Center for Social Entrepreneurship

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Conor Shapiro ’03: A Visionary Change-Maker in a Republic of NGOs

Friday Speaker Series: Conor Shapiro ’03, President and CEO of the St. Boniface Haiti Foundation

Blog post by Otto Nagengast ’17

March 7, 2014

When Conor Shapiro landed in Haiti in 2003, he had just graduated from Middlebury College. He was in Haiti to teach English at a school run by a non-governmental organization, the St. Boniface Haiti Foundation (SBHF), in Fond des Blancs. He planned to stay in Haiti for only one year. As Conor described, chuckling, “It was typical liberal arts. I didn’t know where I was going.” Soon enough, Haiti gave him a direction that he has followed ever since.

He first visited Haiti in January 2002, missing two weeks of J-Term to go with his neighborhood church parish on a service trip. After returning to campus, he went to a talk from the now world-renowned Dr. Paul Farmer. This talk convinced Conor to go to Haiti. During his year teaching English in Fond des Blancs, AIDS was tearing through the country. Due to the lack of health systems, AIDS became a “death sentence.” Seeing the devastation and lack of unified response inspired Conor to enter the burgeoning field of global health.

After earning a Master’s in Public Health at Boston University, Conor returned to work with SBHF. Conor was named Director General of SBHF’s hospital in Fond des Blancs in 2009, just weeks before the 2010 earthquake that leveled Port-au-Prince. In the aftermath of the catastrophe, Conor helped to establish the SBHF’s spinal cord injury treatment center. In July 2011, Conor was appointed President and CEO of the organization.

Haiti has been called “The Republic of NGOs.” It is inundated with organizations there to make a difference, but often NGO work in Haiti is uncoordinated and redundant. In this environment, Conor and his colleagues are taking a new approach. Conor tries to provide the Haitian people with empowerment, not impose solutions. With this integrated approach, the people can have a large say in how the issues that affect their lives are addressed. Conor believes that the very core of sustainable development is empowering those being helped.

Here’s an example of Conor’s vision at work. Although the 2011 earthquake lasted only 55 seconds, it killed an estimated 250,000 people. When one looks at Port-au-Prince after the quake, it becomes clear why. Buildings collapsed into stacks of concrete pancakes, trapping people inside. Conor realized that after the earthquake workers still used the same unreliable construction techniques. Using resources close at hand, Conor reached out to one of the board members of SBHF who owns a construction company in Boston. Contractors from Boston now travel to Haiti to train contractors there.

Conor assesses the efficacy of development work on a straightforward notion: how has it helped the most vulnerable? By these standards, the SBHF is incredibly successful. In addition to founding what has become known as Haiti’s preeminent spinal cord injury treatment center, SBHF offers the only emergency obstetrics care (which includes the only three incubators) on Haiti’s southern peninsula, which is a catchment area of two million people.

Conor concluded with some advice to his fellow Midd kids who want to make a change in the world.

  • “There is room for everyone at the table,” Conor said, “If everyone played the same role, that’d be scary…whatever you’re most passionate about can be brought to the most vulnerable.”
  • Persistence is crucial, because development is not only hard and requires it, but “being there for the long haul builds up trust” with those you’re working with.
  • Listen, learn, and adapt.
  • Don’t get bogged down in traditional ways of looking at sustainability and cost-effectiveness. He cited the fight against AIDS as an example. Once people looked beyond the paradigm of treatment versus prevention, they saw that treatment was inherently preventative. The most important result of this was that ultimately “more lives were saved.”

Conor is the embodiment of what many Middlebury students aim to become. He is a broad-minded critical thinker who changes peoples’ lives day in and day out. It was a great pleasure to have Conor on campus, and we here at Middlebury wish him all the best in his work.

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