Helping Haiti May Be Hurting Haitians
The truth about Haiti was written in the airplane seats. As I sat on the tarmac, a mere 90-minute plane ride away from the most devastated land on earth at the moment, I marveled at the broad span of diversity that sat around me. There were Colombians, Cubans, Frenchmen, Belgians, blondes and blues, blacks and browns, red and greens. What I didn’t see was an over abundance of Haitians. I was excited when I got the news I was going to Haiti.
I was even more excited that nearly six months after the 7.2 magnitude earthquake crumbled the homes and futures of Haitians everywhere flights were going in and out of Haiti’s airport. I was going to Haiti. I was going to help. I was going to make a difference. When the fight of life started I wasn’t going to be on the sidelines, I was going to be in the game, my sleeves rolled up, my brow wet with sweat, my heart glad with sanguine altruistic accomplishment. But as I looked around that plane, my heart sunk. Apparently, I wasn’t the only Good Samaritan in the world. Don’t get me wrong. I didn’t expect to be the only one there to help but I was floored, completely taken aback at the sheer number of foreigners about to embark on this country that previously had been ignored by most of the world. What would be our reception?
Helping Haiti Causing Aid Fatigue
I got my answer pretty quickly after being basically mobbed at the airport. After getting fighting off men with plastic tags hanging from their necks trying to get our bags for us, we made it outside only to be outnumbered by hordes, and I do mean hordes, of men struggling to grab our bags and help us to the car. We were outnumbered and out hungered by the men who jockeyed for position like hyenas after a kill, pushing and shoving each other out of the way, all trying to grab that almighty dollar out of the foreigners hand. Fights broke out. Feet were trampled. Money was paid. But in your heart you knew it just wasn’t enough.
Is Helping Haiti Really Helping?
The airport was the first sign that this wasn’t like the mission trips of old. After some 400 years of civilized existence, the people of Haiti have humanitarian fatigue. Year after year, decade after decade, century after century, foreigners have been coming to this side of Hispaniola, heart in hand ready to help a people oppressed by poverty, an isolating language and a culture of corruption. It’s no wonder when I asked one of the few actual Haitians on the flight from Miami to Port Au Prince what, of all the things spoken about his country did he hate the most he decried the description given by everyone of his homeland: “Haiti, the poorest country in the Western hemisphere,” he said, shaking his head and turning up his nose. “It’s as if poorest country in the Western hemisphere is part of our name or something. The country’s name is Haiti, that’s it! End of story.” We had somehow turned the factual statement about this country in need into a farcical pejorative that did more than distort perceptions, it limited true growth. In our effort to explain our affinity we ended up affirming our stupidity.
So the men at the airport took for granted that you were there to help. They wanted to work for their money but they were going to help whether you asked them or not and demand their payment in return. They were entitled to your money because it was the price of admission. It was the price of invading their country unasked and unannounced.
As we got into the truck bags stored and a fight over our few American dollars unfolding in the rear view mirror, we proceeded down the main highway and a tinge of normal seemed to settle in. Driving from the airport Haiti looked like the typical developing country. Small storefronts straddling the road, men and women bustling by them looking for the night’s meal, trucks heavy laden with colorful religious scenes, love stories or street fare on the outside, bodies smashed together on the inside all these gave Haiti the picture of resilience and strength its people are known for. All was well, until I raised my arm to take my first picture.
Leaning out of the car window I photographed a sign that said “Cybercafe.” It was meant as a word picture of Haiti’s incredible perseverance. But the two guys on the balcony right under the sign didn’t see my photo taking as some sort of free advertising. I suspect they say it as some form of forced exhibition. And after yelling a few Creole curses at me they finally flipped me the bird.
Helping Haitians Must Include Economic Growth
I’ve traveled to five continents in six years, nearly 90 percent of the countries I visited were in development and I have never had such a negative reaction to my limited, but fairly competent photography attempts. It was my first sign that Haiti was the world’s biggest fishbowl and its inhabitants were tired of all the focus.
Time after time, road after road, people became hostile at the camera lens. As I sat in traffic, ensconced in a Land Rover amidst a sea of 4×4’s and SUV’s each emblazoned with a different country’s flag I began to understand the look of disgusts people had on their faces.
What these people needed were jobs, a sense of purpose, something to do. They didn’t need another helping hand punching the button on a digital camera excited over the chance to link their imprint of history onto their latest Facebook status. I suddenly felt ashamed because I had no jobs to give. I only come to take. I wanted to take away a feeling of goodness, of greatness that I had done something, something during the great mass of human suffering.
A member of the group coined the term, “earthquake tourism,” and I can’t help but think how accurate that statement is. From the Israeli flag imprinted on the water tank, to the blazing white UN stamped trucks, to the French solider standing next to the Haitian bank, to the gazillion twang-tinged accented American teenagers swarming around, packed in buses, giggling in religious guest houses and building picnic tables for a Haitian orphanage so that the overburdened entity can have someplace to eat for the gazlillion of other American accented teen-agers who will surely follow the ones who just left.
For Haiti there is a hand of every hue on every corner but what there isn’t, is an honest day’s work for an honest day’s pay. As I see Haitian after Haitian shake their head, “No,” at my camera, gesture violently at the trucks filled with foreigners whom buy in their $200 a-day-chauffeured vehicle my mind returns back to the Haitian I met on the plane ride to his homeland. I asked him if God gave him the miracle and he could ask for the one thing Haiti really and truly needed what would it be?
“Jobs, jobs, jobs and more jobs,” he said, without a hint of sarcasm or joviality. Funny he didn’t say, “More foreigners to help build picnic tables.”
Helping Haiti By Helping Haitians Help Themselves
So when face with the incredible devastation that has been compounded by the devastation poverty brings how does one help Haiti, without hurting Haiti? By supporting organizations like the United States Foundation for the Children of Haiti (USFCH). This Tulsa-based group provides direct support to a Haitian-led, Haitian-staffed, Haitian-focused foundation that operates two orphanages, a school and a hospital. By supporting the Haitian organization USFCH supports 135 Haitian employees who can rebuild their home, educate their children and renew their country. By providing jobs to Haitians USFCH is ensuring that Haiti’s will not only survive this earthquake disaster but thrive as a nation. In the end, isn’t that what we all want?