiti, the drive along Route Nationale #1 between Port-au-Prince and Gonaïves is akin to a graveyard of well-intentioned development efforts. Once-white signs, discolored by the emissions of cars driven to failure in the USA or Canada, then shipped to Haiti to be driven even more, commemorate agriculture projects by USAID’s “Feed the Future” initiative, houses built by the Red Cross, and roadways constructed by the Japanese government. Behind the signs sit abandoned agricultural plots, never-occupied houses, and crumbling roads. It is tempting to think “in the midst of all this, our project will last the test of time.” Community ownership and buy-in can go a long way, but of course there is no guarantee of success.

My goal is not to focus on the doom and gloom of the country — there are plenty of other pieces to that effect. The Route Nationale #1 drive also reveals Haiti’s incredible vibrancy. Banana trees, rice paddies, and sorghum fields between cities are tended to by farmers; markets selling every possible consumer good fill all open spaces in town; and concrete buildings are continuously being added to. Konpa music blares from speakers in bars and vehicles, and the smell of Caribbean spices from many streetside stands fills the air. In the absence of large corporations, everything from storefronts to the overflowing tap-taps are hand-painted, often in a similar-looking hand, lending a curious sameness in uniqueness.

Eben-Ezer is a Christian community that runs a primary and secondary school, an orphanage, and a hospital. It also funds agricultural pilot projects and a small agricultural credit union. Eben-Ezer has many partnerships with groups in the USA and France, and leverages them effectively to make continual progress. Each time I return, I find a number of small changes for the better.

We brought six people on our January 2019 installation trip, and were fortunate to be joined by four people from Minneapolis’ Engineers Without Borders professional chapter, who were exploring the possibility of a future solar project with Eben-Ezer. Zanmi Limye purchased solar supplies from a company in Port-au-Prince, and elected to hire them to install the system as well. The most immediate reason for going this route, as opposed to the standard volunteers-performing-work model, was the fact that even though we have the technical competence to size a system, none of us know much about performing electrical work. We could not have been more impressed with DigitalKap. They not only installed an entire solar array in one day, but also had 50 LED light bulbs driven from Port-au-Prince, and purchased supplies for and constructed an iron cage for the system’s batteries in the same day.

DigitalKap’s installation provided a myriad of additional benefits. Considerable empirical evidence suggests that simply giving cash to people in developing countries is a remarkably effective way to increase their well-being, so we felt good about contributing our money to the Haitian economy. Further, the children tend to watch carefully and assist anyone doing craft work at the orphanage, and having skilled Haitians to observe is valuable to show young Haitians that white volunteers are not needed to get things done.

When the solar system was completely installed we received a rude awakening at just how shallowly we understood the context of Haiti, where few things work the way they “should,” and the locals have loads of helpful information, but will only share if you ask. Our goal was to have all of the lights in the orphanage building powered by the solar system, and all of the outlets powered by the national electricity provider, Electricité d’Haiti. However, even though the solar system was wired to power the breaker labeled “lighting,” some lights were drawing power from different breakers, one outlet was drawing power from the “lighting” breaker, and many outlets had no power at all. By this point we were out of time in the trip, but we are fortunate to have some money left over, and are planning to hire DigitalKap to come back and re-wire the building to match what we have in mind.

I worry about the value of the final product. We initially set out to provide a solar system large enough to supply the orphanage’s entire electricity load. Our goal was to do something truly transformational for Pastor Cornet and Madame Cornet, who oversee the orphanage together, and for the children. We opted instead for a lights-only project because we were not able to raise sufficient funds for a larger system that included a warranty on the parts, something we deemed necessary. There is no question that consistent lighting around the clock is considerably better than uncertain lighting, especially to someone who has never had that privilege. That said, it is ultimately less than we had hoped to do, and probably less than they would have liked. It is worth mentioning that our system is set up so that a future group looking to spend money on freeing the orphanage completely from its poor-quality electrical service would be able to do so merely by adding more equipment to what is installed.

What I worry about most, going forward, is the sustainability of our project. Did we install something that makes life more complicated and does not prove transformational? Our top priority upon returning is to put together a user manual with information on the operation and maintenance of the system, contact information for DigitalKap, etc. and translate it into Haitian Creole with the help of some English-speaking community members. When we were explaining the operations of the system to Madame Cornet, she made a point of asking what could be powered simultaneously without surpassing the system’s load. This gave us a glimmer of hope that there is some community buy-in and that what we left behind might be sustainable, but again, there is no guarantee in Haiti.

We spent the last night of our trip in Port-au-Prince at an incredible guesthouse near the airport. In a metaphor to volunteering abroad generally, we are typically in-then-out of the capital, experiencing it only through the window of a vehicle en route to somewhere else. However, while waiting for our flight out, we had the opportunity to explore a small piece of Port-au-Prince by wandering idly about the neighborhood, somewhat relieved to be seen as just another person by passersby, rather than the elevated status awarded to us by the community. Lakay Poze is operated by American nurse Aslan Noakes, and employs a number of Haitians. Additionally, Aslan uses much of the profit to fund her awesome NGO, Empower Haiti Together, which promotes sustainable and empowering partnerships in Haiti with an aim to reduce the dependency cycle.

While this piece can be read as a denunciation of any and all Western interventions as futile, it should be said that this is not a view I hold. Across much of the developing world, there is a lack of managerial know-how and financial services, two things that the West has in abundance. This deficiency was clearest to us in shopping around for a solar equipment vendor / installer. During our assessment trip in August 2017, community leaders introduced us to a person who had been involved with the installation of three solar-powered well pumps for them. The meeting was rather uncomfortable though, since he gave us feeling that he was in the business of ripping people off. Zanmi Limye talked to a number of other companies during that trip and over the phone, and ultimately settled on a different, but phenomenal company.

The other major use for Westerners is to link needs with financial resources. This project in Haiti was made possible entirely because of our personal connections in the much-wealthier USA, and the generosity of those connections. On that note, thank you so much to those who donated to our group over the past 18 months, from Holy Mother of Consolation Catholic Church in Oregon, WI which gave us an unbelievable initial donation, to the UW students who bought dollar hot dogs from us at last year’s Mifflin Street Block Party, and everyone in between. We will be putting together formal thank-you notes eventually, but for now our first priority is the user manual mentioned above.

One final shout-out is in order: to the members of Zanmi Limye — those who were able to travel on one or both of our trips, as well as those who were not. While we did not as raise as much money as we had hoped, coming up with $15,000 over the course of a year and a half on a college campus is an impressive feat. On top of that, we built a CAD model of the orphanage, learned a lot about electricity, and became better global citizens along the way. It has been an incredible pleasure working with the students and professionals who volunteered their time to make it all possible. Our Tuesday night meetings were a highlight of my week for a solid three years, and I will miss them.

Badger engineer. Excited by the intersection of energy & global development. All articles were originally published on my blog: