Working in a Developing Nation: Lessons in Flexibility and Disappointment

It has been said: “When you fail to plan, you plan to fail.” But sometimes all the planning and preparation in the world is not enough.

All plans need a framework within which to run, not just a game plan, but an established norm. There are occurrences and reactions, infrastructure and nuances of daily life that many of us have come to expect… I assume that if I take a new route to work, the road will be paved or that if I show up at a business around noon, it will be open. I expect the police and fire crew to keep the neighborhood safe and that if I do something wrong (and get caught), I will go to jail or face consequences…but these are all assumptions of one who lives in a developed nation. When you work in a country like Haiti, your entire framework has to change.

The assumptions you make about each day and how things will transpire requires a new set of norms…as well as a heaping spoonful of flexibility.

Another aspect of working within a different framework is failure, something many of us are less accustomed to. We have been taught and believe that anything is possible. With the right resources, access and moola, you can do anything! And this attitude is nothing but helpful in overcoming obstacles, but it also leads to a greater sense of disappointment when you do fail…which can take some getting used to. However, learning to deal with failure, not to take it personally, but to learn from it, is one of the greatest lessons that westerners can take from working abroad.

It’s not that failure should become an acceptable outcome for situations, but to see that smaller failures along the way do not mean that the big picture or outcome is lessened or compromised. To pick your battles, particularly in countries not your own, is generally recommended.

The best strategy when working abroad is to have a million strategies, plans beyond plans! (that’s one for each mountain, dèyè mon gen mon!) To be flexible on your feet has immeasurable value. When you can change your direction or route on the fly, you are golden. But knowing when to give in to momentary defeat can be powerful too.

This January, we decided to cancel STAND’s volunteer treatment trip to Haiti. The violence and civil unrest surrounding the elections in Port-Au-Prince made traveling through the country too difficult and perhaps dangerous. And while it was absolutely the right choice, it did not take away from the heartbreak of calling our 30 volunteers, each with their bags packed and preparations made months in advance, to tell them the trip was not happening. It was nearly harder to tell myself that I truly was not going. And worst of all, it was harder for my head to mentally tell the 1500 patients that went untreated that we’re sorry. And lastly, it was difficult to fail. To not find a way around the situation, another road or path to the same end…sucks.

As the elections were once again postponed and the country is in flux, we are again strategizing, being flexible, and remembering that within this framework, no matter how much we plan, the sh*t can still hit the fan. And that’s going to have to be ok.

There is never a shortage of lessons to be learned from working in Haiti…and they’re not always nice easy fairytale types either. But the important take home message is this: never to allow your momentary ‘failures’ be un-useful. Even hurdles can be made into stepping stones (I just made that up right now, pretty good, huh?) Learn from situations, change your step, maneuver the pieces, and never forget why you’re doing it.

STAND will be back in Haiti soon, now with a new set of ‘useful failures’ to draw from, smarter than before, and as always learning learning learning!

Written by Morgan Denny on January 28, 2016

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