Commentary: To help Haiti, keep aid small, hidden

Years ago, soon after founding a charitable organization dedicated to helping Haiti, Bob Corbett visited Belladere, a town nudged into the eastern-central part of the country.

When Corbett met with local residents and asked how he could help them, their needs were as basic as they come: They needed food. So Corbett bought a bull and a dozen breed cows.

Twelve families were allowed to take a cow and, in exchange for caring for it, the families could keep the milk. There was a condition, however. When the cow produced a calf, they had to give the calf to the community, which would give it to another family. Then, that family had to agree to the same conditions. Years later, when Corbett visited the town again, about a hundred families had cows.

Corbett could tell you dozens of similar success stories in towns and villages throughout Haiti. He could. But he won't. He'd rather nobody know about them.

If there's one thing he learned in his more than 20 years of trying to build the country's economy, it's that the key to moving forward in Haiti lies in one's ability to go unnoticed. The moment word gets out that you have resources, corrupt officials and powerful families start demanding their cut, says Corbett, who retired five years ago from his charitable organization, People to People Inc.

"Stay small and stay hidden," he says.

That's advice worth heeding as big money and grandiose plans begin to pour into the earthquake-devastated country, much of it focused on Port-au-Prince, the nation's capital and biggest city. With fatalities numbering in the tens of thousands, the government structure collapsed and the city's infrastructure in ruins, it's only natural that Port-au-Prince receives much of the initial aid.

But if Corbett's experience is any indicator, the key to transforming the country's tradition of poverty may lie not in its cities and larger towns, but in a policy that focuses on its small villages, where there are few roads, minimal infrastructure, spotty communication and no government. In Haiti, those negatives add up to one big positive: no corruption.

Their remoteness insulates them from the tentacles of debasement that over the years have laid waste to billions of dollars in assistance. Instead of trying to do big things in the country's population centers, a better approach could be to splatter the country with a multitude of small initiatives, as scattered and far away from the current power base as possible.

Of course, success wouldn't go unnoticed for long. Then again, you'd be surprised at just how creative people can be when survival is at stake. Once, while visiting another village, Corbett says he met a man who was doing wonderful work helping the villagers learn to live off their agriculture. He wanted to help the man and offered financial assistance.

"No," he recalls the man replying. "If you give me money, two things will happen. First, you will start telling me how to spend it. Second, people will find out and start trying to get the money."

Undeterred, Corbett says he finally convinced the man to accept an arrangement: Corbett would stay out of his way and would deliver money to him periodically in an unmarked envelope. They kept up the arrangement for years, he says.

The name of the man and the town? Corbett wouldn't say.