The last few months have been an emotional and physical rollercoaster. Since I made the decision to start “Haiti Connect” my schedule and work load has gone into overdrive. Most of my regular (paid) work has gone out of the window and I have been dedicating on average 40-50 hours per week to my work for Haiti Connect. In short *everything* has taken a backseat to Haiti Connect. Why? Because I feel it’s very important, probably the most important thing that I have ever done. It’s so important because through our work with Haiti Connect we are making a small contribution to improving the lives of people who have literally nothing. The support and welcome I have received from Haitians and from other people involved in aid work have been more than heart-touching. I and the other volunteers working for Haiti Connect have seen the misery that a lot of Haitians live in. These people had very little possessions before the earthquake and have even less now. Every little contribution that each of us, who obviously have it a lot better, can make has a huge and lasting impact. We need to rebuild this country and give these people a chance to of a future. All kinds of skills and support are needed and no contribution will go to waste.
That’s why it’s astounding that certain people are going out of their way to sabotage our work. Ever since I started to go public with my plans related to Haiti Connect there has been a concerted effort by a small group of people in Ireland to railroad the project,to question my motives and to personally discredit me and any other people associated with Haiti Connect. It started in February with a blogpost from an executive of an Irish telecoms company. In his blogpost he rubbished the idea that there was a need for wifi-based Internet access in Haiti and proceeded to personally attack me by accusing me of grandstanding and ego-tripping. He even suggested that my only reason for doing this was to appear on the Irish “Late Late Show“. This says more about his level of ambition than mine (no offense @tubridyradio1). Also the fact that a mobile phone salesman tries to rubbish the value of wifi in favour of cellular networks is hardly surprising and clearly biased. He seems to be unaware that by making a statement like that he also rubbishes the work done by organisations like NetHope & Inveneo.
Anyway, this blogpost was followed by a campaign of sniping and critisizing, by a small clique,via Twitter. A month later this was followed by a blogpost by someone in the same little clique. Interestingly enough this person had contacted me prior to this trying to advice me on how to run Haiti Connect using his background in Search & Rescue. However while I welcomed the advice I made clear to him that we were not running a Search & Rescue operation and that we also had a number of volunteers with extensive experience in working in disaster areas and hostile environments. Obviously my refusal offended him and he proceeded to rubbish me in a blogpost. interestingly enough the blogpost was a prime example of hyperbole, insinuation, lack of knowledge and general ignorance. It suggested that we had failed to consider certain important points related to operating in Haiti while there was detailed information on the Haiti Connect website indicating that we had covered all those bases. What was also interesting and not known to a lot of people is that I had spoken been in contact with both bloggers only shortly before they posted their criticisms and neither of them made it apparent to me that they had any objections to Haiti Connects work. Both blogposts predicted that I would never make it as far as Haiti. They were obviously wrong….
We had people on the ground from late February and send our first full team to Haiti on April 3rd. All our work and activities were made public via the Haiti Connect blog and the Haiti Connect twitter account. Off course I also kept tweeting from my personal Twitter account while I was travelling and while in Haiti. Why? Because I am an avid tweeter and also because I have nothing to hide. I tweeted while we were stuck for 8 hours in a trailer testing and configuring equipment, I tweeted while we were stuck waiting in airports but I also tweeted when we had a few drinks in the evening. Or even when we went to a gunshow on the day that we had to wait for the driver to collect the shipping container with our equipment. Was I gullible to do so? Maybe. But I had nothing to hide and wasn’t doing anything wrong. Myself and our volunteers worked hard and there is nothing wrong with some relaxation in between. Every single one of is put a lot of time, money and expertise into this work.
Shortly after we returned from Haiti I received an email from Warren Swords, a “journalist” working for the Irish Mail on Sunday. He sent me an email letting me know that he was writing an article on Haiti Connect and he provided me with a list of question that he wanted me to answer. From the slant of the questions it was obvious that this was going to be a hatchet job. He also mentioned that he was following on from one of the above mentioned blogposts and that he had been “tipped off”. Hardly a surprise. I replied to his email providing him with truthful answers to all his questions. He responded with an email questioning my personal & professional credibility. Again I replied to this with truthful answers refuting all allegations made. This was followed by a phonecall from Warren Swords to me later that afternoon. He made the phonecall while camped outside Gerry Ryans house. Gerry had passed away only that morning. Again I was asked the same questions and again I answered them truthfully and proving all the allegations wrong.
A week and a half, while I was on my way to the US State Departments “Haiti Tech” forum in Washington DC I got a call notifying me that Warren Swords hat written a hatchet job article and that it would be printed in that mornings Mail on Sunday. No matter how fabricated the allegations made in the article were it was the last thing I wanted to happen. Having your name dragged through the mud in the national press is not a joyfull experience. What’s even worse is that he named a volunteer who was just that, a volunteer, and who had nothing to do with the overall planning and management of Haiti Connect. Swords obviously didn’t care for the truth so why would he care about a persons name & reputation.His own reputation precedes him.
Rather than quoting from the newspaper article and ripping it to shreds I will instead copy and paste my email exchange with Warren Swords below.
1. Can you tell me what Haiti Connect was able to achieve in the seven days you were there? We were in Haiti for 10 days. In those 10 days we had meetings with the countries large Telecoms Company, several local (Haitian) charities and community projects and were introduced to several people in the Haitian government. We also plotted several of the links, placed some equipment, made arrangements for further trips. Most of the trip was spent making on-the-ground arrangements for future teams arriving as well as the physical preparation of all the links.
2) What wi-fi networks did Haiti Connect install? We installed one link between buildings owned by one of the missions but did a lot of link-planning and preparation. This work is necessary before any equipment can be installed and needs to be done on-site. We also started work on a link between the University of Miami field hospital and the nearby UN base.
3) What equipment did you bring to Haiti? I saw the photographs of the pallets that you were loading onto a container. We shipped a wide variety of equipment to Haiti. This consisted of a large quantity of wireless equipment, camping equipment (tents, sleeping bags, mats, waterfilters, camping stoves etc.) and medical equipment. Most of the Medical and Camping equipment is being donated to Haitians in need. We also shipped a 60KW diesel generator. Use of the generator will be shared with other organisations in Haiti who have indicated they do not have a sufficient power supply.
4) How much money has been raised so far by Haiti Connect and how much was spent on the Haiti trip? You mentioned that you were looking for $365,000 for the Haiti trip. The $365,000 was a fundraising target. It would cover ALL costs to have 10 people working in Haiti for a minimum of 6 months. Prior to this trip we raised cash donations of just over 4000 euro. The cost of our work so far has been well in excess of 10,000 euro. The difference between the two has been paid out of my personal funds. We also received equipment donations from a wide range of companies (Aruba Networks, Xirrus, OpenMesh, Cascade Designs, WiPipe, Fidelity Engineering, Sterling ropes and Tesco Nenagh) the estimated value to these equipment donations are $200,000.
5) What would say in relation to the criticisms of you posting photographs of you and team by the beach, drinking beer and sending out your driver for beer and cigarettes? Was it your own personal money or the money donated that was used to buy drinks etc? Re. what money was spent I refer to my answer to question 4. As regards to pictures of our team on the beach; Haiti is an island, there are lots of beaches. I do not see any issue with volunteers spending their downtime on the beach after a hard day of doing volunteer work. If you do some research you will find out that most, if not all, organisations (UN, US Army etc.) in Haiti run shuttles to the former Club Med resort so that their personnel can have a break away from the hard work and misery they encounter each day. We paid for any expenses incurred relaxing with our own money.
6) Why do you think Wi-Fi is needed in Haiti? WiFi is the fastest, and most affordable way to bring internet access to hospitals, orphanages, camps etc. in Haiti. Internet access means communication, information exchange and access to education. Not a single person we have met in Haiti, ranging from people in camps to entrepreneurs and people in the Haitian government were of a different opinion. Our work has been welcomed with open arms.
7) What is your experience in Wi-Fi? Did you have the experience to set up wi-fi networks in a developing country such as Haiti? I have over 10 years experience in building short range and long range wifi networks. However Haiti Connect is not just me. We have a range of volunteers with a wide experience in wifi, telecoms, IT and networking. Quite a few of these volunteers have worked in disaster areas or developing countries before. I would like to point out that our work is indeed not just “disaster relief”, this was the original plan but the scope of the project has grown to long term infra-structure rebuilding and improvement. We have been asked by the Haitian government to submit detailed proposals and have also been invited by the US State Department to participate in a “Haiti Technology Forum” to discuss the use of technology (such as wifi) to rebuild and improve Haiti.
8 ) There has also been much criticism of MONGOS, My Own Non Governmental Agency. Why do you think it was necessary for you to set up Haiti Connect rather than perhaps fundraise on behalf of an established NGO? The answer to this is simple; Haiti Connect is addressing a niche, but urgent need. We are however not the only ones providing this service. INVENEO is also building wifi networks in Haiti and has been doing this for years. However we are sharing resources with them as they indicated that they could use all the support possible. To give an example; One of the large field hospitals in Port au Prince is paying a fortune for a low-quality satellite internet connection while the UN base just under a mile away had surplus bandwidth. However they had no means of putting a link in place to use this resource. Haiti Connect has volunteered to put a wifi link in place to connect the two so the bandwidth can be shared. This project is currently under way.
9) Do you have any plans to return to Haiti? When and for how long? Yes. I am planning to return in a few weeks. The original plan was for a 6-month project but because the scope has widened it now looks more like 12 months. We have people currently in Haiti but while I am in Ireland I am working on further fundraising and planning.
For those interested in reading the article, there is a scanned version available here. It is also worth noting that I asked him the following via email:
I would like to request that if you want to use any of the images on our website request permission for each individual image separately as these were shot by a professional photographer and I want to avoid any copyright infringements.
He promptly ignored this and picked a number of photographs from a number of online sources without asking for permission. Also interesting is that the only picture of myself used is a cropped version of one where I am working at my laptop. Cleary an image of me working didn’t suit the story.
So now you know the truth. Make up your own mind but think of this: the time that I now have to spend defending Haiti Connect and myself could have been put to much better use helping people in Haiti.