22 May 2010
From a small agency employing some 160 people before the earthquake, Save the Children has changed into what I suspect must be one of the larger employers in the country. By now we have something like over a 1000 people on the payroll, a rapid scale up by all measures.
Yet for senior positions there is a tendency to bring in foreigners, at least initially, and that is in part understandable. The success of an emergency program rests largely on the ability to get it started as soon as possible – within days, really -, and there are several factors that made that difficult to do without expatriates. Firstly, our own local staff had suffered from the disaster, and many were in shock, traumatised, in no way able to provide that quick response necessary. Mind you, every other agency as well as every government department had the same problem, which contributed to the perceived initially slow response of the international humanitarian community, and of the government.
Secondly, there is a local capacity issue, NGO speak for ‘there aren’t enough good people around’. Haiti is a classic sufferer from the famous brain drain phenomenon, with nearby US and Canada very attractive emigration options for the many smart Haitians that have both initiative and a useful degree. There are probably well over a million Haitians legally living in the US, and who knows how many illegally. Canada especially is actively promoting visas for educated Haitians – a bit silly, as with the other hand it doles out significant amounts of development aid. The sad thing is that many of these Haitians subsequently end up doing low level jobs, way below their professional education levels. I know that many of the taxi drivers in Miami and New York are Haitians, and quite a few of them will have been doctors or lawyers or engineers back home. I hate to think of what has become of all those able program managers I employed ten years ago, many of whom have since emigrated. A friend of mine, a very competent HR manager, is currently training to become a nurse, because she cannot find a job in her field of considerable expertise in Montreal. Sad. Doubly sad because at this moment in time there is a tremendous need for qualified people in Haiti itself, obviously, and there is a tremendous opportunity to earn significant money, as well. All those agencies that bring in expatriates would dearly want to hire Haitians in at least some of the senior positions, and with so few capable, local salaries are on par with what we need to pay internationals.
Another challenge is that not all vacancies that international agencies create are necessarily locally understood. We have been trying to get a radio room operational, to track our vehicles and our staff in Port-au-Prince through our VHF network, but the only applicant so far has been a DJ – he claims to have a lot of experience with radio!
In the absence of sufficient senior Haitian staff the plan is to have for every expatriate a deputy, who will be groomed to take over in three, six, twelve months, whenever possible. We could also go out and search for the right people, but in reality, with so many agencies hiring, the chances to find enough well-trained Haitians at an affordable price are slim. Better to develop them ourselves, then we contribute something extra to this country, something valuable for the long term – as long as they don’t emigrate at the first possible opportunity, of course.
next: the big brother