Haiti never seems to be far from Elizabeth Blake’s mind. Or so it seemed when she spoke at the Kiwanis Club of Atlanta downtown on Feb. 21 or even when she gave a lecture at Stanford University in Palo Alto, Calif., two years earlier.
The wife of former Home Depot CEO Frank Blake, Mrs. Blake has had a stellar business career of her own. A former senior executive with a number of Fortune 500 companies including GE Power, she served from 2006 until 2014 as a senior vice president and general counsel of Habitat for Humanity International which has projects in 70 countries and where she continues to volunteer.
She also is a graduate of the Columbia Law School, where she first met Mr. Blake, and is an authority on land tenure practices around the world. “Land tenure is a critical component of housing and resettlement recovery,” she has written. “Lack of clarity around land rights poses a major barrier to building — or rebuilding — a country. These barriers impede resource-poor families and resource-rich private investors alike.”
While this expertise is obviously close to her heart, with only half an hour to address the Kiwanians, this was one topic she could only briefly mention. Instead, she began by providing some guideposts for her audience, namely: Shelley and butterflies, Bobi and President Jimmy Carter and Andrew Young, Moringa seeds and Pastor Claude, Moses and bananas and the Taiwanese and yoga pants.
Her lecture at Stanford, which can be seen on YouTube, also had its guideposts, but that time she had only three, which were quite different from those she shared at the Kiwanis luncheon and provided insights into her corporate management and legal backgrounds.
After declaring to the Stanford students that a large number of non-governmental organizations “do harm and are ineffective,” she added that they can’t be dismissed because they remain such an important economic segment. She also pointed to two that she considers extraordinarily valuable: Hollywood actor Sean Penn‘s J/P HRO (Haitian Relief Organization) and Paul Farmer‘s Partners in Health.
Mr. Penn’s J/P HRO is playing an important role in Haiti’s reforestration, she said, after explaining how the country’s forests had been denuded throughout the 19th and 20th centuries, first to pay France a 90 million gold francs indemnity (equivalent, she added, to $40 billion today) for their independence and later due to agricultural practices including the methods used to grow coffee, indigo, tobacco, and sugarcane, which exhausted soil nutrients and led to rapid erosion aggravated by frequent storms and hurricanes.
To learn more about Dr. Farmer’s dedication and the work of Partner’s in Health, she recommended the best seller Mountains Beyond Mountains, The Quest of Dr. Paul Farmer, A Man Who Would Cure the World.
While at Habitat, which she called one of “the good guy” organizations, her guideposts for success were very much of the bottom-up variety: asset-based community development, community determined priorities and a focus and understanding of local capacity improvements.
With Habitat’s many on-going projects where it has been involved since the 1980s in Haiti, not to mention its many other projects around the world, she had a wide variety to choose from, but as an example she cited Habitat’s work in the Simon Pele section of Port au Prince, Haiti’s capital, which had been devastated by the hurricane of Jan. 12, 2010 and then hit hard again by Matthew in 2016.
Mrs. Blake credited the United Nations, Canadian, World Bank and Haitian agencies with helping to rebuild the neighborhood. She underscored that the success of the project was related to its strategy of playing an “accompanying” role in the development rather than a strategy of solely providing aid. She credited Dr. Farmer with developing the “accompanying” model based on the French word “accompagnement,” which may pertain to musicians playing together or dishes with foods that complement each other.
In her remarks to the Kiwanians she concentrated on the extraordinary impact that certain individuals have had in the wake of their country’s devastation as well as their resilience.
She spoke admiringly of the Haitians “ingenuity, grace and humor.” “Haitians are always moving and getting things done,” she added. describing their early morning energy as they prepare to sell goods in street markets or the children who are fortunate enough to leave their shanties in clean and neat uniforms for the few schools that exist.
“It’s the poorest country n the hemisphere with 86 percent living in poverty and 54 percent in abject poverty on less than $1.00 a day,” she said.
And yet there are many human stories of sacrifice and commitment to improve life in such harsh circumstances, she added.
The first she mentioned was that of Shelley Clay who came to Haiti from Canada with her husband to adopt a child. They found two children that they wanted to adopt, only to learn that in Haiti orphans often aren’t orphans at all, but have been placed in an orphanage because their parents can’t afford to raise them.
Instead of returning to Canada without any children, they decided to sell their house for $41,000 and settle permanently in Port au Prince. After a difficult first year, they started the Apparent Project, through which they launched the Papillon Enterprise (the French word for butterflies that Mrs. Blake referenced at the outset) with its mission of stimulating the Haitian economy by creating and marketing Haitian artisan goods.
“We are creating jobs for mothers and fathers who don’t want to have to abandon their children to an orphanage because they can’t feed them”, Mrs. Clay says on the project’s website.
Now, Mrs. Blake said, they have 500 women who are earning $14 an hour who can bring their children to a day care facility and make a wide variety of goods or follow literacy courses or receive training on computers and software applications.
Their ingenuity is astounding, as Ms. Blake claimed, as the artisans work with recycled paper to make necklaces, bracelets, earrings and Christmas ornaments. They also use other materials to make home decor and other products.
The “Bobi” to whom she referred is Robert Duval, a Haitian human rights activist who in 1975 was imprisoned without charges at the Fort Dimanche prison where hundreds of opponents of the then-president, Jean-Claude “Baby Doc” Duvalier, were condemned.
President Carter, who had been admonished by China “to clean up civil rights abuses in his hemisphere before trying to do so in China,” according to Mrs. Blake, sent Andrew Young, who was the U.S. representative to the United Nations at the time, to see if he could free him.
Mrs. Blake said that Mr. Duval had promised God that if he was ever released he would devote his life to improving the lives of Haitian children. With the help of Amnesty International, Mr. Young was able to free Mr. Duval, who played a leading role in filing charges for crimes against humanity against the now deceased Mr. Duvalier.
In addition, Mr. Duval has founded several human rights NGOs in Haiti. Since 1995 he has helped more than 10,000 at-risk youths, providing sport programs, schooling and meals through the non-profit, FLADH, according to his biography. He has been named as a CNN hero for his work with Haitian youth.
Mrs. Blake recalled that 233,000 people died in Haiti in the Jan. 12, 2010 hurricane in the seven seconds following 4:53 p.m. when it hit. “Nobody wasn’t impacted,” she said, “both the rich and poor. There were no building codes in Haiti and no rebar. The house ceilings were made of stone. So the rich got pancaked like everyone else.”
With so many abandoned and destitute children in the aftermath of the destruction, she emphasized the importance of Pastor Claude Jeudy who started and runs a Protestant evangelical church called Eceres after having served for the past 11 years as national director of Habitat for Humanity Haiti. Through a partnership with World Wide Village, a Christian non-profit organization that advocates the sort of community-based approach to development espoused by Mrs. Blake, he is securing land for 20 farmers in the country’s Central Plateau to plant Moringa trees.
His focus on the health benefits of the Moringa trees that also are known as “Miracle trees” follow the actions of another Pastor Claude, this one Pastor Claude Mondesir, who has inspired missionaries operating orphanages to care for as many of Haiti’s dispossessed as possible.
Love A Child, one of the orphanages that has worked with the pastor, plants at least 25,000 Moringa trees every year to provide food security for the thousands of displaced Haitians.
The Moringa tree originates from the Himalayas but does well in developing third world countries that don’t have consistent water sources and has come to be known as a “superfood” for overall health. Its leaves which can be harvested frequently contain high levels of vitamins A and C, calcium, protein, iron, and potassium.
Her reference to bananas relates to Haiti’s recently elected president Jovenel Moise (Moses in French), whom she expects will maintain the relative political stability that the country has enjoyed in recent years.
Known as the “Banana Man,” because of the company Agritrans SA that he launched in 2014 in a public-private partnership with Haiti’s government. His project displaced local farmers and has been criticized for replacing the raising of cattle and crops for domestic consumption by the locals for the economic benefits of producing in a large way a crop for export.
With her time running out for her luncheon presentation, Mrs. Blake quickly mentioned the investment of a Taiwanese company that is making yoga pants which are being sold to the largest and trendiest shops in the U.S. and elsewhere in the Americas.
Despite Haiti’s continuing problems and its monumental challenges, Mrs. Blake said that she would be leaving for a visit once again in two days.
“Haiti is only one hour and a half away from Miami,” she added.
To learn more about the Kiwanis Club of Atlanta, click here.