Episode 460: It's Hard To Do Good : Planet Money A retired contractor from Colorado has spent the past two years building a school in Haiti. If he had it to do over, he tells us, he might do things differently.
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Episode 460: It's Hard To Do Good

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Episode 460: It's Hard To Do Good

Episode 460: It's Hard To Do Good

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CAITLIN KENNEY, HOST:

One of the hardest things to do with your money is to give it away - at least give it away effectively in a way that actually helps people.

CHANA JOFFE-WALT, HOST:

And it's hard because I think we just don't ever believe it's going to be hard. We always think it's going to be easy because we just can't imagine that handing over a chunk of money to people who need money is not going to help them - is not going to make them better off. And we believe this no matter how much evidence we have to the contrary.

KENNEY: A good example of this - a couple of years ago, I went to this poor village in the northern part of Haiti, a place called Villard. And I visited this school. Now, school is really a strong word here because it wasn't an actual school building. The classes were taking place in a church. And as I described in the story, you know, the kids were just sitting in pews. They didn't have desks, so they were awkwardly writing in their laps.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (Speaking Haitian Creole).

KENNEY: There were four classes taking place in this one church, so it was super loud and hard to concentrate on anything. And there wasn't even enough room for all the kids inside. So out back, they had the little kids sitting under a tarp. It was so hot out there. But still, like kids everywhere, you know, when they had visitors, they wanted to impress us. I went to the school with Adam Davidson. And when we came in - when we met them, they sang us a welcome song.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

UNIDENTIFIED CHILDREN: (Singing Haitian Creole).

KENNEY: Merci.

JOFFE-WALT: OK. So, Caitlin, that story aired in June 2010. And after it aired, a bunch of people heard about the conditions that you described in the school and wrote us saying they wanted to help because it seemed like there was this really simple problem here. You know, a few hundred bucks and you could help these students. You could make a big difference. Get them books. Get them desks. And they would be better off.

And we didn't want the money to go through us, so the principal of the school set up an account at a local bank. And in the end, people donated $3,000, which was so much money for the school the principal thought, you know, forget new desks or textbooks. We're going to build a whole new school building.

KENNEY: I went back to visit again to do a second story to see what had happened with the money. I went to the site with the principal, Enselm Simpliste, and there was nothing there - no school, no building, just a foundation and a stack of concrete blocks.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

ENSELM SIMPLISTE: (Through interpreter) I feel really, really ashamed. Every morning, I wake up, and I see the foundation. And I see those concrete blocks. And people around are, like, making fun of me because they were aware that a project started - that schools were supposed to start and finalize by October.

KENNEY: To be honest, Chana, I'm still unclear about what happened with that $3,000. The principal didn't know what he was doing. He hired a contractor to work on the project. He says that guy didn't know what he was doing - that he ripped him off. But without being there, it's hard to really know what happened.

JOFFE-WALT: And you can imagine if you got five or 10 times what you normally make in a year, and you tried to build something with it without any help - something that you'd never done before - you know, you might not know what to do either.

KENNEY: Yeah, I don't know what happened. All I can say is what I said in my story, which is that the money was gone. And there was no school. And I got to say, I was disappointed. I thought that's the end of that.

JOFFE-WALT: Right. Who is ever going to give money to this Haitian town again to build a school?

KENNEY: Right. People were already generous, and it had been disastrous. Why would anybody want to do anything else?

JOFFE-WALT: Which makes what happens next all the more unexpected. Someone did want to give more money - a lot of money. His name is Tim Myers. And, Caitlin, I'm just going to read that email that Tim initially sent us. He wrote us after hearing your stories to say, I'm a semiretired male, 65 years old, in great shape, living in Carbondale, Colo. I have over 30 years of experience in all phases of the construction business. I believe I am especially qualified at budgeting and scheduling a project to complete it on time and on budget. In other words, Tim Myers heard that story of a bunch of people giving money and failing to make a difference and thought, like so many before him, I can make a difference here. I am the one.

TIM MYERS: I sent you guys the email. Well, first off, I thought that was a dead end. I said, I offered to help, and I got the automatic response. So I said, phew, and I'm off the hook (laughter). And then I get a, you know, personal email from, I think, Adam for sure or somebody else. They wanted to talk to me. So that started the odyssey right there.

(SOUNDBITE OF FREELANCE WHALES SONG "GENERATOR SECOND FLOOR")

KENNEY: Hello, and welcome to PLANET MONEY. I'm Caitlin Kenney.

JOFFE-WALT: And I'm Chana Joffe-Walt. Today on the show, we take you on Tim Myer's odyssey, and we learn why it is very hard to turn money into help. Tim Myers was a man willing to change his life for the belief that he could do good. And we're going to check in with him two years later - two years after he wrote us that email. And I got to tell you. He doesn't really know what to believe anymore.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "GENERATOR SECOND FLOOR")

FREELANCE WHALES: (Singing) And I could never tell, as a kid, what that window door went to - only told to stay away. I almost...

JOFFE-WALT: There's this one reason that Tim Myers believed he could be the one to really make a difference in this town in Haiti, and it has to do with one detail in your story. So you said this thing in your story, Caitlin, that made Tim Myers think, I could fix this. Like, this is a simple problem that I know how to deal with. And it was when you were talking with the principal about trying and failing to build this school, and you said this was one of the problems.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

KENNEY: And the contractor he hired wasn't much help either. He just kept saying, oh, yeah, sorry. This is going to be a lot more than we talked about.

JOFFE-WALT: Caitlin, it was that comment that caught Tim's attention because Tim is a contractor. Or rather, he used to be one.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

MYERS: Built large second, third family, you know, homes here in the Aspen area for over 20 years - big homes for people that don't need them. And I'd like to use my skills to help people who need buildings, homes, schools, whatever, you know? After hearing the podcast, I thought, oh, this is great. Let's do this.

JOFFE-WALT: Tim figured, I've built 10,000-square-foot houses. How hard could it be to build a small school in Haiti? And it was that thought that began his odyssey - his quest to actually build that school for those kids in Villard.

KENNEY: It began with his very first trip to Haiti. He'd never been before. He went after the earthquake to help with some of the rebuilding, to see the way construction was done. And at first, he was thinking, all right, it'll take a couple thousand dollars to build the school. The principal must have been right. He needs $3,000. If I manage properly, we'll be fine. But after his trip, he realized that buying building materials is really expensive in Haiti. Most of the stuff has to come from the Dominican Republic.

So then he thought, OK, it's going to cost about $60,000. Then he went again, crunched some more numbers and thought, OK, I got to raise this a lot. It's going to cost more than $100,000. He wrote us an email around this time, August, 2011. And he said, quote, "I guess I fit your typical contractor now. At least I'm raising the number before we start."

JOFFE-WALT: Right. But he was like feeling excited still, even after he got to that $100,000, right?

KENNEY: Yeah. He thought, OK, I know so much more about how to build in this country. And now I have, you know, a figure in mind. So he set up this nonprofit, and he started to raise money for the project.

JOFFE-WALT: And it seems, to us here in New York, Caitlin, when you talked about this - it seemed like this was the man who might really be able to make this school happen. And, you know, it felt exciting. Adam Davidson actually got so wrapped up in the big hopes for this project that he himself donated. Full disclosure here, that's why you're not hearing Adam on the show. He's recused himself of all follow-up reporting about the project because he says he's biased at this point. He really wants the school to work out.

KENNEY: And once Tim got his nonprofit set up with a couple other folks who had heard some of the reporting and wanted to work with him, Tim started to be able to picture what this school could look like. Here he is talking about it back in April, 2011.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

MYERS: Maybe 3,000 square feet - it's going to be two levels. The architect's working on the plans right now. I'm excited about it. It's going to happen. We're going to get it done.

KENNEY: That conversation we had with him was almost two years ago. And a couple of weeks ago, he sent an email saying that he was almost done, So I went down to Haiti to check it out.

MYERS: Bonjour, Gilbert (ph).

GILBERT: (Speaking Haitian Creole).

MYERS: (Speaking Haitian Creole).

KENNEY: I went down to the construction site with Tim, which is right across the street from the church where the classes used to take place. And it didn't take that long to get a tour because it's a little more of a modest school than Tim pictured. It's just one story, and it's about 1,300 square feet.

MYERS: Well, we're inside one of the classrooms - the future classrooms. But what they're working on right now is the beams that tie into these columns that you can see here where there's concrete there.

KENNEY: So there's like long wooden poles in front of the concrete. Are those going to be covered or...

MYERS: No, these are windows - ventilation and light.

KENNEY: As Tim shows me around the construction site, it's clear that there's a lot of things here he's really proud of. A big one is the actual workers themselves. Unlike a lot of NGOs, his group is using local labor. He didn't bring a crew. He points out to me that he's not actually building anything. He's just supervising. All the guys working on this project - they come from the village. They actually live around the school. Most of the materials that they've bought to build the school with, they also come from local folks. And you can see the money working its way through the community. The workers - they buy their coffee from a local woman in the morning. They buy food at lunch from the boss' wife.

MYERS: That's where all this money goes. You just put all this money in this little town and get that ripple effect, you know? I mean, think about it - $50,000 in Villard, that's - it got to be an impact.

JOFFE-WALT: So Caitlin, you go down to Haiti, and you visit with this American guy who now has spent the last two years going back and forth to Haiti, building an actual structure, turning money into an actual building. So Tim seems like he is an example of somebody who's succeeded at doing this really tricky thing. You know, where others took money and basically turned it into nothing, Tim took money and actually turned it into a school.

KENNEY: I mean, yeah. Tim has a lot to brag about, you could say. But when he talks about it, he doesn't talk like a man who's succeeded.

Have you ever had second thoughts about the project and about the way...

MYERS: Just every other day (laughter).

KENNEY: What do you think? What do you think? What goes through your mind?

MYERS: Why I'm doing what I'm - why am I doing what I'm doing? I mean, it's difficult sometimes. It's - a while back, I realized that we're the problem. We're not helping. We're the problem. We're the problem here because we're doing things - NGOs are doing things for them, and that's - generally speaking, as a group, when you lump us all into a basket, we're not helping the country.

KENNEY: Part of the reason Tim feels like this is that he went to Haiti to help the kids, the kids that he heard in that first story that I did. He wanted to make their lives better. And he was thinking, obviously, the best thing I can do for these kids - look at them. They don't really have school. I'll build them a school. That will be great. They'll get a better education, and their lives will be improved. But the thing is in Haiti, raising money for school, it's not like raising money for the PTA of your local public school. The schools here in Haiti, they operate very differently.

MYERS: The government's not taking responsibility for the schools. All these schools are private. They're all businesses. It's an easy way to start a business in Haiti. Start a school, charge a buck a day for attendance, feed them when you can, and you make a little money.

JOFFE-WALT: Which is the case with this school that Tim is building, right, Caitlin? It's not a public school. It's run by one guy, that guy that set up the account initially.

KENNEY: Yeah, the school is owned by the principal, Enselm Simpliste, and his family. And like anyone who runs a business, the principal, Enselm Simpliste, he wants to be in control. When Tim first came to Haiti to start work on the project, Simpliste said, you know, let me hire the crew for you. But the people he brought had no construction experience. It was teachers and relatives and friends. Tim had to fire them all. At one point, Tim says, they needed water barrels for the project, and he says that principal Simpliste charged him to use the ones they had at the school.

Tim said that over the summer he was living near the school site, and he'd occasionally go out on his own in the village at night just to explore and walk around. And at least on one occasion, the principal, he says, had his nephew follow him. Basically, Simpliste just wanted to have control over what he was doing and where he was going. And Tim wanted to ask him about this. He confronted him, and he said, you know, why are you having me followed? And he said Simpliste got angry with him.

MYERS: And telling me that if I'm going to wander around by myself, I can't guarantee your safety. So I told him - in my mind, that was a veiled threat. If he says he can't guarantee my safety, anything can happen, you know? So that was a really upsetting meeting. That was our last really big confrontation.

KENNEY: And when Tim told his partner on this project, this guy David Reichow, and the board of the nonprofit he set up about what happened, about this confrontation with principal Simpliste, they talked about abandoning the project altogether. They sat down and asked themselves, what are we doing here? Here's David.

DAVID REICHOW: Here we are, going to raise, you know, hundreds and thousands of dollars to build a school that, essentially, we're going to give to Simpliste. The land is owned by him and his family. And so what protection do we have that this is going to be a school? And maybe this'll become - I don't know - a business he could use it for - make it into a factory.

KENNEY: David told me he and the board drafted an agreement after this conversation, an accord that they had the principal and his family sign promising to keep the school a school, promising not to raise the tuition too high. But, he admits, it's not a legal document. There's nothing they can really do to stop them.

JOFFE-WALT: So it's a really complicated situation because, Tim, you know, wanted to go and help families and children. And the way to do it seemed like it was through the school. But the school is owned and operated by this one man. You know, he didn't go to Haiti to hand over money to this one man.

KENNEY: Yeah, he went there because he wanted to help the kids and their families. He wanted to help people like this.

MIRANA HONORABLE: (Speaking Haitian Creole).

KENNEY: This is Mirana Honorable. She prefers to be called Madame Claude (ph). And in a real way, she is the reason Tim's in Haiti building this school because she was the person who brought Adam and me to the school in the first place back in 2010. We weren't in Haiti to do a story about schools or about education. We were there to do a story about rice farmers. But during the course of our reporting, we met Madame Claude. And she told us about her kids. She really wanted us to meet them. So she took us to their school.

JOFFE-WALT: And that's how you ended up recording that really sweet hello greeting. That's why you were there in the first place.

KENNEY: Yeah, it was some of her kids who sang us the welcome song. I mean, that's how we came to be there. And it was that reporting that led Tim to come to Haiti and want to build a new school for Madame Claude's kids. It's for people like her and her children that he's there doing all this work. So I wanted to check in with her and see what she thought about it.

We are here in this school in - what? - you know, the church right now. And it's because you took us here that that brand-new building is being built across the street. What do you think about that?

HONORABLE: (Through interpreter) Well, it's like it's - in my personal view, it's a little tense because even I no have one of my son here, they have to send him back because I didn't pay the school fee.

KENNEY: Oh, they sent one of your kids home because you didn't pay?

HONORABLE: (Through interpreter) Yeah, he went back home. He didn't even have his exam.

KENNEY: Which kid?

HONORABLE: (Through interpreter) The one that's doing the eighth grade.

KENNEY: So what's he doing now?

HONORABLE: (Through interpreter) He's just home since I can't pay for the school fee - just home, sitting around.

KENNEY: Principal Simpliste denies that someone from the school sent home Madame Claude's son. He chalks it up to a misunderstanding between the parents and the school. But the risk of something like this happening is not lost on Tim. He knows ultimately that the principal, Enselm Simpliste, has control of what happens here. Tim and his organization spent over $100,000. And maybe, they might not be able to actually help the people they came here to help.

JOFFE-WALT: Which is why Tim is saying he feels conflicted, I guess - right? - because he's saying, like, I came here to benefit these children. I might've just handed $100,000 over to one guy. I might be part of the problem.

KENNEY: Yeah. I mean, he's really wondering if all these two years of traveling back and forth was the right thing to do - if it was the best thing he could do for the community and for these people. And he's really just trying to educate himself about what other options there are. He told me he's been reading more about global poverty, research people that have been doing what actually works, what things truly help people. And he heard this podcast we did with the authors of this book "Poor Economics". We asked them about Tim and about the school in Haiti. And they told us, you know, people always want to build a structure - a new school or a new hospital. But the research shows that that's not always the most helpful thing you can do. So Tim has been trying to figure out, you know, is there a better way? What is it? One of the things that a lot of economists talk about that some economists prefer is this idea of just giving people the money directly and letting them decide what they really need. I asked him if that's something that he ever thought about.

MYERS: I agree to a certain extent. Give it to them and if - because some of them are going to take that money and use it to better their quality of life. Yeah, I believe - I believe that.

KENNEY: So if you believe that, why build this school?

MYERS: Because I started it, I have to finish it - only reason why (laughter).

KENNEY: If you could go - if you could turn back the clock, would you consider just writing a check to all the parents of all the kids who go to that school?

MYERS: Definitely, yeah. Let them - let them see what happens, happens. I could have saved myself a lot of heartache and money just to write a check with what I could afford, which wouldn't have built a school, but it would have done something. Let them figure it out. And that's what Haiti needs.

KENNEY: But there's a problem with this approach. Tim says they were able to raise $100,000 by going out and telling people we're going to build a school in Haiti for these kids that really need it. He says, if they'd gone out and tried to raise $100,000 just saying we're going to give cash to poor people...

MYERS: We wouldn't get any money.

KENNEY: Why?

MYERS: (Laughter) People have this - I mean, don't people have this feeling that they want to be involved in something specific? They want to see where their money's going. I think that's one of the things that went wrong with the earthquake relief is all these people gave money - where did it go? They didn't see anything. They got tired of hearing about latrines and water. So I think everyone - I don't know if that's true, but I just think people like to feel like when they give money for something, it's going for something specific.

JOFFE-WALT: We're talking about $100,000. And I think Tim would not say the $100,000 has been wasted.

KENNEY: No, absolutely not.

JOFFE-WALT: Like, there is going to be a school. He's proud that there's going to be a school. They bought textbooks. They've done some teacher trainings. They've done good things.

KENNEY: Yeah. He's just sort of feeling like maybe it would have been better to just hand out money, give people cash directly. But he's pretty clear that, you know, it's not that no good is going to come out of this project.

MYERS: We're part of the problem, but I think in some ways maybe we can be part of the solution in a small way and that if we can affect and have an impact on one or two of those kids and they can go on - maybe the fact that we supplied textbooks, maybe some little small thing like that, we'll get one or two or three of them then on - they'll make their own changes because that's what needs to happen.

KENNEY: People in the village, they talk about the new school. They're excited to see the trucks of rocks pulling in every day, to see people working, people they know with jobs, jobs that don't involve working the land or farming the rice. And the kids who'll eventually go to this new school, they're watching too, and they're excited. I met one of them. He was sort of hiding out in the corner of the construction site. So I asked him what his name was.

EDMON: Edmon.

KENNEY: Edmon was just staring at the construction workers. And when I asked him what he wanted to be when he grows up, he said one of those guys, someone who builds things.

(SOUNDBITE OF FREELAND WHALES SONG, "GENERATOR SECOND FLOOR")

JOFFE-WALT: As always, we would love to hear what you thought of today's show. You can email us at planetmoney@npr.org.

KENNEY: Tim and his nonprofit, it's called the Haiti School Project. They're planning a grand opening for the school in September when the kids start classes again. They still need to stucco and paint the building, but the structure's actually done. You can learn so much more about their project by visiting their website. It's haitischoolproject.org.

JOFFE-WALT: And do we have photos of the school?

KENNEY: We do. We have some photos of them working on the site and also have that little kid I mentioned, Edmon. He's really cute. That'll be on our blog - npr.org/money. I'm Caitlin Kenney.

JOFFE-WALT: And I'm Chana Joffe-Walt. Thanks for listening.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "GENERATOR SECOND FLOOR")

FREELANCE WHALES: (Singing) And since you are my friend, I would ask that you lower me down slow and tell the man in the black cloak he doesn't need to trouble his good soul with those Latin conjugations. And if it's all the same to them, you should tell your gathering friends please not to purse their faces grim on such a lovely Sunday.

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