On January 12, 2010, Haiti was rocked by a magnitude 7.0 earthquake that left 220,000 people dead and over 300,000 injured. The world was moved by heartbreaking images and stories from the Caribbean nation, and $13.5 billion of aid flooded into the country.
Almost 12 years later, we now know that money — mostly distributed inefficiently through foreign governments, the United Nations and over 3,000 nongovernmental organizations — did not solve Haiti’s crisis. As another earthquake rocked Haiti in August and thousands of Haitian refugees struggled for survival at the U.S. border, many Haitians boldly declared that much of the aid funneled into the island nation has added to its people’s plight. As the instability in Haiti becomes more complex, it is becoming more risky for Americans to travel to Haiti for short-term trips, as evidenced by the kidnapping of 17 missionaries, along with their Haitian driver and translator, in October. It’s becoming increasingly apparent that longstanding, locally run programs that empower Haitians to lead are the most effective way to utilize foreign aid. And one of those programs, Konbit Haiti, was founded by a Daphne couple.
When Stephanie and Ryan Robinson heard the news about Haiti in 2010, they knew they wanted to be involved. The couple had married just one year prior, and both had recently graduated from the University of South Alabama — Ryan with a business management degree and Stephanie with a degree in interdisciplinary studies. The couple moved to Haiti at the start of the cholera epidemic, which began after infected sewage leaked from a U.N. Peacekeepers base into Haitians’ water supply.
“We saw these massive NGOs going in and trying to do either large-scale, high-tech water projects or import expensive Fiji water bottles,” Ryan says. “It was like, ‘What exactly are the locals getting out of this?’”
After spending three months in Haiti, the Robinsons returned to the States and learned more about simple, low-tech solutions to help Haitians access clean water.
“Our first project was at an orphanage in December 2010,” Ryan says. “We helped them fix a well on their property, and we were shocked that it actually worked. Along the way, we learned a few other techniques and began working alongside locals already working in water.”
After going back and forth between Haiti and the U.S. several times, the Robinsons moved to Haiti full-time in 2011 and stayed for seven years before returning to Daphne. They now split their time between Haiti and Daphne.
“A lot of it was a big adventure, and a lot of it was really hard,” Stephanie says. “We didn’t have a short-term mission trip background, and we didn’t have any idea of what our work should be like. In hindsight, that was a big blessing. We just made friends with people and learned what they needed to continue what they were already doing.”
Today, Konbit Haiti serves Haitians in three ways: through its environmental programs, its family programs and its business programs. “You have to have those three spheres — environment, family and business — to holistically support a community,” Ryan says. “Our vision is a world where communities transform themselves to thrive. We believe that, with the right tools and help getting started, people can transform and develop their own communities from the inside out.”
Every Konbit initiative is directed by Haitian leaders, and the Konbit community in Haiti includes over 50 local program leaders, volunteers and partners.
“Everyone wants to help in any way they can. All parties are doing a good job,” says David Sanon, a founding member of Konbit Haiti who has served in a variety of roles, from intern to Environmental Branch Manager. “If I had to pick what I like the most, it would be what I get to do every day: running the Environmental Branch. Protecting our resources and land is such a big deal to Haitians. And the very word ‘konbit’ is rooted in agriculture. This word means ‘to come together to help in a garden or other project.’”
Ryan and Stephanie’s goal at Konbit is to empower Haitians, not spotlight themselves or other Americans by providing short-term aid. The Robinsons explain that while many people want to go to Haiti for a week or two to help people, Haitians have too often been misunderstood by outsiders who don’t know their culture or their needs. Unfortunately, those misunderstandings can contribute to Haiti’s instability — specifically the need for orphanages in the country.
In the early years of their ministry, the Robinsons began attending church at an orphanage where they had completed water projects. Every Sunday, the back row was filled with women they did not know. The children filed in and ran to sit with them.
“After church, the women left, and I asked a friend who they were,” she says. “They told me, ‘Oh, those are the mothers.’”
That day, Ryan and Stephanie’s eyes were opened to a heartbreaking reality: the government of Haiti estimates that 80 percent of children in orphanages have living parents. But because of the way people outside Haiti are motivated to give and serve, it’s easier to raise money for orphans than for family preservation. Parents often have such a hard time finding work and providing a safe environment, education and food for their children that surrendering them to an orphanage seems like the best option. Americans love to serve and give to these orphanages, having no idea that most of the children still have living parents who simply cannot care for them because of poverty.
“People who want to go on short-term missions have the right heart,” Ryan says. “And we have had teams come in for very specific purposes — like pastors leading seminars or people coming to help with our summer camps. But Haitians have been taught over decades that the only people who can be missionaries are white Americans, and we want them to know they are fully capable. Our responsibility is to use our privilege to stand in the back and watch Haitians lead. It’s all about de-centering yourself.”
The Robinsons experienced the temptation to exalt themselves as saviors early on during their time in Haiti. One of their close friends asked them to adopt his starving child. They could’ve easily accepted and presented themselves to donors back home as caring people who took in a child in need.
“Instead, we worked with him to develop a business plan based on his skills and gave him a small business loan,” Ryan says. “He was successful almost immediately. Haitian people can make a huge difference in the lives of their own people. But we had to unlearn what we thought we knew to see that. That unlearning was difficult and painful.”
Shopping for Good
This experience, in addition to several others, led the Robinsons to an idea: What if they built a connection between talented Haitian creators and people in the U.S. who could purchase their products? What if they could keep more families together through simply creating jobs?
“I got a master’s degree in international community development in 2018 and had to do all kinds of research,” Stephanie says. “I interviewed the women in our sewing program, most of whom are single mothers, and they all used the word ‘opportunity.’ It had changed their lives to have consistent income. That really motivated me — we could provide more opportunities like this. We now employ several more people because of the products we are selling through Konbit Collective.”
Konbit Collective sells high-quality handmade items from Haitian creators — everything from pacifier clips and leather bags to facial oil and earrings. The majority of items in the store are direct trade, which means Konbit pays a higher premium to creators than what is mandated by a fair-trade distinction. Items can be purchased online at KonbitCollective.com or in-person at its brick-and-mortar store in Daphne.
“Ryan always says we should be selling things because they are awesome things, not because people feel sorry for Haiti,” Stephanie says. “We are very passionate about people understanding that you can make a difference with your dollars. We vote with our dollars about the kind of world we live in. When we purchase things for a slightly higher price, we are giving people dignity and a fair wage, and that is life-changing.”
Konbit Collective • 1305-A Main St., Daphne. 210-8682 • KonbitCollective.com
10 a.m. – 5 p.m. M – F or by appointment