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Back to Haiti – An Interview with RMU Professor of Economics Brian O’Roark

Brian O'RoarkBack in October of 2010, Brian O’Roark, Ph.D., traveled on a mission trip to Haiti with his church, the Chippewa Evangelical Free Church to build a water treatment facility along with paid Haitian workers. There they stayed with two American families living in Haiti as part of the Fellowship International Mission. This past March, O’Roark, an associate professor of economics at RMU, returned to the Haitian town of Fort-Liberté, where he worked to promote sustainable development in the earthquake-ravaged nation.

How did you first become involved in this missionary work?
It all began with the earthquake back in January 2010. That really opened people’s eyes about the problems in Haiti, and people started wondering what they could do to help. My church was working with a missionary, Matt McCormick, who was starting work down there with the Paulos Group, which tries to break the cycle of dependency in the country. Unfortunately, most Haitians rely on hand-outs from other countries. Our goal is to help the Haitian people take control of their own economic destiny; to create an environment where we are not just giving out hand-outs but rather teaching the Haitian people how to grow their own food, make their own clothes, and build their own homes.

What is traveling to Haiti like?
The first time I went we flew into Port-Au-Prince, and it was quite a shock. The airport is full of desperate people just hanging out because they know that’s where the aid comes in. The urban areas are pretty dirty, but the the interior of the country is incredibly beautiful and mountainous. This time we flew into Santiago in the Dominican Republic and then took a three-hour car ride to Haiti. Santiago is very westernized, but it gets poorer out in the countryside. At the border it’s like a scene out of “Mad Max”. There are people with automatic weapons, burned out towns, dirt roads, pits where you throw your garbage, animals wandering about…it’s a totally different world, like going to outer space.

??????????Describe a typical day for you on these trips:
This time we’d get up around 5:30 when it was still dark out. Then we’d go running with the missionaries into town, a 4-mile round trip. By 7:15 we’d be working on a house, putting on metal roofs, basically trusses with sheet metal on top. And then we’d screw everything down with rubber washers. Around 12:30 we’d break for lunch, which usually consisted of cans of chicken, tuna pouches, fruit, etc. Then it was back to work until 6:30 or 7 p.m. when sun goes down. After that we’d go have dinner at one of the missionary’s houses. Then we’d go to bed and get ready to do it all over again the next day.

Most of our work focused on building homes for Haitian families and teaching them basic construction. It’s not your typical American home, by any stretch of the imagination. The walls are almost like a poured Styrofoam–it’s a good insulator and it won’t kill you if it collapses from an earthquake or hurricane. And everything is solar powered–the indoor plumbing, the refrigerator, etc. There are lots of sunny days in Haiti, so solar works well. Haitians don’t want big kitchens, either; they cook outside a lot. They’re moving out of tin-roof shacks, basically, so what we build them are the kind of homes they’ll actually use and take care of. What’s funny is the first thing they want is a lawn. We take it for granted here, but for them it means things won’t get dirty and dusty. A lawn keeps the house cleaner inside and prevents respiratory illnesses too.

What’s the economic outlook of Haiti?
It’s improving, but they still need a workforce who knows what to do, people who are willing to risk investment, and a political system that will support it. There’s still a lot of corruption, and most of the aid doesn’t ever get where it needs to be. Thanks to CAFTA (the Central American Free Trade Agreement) there is some incentive now for foreign countries to produce things in Haiti. There are no tariffs on shipments of goods from Haiti to the U.S. So there is hope that there will be more investment in Haiti in the near future.

What’s the most challenging part of the work?
First of all, most days it’s anywhere from 80 to 90 degrees or more during the day. On top of that, we’re working with substandard materials that are produced in Haiti or the Dominican Republic. The cinder blocks are not standard sizes, for example, so there’s a lot of improvisation in the construction process. You have to deal with warped lumber, finding screws that are the correct size, etc. The professionals working with us get especially frustrated having to spend so much time on things that would be a snap back home.

What’s the most rewarding part?
To see the progress that’s been made since we last went in 2010. To see the families who have taken ownership of their homes and learned basic grounds-keeping skills. It’s amazing seeing these people improving their lives and the lives of their children and future generations. There’s hope being brought to them as a result of what we’ve been doing there.

How can members of the RMU family help the people of Haiti?
Sending money isn’t the best solution. It doesn’t always go where it’s supposed to go, and you encourage a dependent attitude. Make sure you do your research before sending money to any organization. The best way would be to find a trip that goes to Haiti and see for yourself what goes on there. Give of your time. ~

by Valentine J. Brkich

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