* Michelle Thoughts, When Helping Hurts

Are you still paying attention?


I made a commitment to myself after the January 2010 earthquake in Haiti that I would never forget about Haiti and that I would stay involved in one way or another. One way I’ve decided to do this, as I mentioned in my “Bucket List: From Now Until Take-off”, is that I am trying to educate myself and practice advocacy during my free time before we go into the Peace Corps. In my research, I recently came across this interview, above, with Paul Farmer (you may know him as subject of the book Mountains Beyond Mountains: The Quest of Dr. Paul Farmer, a Man Who Would Cure the World ) which is a reminder that although the earthquake was over 19 months ago, we still need to pay attention.

As Farmer puts it in the interview: “Haiti has had a lot of difficulties after the quake, political unrest, the cholera epidemic, and then a lack of follow-through from some of the big development agencies and those who made pledges. So, it’s going to — so, as I said in January, it’s going to be a real long haul, a long row to hoe.”

How do you and I stay in it for the long haul? Just because we don’t hear about Haiti from the main-stream media anymore, doesn’t mean the need is gone. We can’t all go and serve in Haiti- even if we could, is that really what is needed? As I’ve been doing my online research and reading lots of books, I’ve developed a desire to share what I’m learning with others- especially Americans who tend to be privileged, like me, as well as a bit unsure about what to do with our privilege in light of the great disparity in our world. There are very important things we can do but I think we are often confused about what they are.

One problem we face in America is apathy. Another problem, however, actually comes from those of us who want to help. I think we don’t necessarily know how best to help. Many of us have gone on short-term “missions” to developing countries- or impoverished areas in the U.S.- and more often than not, we come home feeling that we’ve been changed more than we’ve made change for someone else. There’s something to that… Also, we’re often not aware of all the complexities that impact the community we’re visiting, so we don’t always realize how our projects truly impact people after we leave. Our intentions are great but our actions can end up doing more harm than good. No one wants that. This is the subject I hope to shed some light on.

I don’t claim to be an expert but I’m attempting some “independent study” in relation to this idea of helping without hurting, the situation in Haiti being sort of a case study. I think being an educator in this way (sharing with Americans who want to go serve) could potentially be in my long-term vocational path. I’ve thought about working on Youtube-type videos that are catchy and can easily explain important, yet often misunderstood, concepts (sort of like the Story of Stuff video but for different topics). Another idea would be to develop educational activities and programs that would be used to prepare groups who are going abroad to serve, or used for general consulting purposes with churches and non-profits.

Those are some long-term ideas. For now, my thought is that I’ll do a short blog series on related topics in an effort to practice communicating the concepts I’m learning. I hope you’ll bear with me! Also, I would really, really appreciate your interaction with these upcoming posts. Asking for clarification, sharing your own thoughts, pointing me to other resources, and giving feedback will help me refine my vision for this work. Please share!

So more on this subject to come… In the meantime, to learn more about the situation in Haiti, I urge you to read Farmer’s new book, Haiti After the Earthquake and consider signing up for updates and “action alerts” from the Institute for Justice and Democracy in Haiti. As I’ll discuss in future posts, having a better understanding of the context of a place and its people is key to being able to serve there effectively.

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