The photos above were taken in Haiti before the earthquake by members of the Haiti Foundation of Hope Vision Team in June 2009

“The U.S. people don’t know us enough. The first thing that Haitians need from the American people is for them to know our history better.”

Roseanne Auguste, community health worker with the Association for the Promotion of Integrated Family Health from What Haitians Want from Americans (And What They Don’t) compiled by Beverly Bell

This quote by a Haitian woman summarizes, for Haiti, was is true in any situation where we are trying to serve people and improve their situation. How many times have we tried to “help” someone before we truly get to know them? Imagine trying to explain a problem to someone, only to have them jump in and tell you a solution that you know would never really work? Their intentions are good but they just don’t know you or the situation well enough. Imagine trying to describe your symptoms to a doctor, only to have them diagnose you with a simple ailment before going in depth into your complex medical history. By not understanding the full context, the doctor may gloss over critical symptoms in your past or other related illnesses that, when taken all together, would cause the doctor to prescribe a completely different remedy. I believe that in many cases, if we understood the context or the background of the people we want to help, we’d find ourselves helping in very different and more effective, responsible, positive (i.e. helpful) ways.

What do I mean by “context?” When we want to create a solution to a problem like alleviating poverty, we have to look at the root causes. The story commonly used to illustrate this point is this: Imagine you are standing by a river and all of the sudden you notice a baby comes floating down the river in front of you. Obviously, you should go in and try to save the baby from drowning. But then you notice another baby coming floating down the river, and another, and another. You realize that it is not enough to keep saving these babies from drowning, someone must go up the river and find out who or what is causing all the babies to be thrown into the river. (Side note: the students I worked with last year depicted this in a skit and deemed the cause to be the “Evil Baby Baron,” complete with an old-fashioned mobster mustache. Anyway…) It’s important to understand that there are many complex factors that cause poverty in order to start diagnosing solutions. To better understand the causes of poverty that pervade our world, I highly recommend Rich Christians in an Age of Hunger: Moving from Affluence to Generosity (see chapters 7 and 8).

A peoples’ history, politics, and policies also make up their context and affect poverty in unique ways. I first saw this most fully during an immersion trip to Nicaragua (see video post here) with Witness for Peace and was then inspired to learn more about the background story in Haiti. I always thought history was kind of boring and to this day have trouble getting historical dates and names to stick in my mind. However, it became much more interesting once I discovered how the history of a country like Haiti explains much of why it is in such a sad state today and also helps inform ways to make improvements. If you didn’t know better, you might think that the state of Haiti today is because Haitians have just never managed to get their act together and that they’ve been tragically unlucky to be hit by a series of hurricanes and earthquakes. But if you search deeper, you’ll find much more. For example, Haitians actually defeated Napoleon’s troops to become the first independent, black republic in the world. Despite this great accomplishment, Haiti was consistently bullied by various countries of the Western world, including being forced to pay retribution to France for “lost property” (i.e. slaves) and, more recently, having a popularly elected president forced out of office by none other than the U.S. government. The lack of success in Haiti is not for lack of effort or capability. Western countries have throughout history interfered in Haitian affairs in countless, harmful ways. (More on this in another post.)

There is also the cultural context that must be understood. One of my favorite classes I’ve ever taken was Cross-Cultural Communication where we learned how we all hold unspoken cultural norms, or rules, that we are often unaware of but that help us interpret our interactions with others. Each culture has their own particular version of what is polite and what is rude, what behaviors communicate friendship, what is acceptable to do in certain circumstances and what is just not done. Some cultures require an elaborate series of greetings and questions before engaging in a discussion with someone. Not doing so would come off as disrespectful. In some cultures it is better to act agreeably and then not follow through than to tell another person directly that something can’t or shouldn’t be done. For them, “saving face” always takes priority. Other cultures have taboos about which hand you use to eat, whether you cover your mouth when you yawn, or whether you should open a gift in front of the person who gave it. When taking that Cross-Cultural course, I came to realize that when it comes to cultural differences, oftentimes you don’t know what you don’t know. All the more reason to educate yourself as much as possible. Before going into a community to help, it’s important to understand these cultural norms in order to work effectively with people and also not offend them! Additionally, cultural differences can mean that solutions to problems may need to be adapted- or may not transfer at all- from one culture to the next. One community may hold different values or practice customs that would prevent a program from being as successful as it might be somewhere else.

Failing to understand the context where you are serving can be not only disrespectful, but your service can end up causing more harm than good. For mission trips abroad, this means doing your research on the history, current events, political ideologies, and cultural customs you will be encountering. It means listening to the opinions and wisdom of local people and approaching the community with humility. Our Cross-Cultural Communication class described it as “inhaling more than you exhale.” Be mindful that you “don’t know what you don’t know” and you must do a lot of learning before you can do any teaching. While you may have a certain kind of expertise you bring to your service, you must also recognize that the people who belong to the community have their own expertise built on years and years of experience in that place. (Also remember that the same people will be there for years and years to come, and you may not, so they must be integral to your service if it’s to be sustainable.)

A reminder: Please provide feedback, questions, and suggestions for this post. Thanks!

Other “When Helping Hurts” series posts:  Intro: CaringIntro: God and Poverty, Context Is Critical, Hung Up On MaterialWhat To Do When, How To Be Positively Helpful (Part 1)How To Be Positively Helpful (Part 2)