Fond des Blancs, Haiti - 2011
Susanna and I were sorting through a 50-gallon drum filled with tangled yarn, twisted strands and balls of every color. Over several years, the women of the sewing cooperative had tossed them in or taken them out for various projects. So now the task was to untangle, separate by color, and store on open shelves. Logical, right? I left, feeling cynical about how long that would last.
On our way home, I looked down at the streeet, which yesterday was filled with vendors at the twice-weekly market. They sold bananas, rice, beans, snacks, candy, toys, household items, hats, tools, and everything else that might go for a few dollars or less. Much of it was wrapped in colorful plastic, which now blanketed the road for two blocks. A couple of people madehalf-hearted efforts to rake up a bit of the mess, but most of it remained. I wondered how this could be tolerated, week after week. Just looking around town, you can see how it accumulates and blows around. In a few years the whole village will be wading knee-deep through the stuff.
The yarn and the plastic became a metaphor during a superior American mood which comes over me now and then. This country is a wreck. Roads, economy, politics, healthcare, families, you name it, all tangled and trashed, and no one here seems to give a damn. Why don’t they get organized? Why don’t they take care of things? And what’s the point of improving a tiny corner of the place when, as soon as you turn your back, the rising tide of chaos will wash away whatever you have accomplished?
But it was just a passing mood. I know better than that. And so I began to look deeper. However, I must post a WARNING: I REALLY DON’T KNOW WHAT I’M TALKING ABOUT. I’ve only spent about 9 months in countries that are really poor.
However, I’m pretty sure that people feel powerless after centuries of oppression and hopelessness. Why should they expect clean water, clean up my yard, or finish school when everything works against them? They’re surrounded by corrupt and lazy politicians, education they can’t afford, healthcare a 10-mile walk away… so they accept what is, and passively contribute to its decline.
One response to this is open-hearted, charitable generosity. People like Mother Teresa of Calcutta and Dr. Paul Farmer in Haiti say that it is always the responsibility of the rich to give money, goods, and services to the poorest of the poor. An unconditional stance of mercy needs to go on forever, for “the poor you will always have with you.” Who can argue with that, right? Didn’t Jesus do the same?
And so all over Haiti, church groups ride in on white horses for a “mission trip,” slapping up a little cheap construction and spirited prayers. Money and food pour in from charities - there are 10,000 non-governmental agencies operating in Haiti on a permanent basis. Surgical teams come for a week and save lives. They go home, feeling good about what they’ve done.
But there’s a problem - the lives of the poor are only temporarily better, and over time, their lives actually become worse.Why?
People begin by appreciating charity, but possessing no power to improve their own lives, they eventually come to expect outside help as normative, as their only option. The more aid, the more deeply rooted the pattern. The pride and self-determination that used to exist before oppressors and do-gooders took over are now gone. What is left are hungry children and an open palm.
So what’s the solution? I asked this question of my mother in law Sarah, who has been contributing to the development this small village for the last 16 years.
Sarah told me that charitable relief is usually only helpful in temporary crises. After Indonesia’s tsunami and Haiti’s earthquake, thousands of lives had to be saved immediately. There is also a continuing need for outside investment in infrastructure: wells, roads, schools, energy, hospitals.
But beyond that, it’s all about human development. Those with privilege have the ability - and therefore the responsibility - to develop the potential of the underprivileged. We can raise up leadership, vision, and skills, and then get out of the way.
Sarah also said that it’s also about expecting people to be responsible and accountable, no matter how poor they are. Anybody here can scrounge up a penny to contribute towards the cost of their food or medicine; otherwise there’s no respect for what they receive. And if you lend money to someone in need, write out a contract and have it witnessed. And if an employee is dishonest or has a terrible attitude, fire him.
Sarah has a theory about leadership development that has worked well for her. Using it, she has personally put numbers of Haitians through college and graduate school, even medical school. She met them as high school students, and now they are participating professionally in the betterment of their country. The method is this: ignore the ones who will squander whatever help you might give them. Only invest your time and money in the ones who respond with initiative and responsibility.
All of this takes time, time to create and sustain real relationships with individuals and communities. Few of us have the time, ability, or calling to do what Sarah and Susanna are doing on their own, but we can contribute to those who do. We can support the development work that is being done by the Episcopal Church of Haiti; we can support groups like Haiti Projects.
Finally, I asked Sarah about the metaphor of tangled yarn and plastic trash. What’s the point of her 16 years, when what you do will be so easily undone? As a person of faith, she responded “Isn’t that what we’re supposed to do? To make a difference, without looking for results?” She also expressed her conviction that one day all of the efforts towards development in Haiti will add up and create a tipping point. Then things will begin to go well for this miserable country.
I may not see it in my lifetime, but Piti piti zwazo fe nich - Little by little the bird makes a nest.