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Balancing the Ledger

June 8, 2011

Chris’ return to Canada, although certainly primarily to be present for the birth of his son, will inevitably involve fundraising.  As I think about this, I believe I may have done a basic disservice to Clean Water for Haiti, to our donors and to others who have listened to me and read what I have written.  I have presented our filter program as an inexpensive solution to the lack of safe water in Haiti, and that it is.  But I think I may have seduced people into believing that providing safe water here can be done cheaply and easily.  By presenting only one side of things I may have failed to make it crystal clear that what we are doing is difficult, complicated, and expensive.  So allow me to balance the ledger.

Working here is difficult.  One reason is that Haiti is a quagmire of bureaucracy. To get the required permissions to do even simple things is enormously time consuming and often expensive.   Almost anything requires a trip to Port-au-Prince, and often multiple trips.  If we want to avoid becoming part of the bribery economy we usually have to do things “the hard way” which is almost always the expensive way.  Dealing with the bureaucracy inevitably takes time away from doing what we are here to do—build and distribute filters to save lives.

The work is difficult due to physical conditions in this country.  The terrain is mountainous, making reaching many people very difficult.  To be able to provide service to some of these people required investing in a 4-wheel drive truck.  We transport heavy loads over roads that don’t deserve to be called roads.  This tortures even the toughest of vehicles.  Tires only last a few thousand kilometers.  Suspension components are pounded into premature failure.  Drivelines are asked to do things they were never designed to do.  Haiti’s roads are dangerous and accidents take their toll.  There’s no CAA here; a breakdown in a remote area can lead to a very expensive tow.  Repairs take a ridiculously long time and are often done by substandard technicians. Getting the right parts ranges from difficult to impossible.

The work is difficult because it involves not only selling a product, but also selling an idea.  Many Haitians are just beginning to understand that the contaminated water they drink is making them sick and sometimes killing them.  Even those who see the benefit of having a filter in their home have to be educated and often reeducated as to how to use it properly and how to combine it with basic sanitation to realize its benefits.

It is also difficult for all the same reasons that face any missionary.  It’s difficult being away from your family, friends and church  It’s difficult to no longer be fully a part of the culture you left and to know you will neither fully understand nor fully be a part of the culture in which you now live. It’s difficult living in a country where you risk your life being on the roads, risk being kidnapped or murdered in going to Port-au-Prince, and always have to live under the watchful eye of armed guards.

The work is complicated.  We are attempting to address a problem that was many years in the making.  The reasons for lack of safe water may on the surface appear to be simple, but they are many and complex.  Poverty.  Lack of a working economy.  A largely uneducated populace.  Societal beliefs and practices.  Years of political instability.  Pervasive corruption.  As soon as you try to list the reasons you realize there are causal factors underlying each of them.  It becomes a peeling the onion exercise: you remove one layer only to find another.

The work is expensive.  Bringing needed supplies and equipment into this country is costly.  Getting anything through customs is a nightmare.  I remember Chris telling me that at times when he ships things from Canada or the US, by the time they clear customs he has forgotten he had purchased them.  Not being able to obtain equipment in a timely manner often necessitates purchasing backups in case something necessary for day-to-day operations fails.

The magnitude of the problem is staggering.  We certainly can’t provide filters for all those who lack clean water.  But we could certainly touch many more lives, save many more lives, if we had the resources.  But to do this effectively we have to do it right.  Cutting corners is poor economy.  Ultimately it would mean cutting quality and sustainability.

When you think about us, keep these things in mind.  When you think about Haiti and its people, keep these things in mind.  It’s difficult, complicated and expensive.  And we can’t do it alone.

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