Perspectives From Santo Domingo About Haiti

I was on the phone conducting a MeetInnovators interview when the earthquake happened. My office rocked quite violently, and it felt like a 5.0 quake to me based on past earthquakes. We saw on the news that it was in Haiti, and immediately there were tsunami warnings. I was pretty concerned since I live on the water in Santo Domingo and would have been directly in the path. I took a photo from my balcony about 20 minutes after the quake — which got 4800 pageviews.

In the end the tsunami warning was cancelled. Apparently we did get a tsunami, 12cm big. We survived. 🙂

I’m about a 5 hour drive from Port Au Prince and have visited Haiti twice, so watching the news has been horrifying. To know that so much death and destruction is happening just a short distance away is pretty shocking, and worse that there’s nothing you can do about it. I have one friend living in Port Au Prince, but she and her family are fine I did some relaying of messages between her on facebook and calling people around the DR as emergency supplies were brought across. One girl I met in Santiago a few years ago had her mother killed. Its also been disturbing since I’ve spent a bit of time in Haiti and really like the people.

The DR and Haiti have a tense relationship. We have a lot (1m+) Haitian immigrants living in the DR and they don’t contribute much. But the DR stepped up and got a lot of supplies into Haiti quickly which was impressive. This was a lot of work for a developing country like the DR, but people really came together and worked hard to support our “brother” country.

Also impressive has been the efforts of Jeremy Johnson and Nathan Kinsella from Utah who flew some planes and helicopters in.

Less impressive was the international effort – its unclear to me why professional aid agencies like the Red Cross don’t have thousands of paratrooper style teams like the 82nd airborne who can get quickly into a disaster zone during the initial critical moments and save lives. These are professionals with very large budgets.

WARNING: This is not politically correct, but I need to share this. My views are shaped by living in the Dominican Republic since 2001.

Its about time to question whether Haiti should continue as a going concern. Did you know the Haitians buy american cement, then water it down? You wonder why everything fell down so quickly?

We’ve had NGO’s in Haiti for the past 40+ years and things continue to get worse (I worked for an NGO for 3 years, including at the international level).

Check out the GDP of Haiti vs the rest of the world, so you can see the result of billions of dollars of NGO investment for yourself.

And now with so much money coming in, its like a dotcom boom for NGO’s. Each NGO is saying “wow, now we can get into Haiti and do it RIGHT since now we have lots of money”. Yikes!

Some will say Haiti has been mistreated by various countries or bad luck. I say Haiti has a culture which doesn’t teach people to take risks and become leaders. Unfortunately I’ve been told I’m racist, ethnocentric or that Haiti has no strategic advantages. Yet the DR does fine on the same island. Cuba is embargoed by the USA and does ok, as do the other various islands and cultures in the Caribbean.

Here’s a some quotes from a haitian guy inside Port Au Prince on Twitter in the first days after the earthquake:

Mr President Stop Giving us The Victim Speech! We Need A Leader Right Now!

No Food, No Water, No Medications, Nothing! And Our President says he’a victim as well! How long we have to wait?

Mr Preval, we need 2 hear from u! Take ur responsability. Do ur job like those ppl in the streets helping each other! It’s been 4 days now

Cultures CAN be changed — in the USA people were trained not to litter. Germany has changed its culture multiple times over the past 100 years. China has seen immense changes before, during and after the cultural revolution.

Its not about education – what is needed comes before education. They need the culture instilled into them which truly values progress. Haiti feels like an NGO driven version of socialism, and as someone who has visited North Korea and Cuba, I’ve seen the results of socialism first hand.

Right now Haiti is a tax on the world — billions of dollars are going into a bottomless pit — of just 9 million people! They need capitalism now. The rest of the world needs to have use of their money to support their local communities instead of sending it to Haiti.

So my suggestion for you is:
– support the basics of the Haiti rebuilding effort as I’m sure you have.
– don’t support NGO driven projects in Haiti — even so called sustainable programs. These still start out with handouts and effectively teach generations of Haitians not to lead. The exception would be programs which encourage real true grass roots entrepreneurship like microfinance.
– Look for top down initiatives which force true cultural/motivational change on the country
– if you know people considering cancelling their holiday to the DR, please convince them to come. The DR is 100% fine and could use the economic help especially after supporting Haiti. Your friends will have a great holiday

Further reading:
NYtimes: The Underlying Tragedy
FoxNews: Haiti Should Merge With the Dominican Republic
NYtimes: “To Heal Haiti, Look to History, Not Nature“:

“..the United States and other donors could make a formal undertaking to ensure that the vast amounts that will soon pour into the country for reconstruction go not to foreigners but to Haitians — and not only to Haitian contractors and builders but to Haitian workers, at reasonable wages. This would put real money in the hands of many Haitians, not just a few, and begin to shift power away from both the rapacious government and the well-meaning and too often ineffectual charities that seek to circumvent it.”

There probably are no great solutions for Haiti, but to let it go back to where its been seems like such a waste of humanity. I feel like we have a global responsibility to try something new.

Startup Visa – My Story

I’ve noticed some momentum building around the web for a startup visa. I love the idea. If it had been around 10 years ago, it would have changed my life.

My dream since I was 12 (~1985) was to move to the USA and make a startup. Having grown up in Australia with the Commodore Amiga, I was amazed by the idea of a group of dentists funding an intensely smart group of engineers who ended up building the Amiga. We were blown away by companies like Epyx who made incredible games and utilities. I didn’t know it back then, but many of these companies were based in Silicon Valley.

So I followed my dream, and in 1999 I was working at Oracle in Silicon Valley. But I found the life in a big corporate machine was really not for me. I really, REALLY wanted to be in the startup world, building my own startup.

As an Australian citizen working in the USA with an H1b visa wanting to make a startup, I found 4 options:
1. Join someone’s startup, sponsored under an H1b. The problem with this approach is that if their startup fails, I have to be re-sponsored for a new visa. And, obviously I am not building my own startup this way.

2. Make my own startup. But with an H1b visa, this was going to be difficult to arrange. H1b visas are better for employees with minority ownership, not founders. And again, what happens if the startup fails after 3 months?

3. Leave the USA and move to a country close by which would enable me to use the infrastructure of the US, but avoid the visa issue entirely. (I didn’t want to return to Australia since I didn’t feel the startup culture was very strong there, and the timezone makes online work difficult).

4. Stay working at a big company until my greencard was issued. This would have taken 3-4 years. Maybe I should have followed this approach, but I really, really wanted to be out doing something on my own.

In the end, I chose #3, and now live in the Dominican Republic. I’ve done reasonably well and am quite happy here. But the problem I face locally is the lack of a startup scene and technology talent. I can’t build an ebay or a google from the caribbean. I’ve had to become extremely good at building a network remotely; thus I run

I can tell you that if there had been an option of a startup visa, where if I raised $1M in funding I would be granted a visa to live in the USA and build a company, I would have put 100% of my energy in making that happen. And, if a visa category like this is created, I may just go ahead and do it now, even though I’m now considered old by startup standards (37). (Its considered the most successful startups are built by people in their 20s). So this would have been a perfect fit for me 10 years ago.

One last comment: I’m comfortable with risk. So make the visa performance based! Give the entrepreneur 3 shots at making a company work. And if they can’t, send them home. Thats pretty rough, but it would be a much better option than I had back in 1999.

Links to My North Korea Content

Here’s all my north korea content from my trip from June 2009.

If you want one set of photos to look at, this is it:

My writeup of general perceptions:

North Korean People photos:

Unusual things from North Korea photos:

Military type guys training for something:

A female traffic police directing traffic (they don’t use traffic lights even though they have them):

Driving around Pyongyang so you can see how it looks, along with an unusual story from our british guide:

Performing the Haka (a rugby dance from New Zealand) to our guides:

A children’s show:

How you can influence north korean kids to be more positive towards westerners:

And, the 1 hour long video of our entire tour. This cost additional at the end of the tour and came on DVD. Watch this if you’re serious about going to North Korea — it will show you exactly what you will see while you are there. For anyone else, take a look since its quite funny, but it is rather odd.

Connect with Korean Kids

Want to know how to connect with north korean kids in a meaningful way – even if you don’t speak the language?

How about a way to — in a very small way — diffuse some of the tension between North Korea and the west? A simple way to show them we’re not so far apart?

On my trip I found a simple thing was very interesting. As an obvious westerner in North Korea, I started handing out bags of chocolate to North Korean kids. It wasn’t easy, and about 50% of them were scared of me and wouldn’t accept it, while the others only tentatively did. But the later reaction of the kids who accepted the chocolate made it absolutely clear this was the right thing to do — they had HUGE smiles, and were waving and very friendly. The change only took a few minutes and was dramatic.

I went from being a scary western white guy to a provider of SUGAR!!

No, chocolate isn’t the most healthy thing to be giving out, but the kids love it, and will remember it for a long time. Starvation is an issue inside North Korea (in the late 90’s about 2,000,000 people starved to death), so some extra calories certainly won’t hurt even though the kids you’ll meet in Pyongyang are the best fed in the country. Luxuries like chocolate aren’t a common treat in a country where people have disposable income US$5 – US$10/month and luxuries like these are not available to the general population.

“Breaking The Ice”

By doing this, something incredibly powerful is happening — you’re showing the kids that westerners aren’t completely scary people.

Even if much of the anti-western sentiment in North Korea is towards the USA, and you’re not American – they still think YOU are american, as they consider anyone who is not Korean to be from the USA. Obviously if you are from the US, this will be even more impactful.

Big doors swing on small hinges

Suggestions for handing out chocolate:
– Give big bags of individually wrapped chocolate/sweets/candy so one child won’t eat it all by themselves. This way they’ll be more likely to share it with their friends and talk about what happened, this is a form of viral marketing!
– Don’t ask for anything in return (eg photos). Just give them the chocolate, smile, then walk away. It must be an unconditional gift.
– If the child bows after receiving the bag, make a big smile and a friendly wave back without bowing in return. I believe its better to reinforce that we are not Korean and not part of their culture, yet are still their friends and respect them and their ways.
– Approach the child with a smile and look friendly.
– Chocolate is very cheap, about US$1.50 for a huge bag in most local stores. You can buy lots of big bags everywhere. Hand out an entire bag to each kid.
– Get some shopping bags to carry around with you during the day as you go sightseeing. Try to keep lots with you at all times — sometimes kids will turn up when you least expect it.
– You may want to consider bringing higher quality western chocolate with you, however it may not be so easy to carry in and won’t be brands they are comfortable with. Chocolate is very easy to buy at hard currency stores inside the country.
– Give the chocolate to kids who aren’t somehow connected with the tourism industry as this will make the biggest impact. You’ll have plenty of opportunities as you walk around parks and go to shows.

Also remember you may be the first westerner they’ve ever met — North Korea is one of the most homgenous countries in the world.

I gave away $30 of chocolate on my trip to 15-20 kids, had I been properly prepared I would have given away at least $150 worth — it would definitely have been possible. Thus I’ve put up this page so future tourists to North Korea can consider the idea.

And by doing this, you’re helping plant the suggestion in a small way for North Koreans that people from the west aren’t all bad.

And even if none of that works, at a minimum you’re helping a little with the very real problem of starvation.