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When Helping Hurts

Michelle’s series about serving effectively and without harming

When Helping Hurts: How to be Positively Helpful (Part 2)

(A continuation in a series from When Helping Hurts. Click on the “When Helping Hurts” link under Categories in the side bar to see related posts.)

Too often our attitude in service “initiates the very dynamic that we need to avoid, a dynamic that confirms the feelings that we are superior, that they are inferior, and that they need us to fix them” (pg. 126). I would say that our first thought and most common question when we are going into a community to help is: ‘What are the greatest needs?’ While this question makes a lot of sense, in a way it is essentially asking those we are hoping to serve: ‘What is wrong with you?’ What if we turned that question around and asked ‘What is right with you?’ instead? I’ve grown to appreciate this approach, which is demonstrated by community development experts who practice Asset Based Community Developed (ABCD).

Especially for those of us who profess that every human being is made in God’s image and is blessed with their own gifts and talents, ABCD reaffirms the dignity of the materially poor. It “recognizes that poverty is rooted in the brokenness of the foundational relationships and [can be overcome by] restoring both low-income people and ourselves to living in right relationship with God, self, others, and the rest of creation” (pg. 127). Notice how the questions asked by Asset-Based Community Development could make someone feel more confident, respected, and hopeful:

When Helping Hurts: How to be Positively Helpful (Part 1)

from http://www.haitifoundationofhope.org

Imagine this scene: It’s two months following the catastrophe, in the aftermath of the January 2010 earthquake in Haiti. A small team of Americans are working eight hour days in the hot sun, clearing rubble from a local school two months after the earthquake. Meanwhile, Haitian neighbors sit idly by.

What does this bring to mind? Why do you think the Haitian people are not chipping in to help? Often when people see this, they assume that the people are lazy, however, there is likely much more going on than meets the eye. What about the Americans? At first glance, it would seem that they are doing a great service for the community, but again- it’s not that simple. The key question here is: are Haitian people being empowered in this situation?

When Helping Hurts: How to Alleviate Poverty Without Hurting the Poor . . . and Yourself recommends that we “respond when needs of an affected population are unmet by local people or organizations due to their inability or unwillingness to help” (pg. 112). In other words: Never do for others what they can do themselves. Never bring in outside help when it can be done locally. Of course, there are always exceptions to the rule, but generally speaking we tend to err on the wrong side of this important tenet.

After the January 2010 earthquake in Haiti, the state of emergency was clear and disaster response professionals from the outside were absolutely necessary to attend to all the wounded. When the immediate danger passed and it came to clearing debris, however, the Haitians were perfectly capable of helping themselves. When North Americans do work “for” Haitians, it is a form of paternalism, undermining the Haitian’s ability to steward their own time and talents. It perpetuates a feeling of helplessness and inferiority in the community members. With the exception of those people who were still in a state of shock or mourning, the Haitian people were- and are- perfectly capable and willing to move debris. Often when North Americans- or others seen as “superiors”- are involved in a project, it is culturally inappropriate to challenge their authority. So even if local folks know there will be issues with our implementation of solutions, they may not feel comfortable bringing it up. Helping where we’re not needed also promotes dependency on Westerners.

I have witnessed a sharp contrast between volunteer sites in developing countries. In one site, groups of Americans often came through the community to tour the organization’s work and to volunteer with projects. When asked to share their bottle of water, snacks, toys, etc. by the children of the community, the Americans felt guilty and would sometimes leave their possessions with the child who asked it of them. Little did the Americans realize that when they left the community and other groups came to visit, the children developed a habit of begging because Americans were now seen as the source of free hand-outs. In another volunteer site with a different organization, this phenomenon of begging did not exist. True, in this second site, the community had seen fewer American visitors to begin with, but more importantly, the Americans there did not give hand-outs. If someone in the community had a need, both the community members and the American volunteers knew to approach the local leaders for assistance. Trusted community leaders were empowered to share the organization’s resources with their people in the manner, time, and amount that their own locally-earned wisdom guided them. In the first situation, the Americans were well-intentioned but their gifts did more to provide personal relief from guilt than to ensure long-term change or to empower the local people. In the second situation, Americans still assisted the community with some needed volunteer services as well as funding from abroad, but the local community and its leaders were empowered to manage their resources. If an American volunteer did want to give a donation to a particular child or community member, they approached the local community leader to discuss the situation, offered the donation to the organization through that leader, and then the local leader presented the donation to the person in need. This protocol helped to reinforce empowerment of local leadership and to avoid Americans being seen as the “saviors” or the Santa Clauses.

What examples have you seen of appropriate/inappropriate or successful/unsuccessful assistance to communities? How have you seen communities be empowered or unintentionally undermined?


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

When Helping Hurts: Hung Up on Material

Dominican Republic ’05

Alright, today I’m talking about a topic that I hadn’t really considered in this particular way  until I started my “independent study” so I want to give lots of credit to the book When Helping Hurts: How to Alleviate Poverty Without Hurting the Poor . . . and Yourself and the Chalmers Center for Economic Development at Covenant College.

I remember when we were preparing for our Spring Break trip to the Dominican Republic- my first ever intentional trip to a developing country- and one of the college leaders of our church said, “You know, we’re not going on this trip to build the Dominicans new garages so they can keep more stuff in storage.” His point was that we’re not supposed to be making people from developing countries look more like those of us in the Western world. Of course, we’re not going to build a poor person a garage, I thought. But maybe we’ll build them a better house. Now, I’m not sure that’s the best idea either. I don’t think I realized how deeply the American culture of materialism affected my views about poverty.

According to the book When Helping Hurts, having a materialistic view of poverty leads us to come up with materialistic solutions. They asked people “What is Poverty?,” and found that those who are poor have different answers than those  who are not. “While poor people mention having a lack of material things,… poor people typically talk in terms of shame, inferiority, powerlessness, humiliation, fear, hopelessness, depression, social isolation, and voicelessness. North American audiences tend to emphasize a lack of material things such as food, money, clean water, medicine, housing, etc.”(pg. 53). The distinction affects whether we are just treating symptoms or getting at the root causes and whether we are accurately diagnosing those root causes and prescribing the appropriate solutions.

From When Helping Hurts Webinar downloads (Haiti: Doing Asset-Based Relief, Rehabilitation, and Development)

Here’s an alternative definition of poverty: “Poverty is a result of relationships that do not work, that are not just, that are not for life, that are not harmonious or enjoyable,” according to Bryant Miller in Walking with the Poor, pg. 86. The poor describe their poverty in psychological and social terms, in relational terms, not merely materialistic. Poverty is not just about what we do or do not have. Here’s where faith is at the center of the picture again. The When Helping Hurts book suggests that to be all that God created us to be, we need well-functioning relationships with:

Haiti Foundation of Hope ’09
  • God
  • self
  • others
  • creation

Broken or dysfunctional relationships in one or a combination of these categories constitutes poverty. Therefore, true poverty alleviation is holistic and will work at restoring relationships with God (spiritual intimacy), self (humility, self-esteem), others (community), and creation (stewardship).

There is also the sense that in some of these relationships, someone we consider “poor” is likely much richer than we are- in relation to God or to others, for example. Too often we North Americans tend to serve with a “God Complex.” I don’t like to think that I’m better than someone or that I know everything there is to know, but I am motivated to help the poor in part because I want to feel worthwhile, accomplished, significant- isn’t that trying to be like God? The God Complex is considered a “poverty of being,” or an unhealthy relationship to yourself. “One of the many problems in many poverty alleviation efforts is that their design and implementation exacerbates the poverty of being of the economically rich- their god-complexes- and the poverty of being of the economically poor- their feelings of inferiority and shame” (pg. 65).

Instead of making sure poor people have more material things, true poverty alleviation will empower people to earn sufficient material things on their own. “The goal is to restore people to a full expression of humanness… to see people restored to being what God created them to be: people who understand that they are created in the image of God with the gifts, abilities, and capacity to make decisions and to effect change in the world around them; and people who steward their lives, communities, resources, and relationships in order to bring glory to God” (pg. 78, 81). What this means in practical terms for poverty relief will be the topic of upcoming posts.


When Helping Hurts: Context is Critical


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)

When Helping Hurts Intro 2: God and Poverty

Before delving further into my new series “When Helping Hurts” about service to the poor, I wanted to offer some background about how the faith perspective fits in. Please add your own thoughts, recommendations, questions, etc. in the comments section. Here goes…

It wasn’t until one of my college classes invited a guest speaker to share about poverty in the Bible, that I first heard about God’s “preferential option for the poor.” I was shocked at how many Bible verses referred to taking care of the poor and the oppressed. How had I never heard of this before? Later as a volunteer intern with Children of the Nations in the Dominican Republic, while we spent our days working in poor communities, our leaders guided us through a book that revolutionized how I see the world. It is called: Rich Christians in an Age of Hunger: Moving from Affluence to Generosity by Ronald Sider, and I still refer to it often.

Growing up in a church-going home, the words “Good News” were always just a vague catch phrase. However, in my pieced-together education about poverty, these words took on real meaning as I saw the Bible in a completely new way. In the Old Testament, God intervened to liberate the poor from Egypt (Exodus 3:7-8; 6:5-7). He warned and even destroyed kingdoms because the rich were mistreating the poor (Amos 2:7, 5:10-15, 6:1-7; Ezekiel 16:49-50; Micah 2:2; Jeremiah 5:26-29, 7:5-7; Isaiah 1:10-17, 1:21-26, 5:8-10; Hosea 1:8-9). In Old Testament times, “the rights of the poor and disadvantaged to possess the means to earn a decent living [took] precedence over the rights of the more prosperous to make a profit” (Leviticus 25:15-17, 25:35-38; Exodus 23:6-12; Deuteronomy 15:1-18). Over and over, from the beginning of time and throughout Biblical history, God showed his favor for the poor  (Isaiah 58:3-7; Deuteronomy 10:17-18; Psalms 10:14-18, 146:1-9; Proverbs 14:31, 19:17…). I couldn’t believe I had never noticed this theme before. And the above references, which come from the Rich Christians book (chapters 3-5), don’t even touch on all the ones in the New Testament. I learned from Luke 4:18-19, Jesus states his purpose: “to preach good news to the poor… to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to set at liberty those who are oppressed…” Maybe I used to think that these were just spiritual terms, but I’ve since found that they are literal as well. Jesus- himself from a lower-class family and a refugee- paid particular attention to the poor, the sick, the despised, and the marginalized during his time on Earth. At that time, Jesus coming into the world was quite literally Good News for people in those categories- as it still should be today. What am I getting at with all of this? Simply stated, I discovered that God deeply cares for the poor and the oppressed; and so did His son. His care went beyond occasional charity. It was about Justice.

Image from ifbc.net

If something is important to God, shouldn’t it be important to His followers, too? I’ve found the Christian concept of the Body of Christ to be very important in talking about this: we should be like many different parts of one organism, each with their own role in the here and now to achieve Christ’s work. What is Christ’s work? Things like Restoration, Renewal, and Reconciliation- slowly making things On Earth As It Is In Heaven. “When people look at the church, they should see the One who declared- in word and in deed to the leper, the lame, and the poor- that His kingdom is bringing healing to every speck of the universe.” (When Helping Hurts) One of my favorite examples of people living out Christ’s example and God’s calling comes from the first Christians, as reported by philosopher Aristides in AD 125:

            They despise not the widow, and grieve not the orphan. He that hath, distributeth liberally to him that hath not. If they see a stranger, they bring him under their roof, and rejoice over him, as it were their own brother: for they call themselves brethren, not after the flesh, but after the spirit and in God; but when one of their poor passes away from the world, and any of them see him, then he provides for his burial according to his ability; and if they hear that any of their number is imprisoned or oppressed for the name of their Messiah, all of them provide for his needs, and if it is possible that he may be delivered, they deliver him. And if there is among them a man that is poor and needy, and they have not an abundance of necessaries, they fast two or three days that they may supply the needy with their necessary food.

Two hundred years later, Julian the Apostate- a pagan- admitted “that the godless Galileans [Christians] feed not only their poor but ours also.” That’s sounds to me like a great way to make our world a little more like it should be, like bringing heaven to earth. That is the way I believe we are called to act.

One of my favorite authors, Shane Claiborne, wrote some powerful, life-changing books like Irresistible Revolution and Becoming the Answer to Our Prayers. In an effort to demonstrate our call to serve the poor and oppressed, Claiborne depicts a conversation with God that goes something like this:

Us: “Dear God, our world is hurting and people are suffering. Please do something!”

God: “I did do something. I made you.”

Although convicting and- you might say- intimidating, I really appreciated hearing it put this way. We have a responsibility to our neighbors; and if we don’t act, who will? God is still the Mastermind with the Plan, but He relies on us to do the work on the ground. In this way, the burden of “saving the world” is off our shoulders and we have only to do the part that He has put in front of us. Although I feel I’ve only touched the surface of this subject, I’ll end with this poem/prayer on the subject from Archbishop Oscar Romero:

It helps, now and then, to step back
and take the long view.
The kingdom is not only beyond our efforts,
it is beyond our vision. 

We accomplish in our lifetime only a tiny fraction of
the magnificent enterprise that is God’s work.
Nothing we do is complete,
which is another way of saying
that the kingdom always lies beyond us. 

No statement says all that could be said.
No prayer fully expresses our faith.
No confession brings perfection.
No pastoral visit brings wholeness.
No programme accomplishes the church’s mission.
No set of goals and objectives includes everything. 

This is what we are about:
We plant seeds that one day will grow.
We water seeds already planted, knowing that they hold future promise.
We lay foundations that will need further development.
We provide yeast that produces effects beyond our capabilities. 

We cannot do everything
and there is a sense of liberation in realizing that.
This enables us to do something,
and to do it very well.
It may be incomplete, but it is a beginning, a step along the way,
an opportunity for God’s grace to enter and do the rest. 

We may never see the end results,
but that is the difference between the master builder and the worker.
We are workers, not master builders,
ministers, not messiahs.
We are prophets of a future not our own.


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

When Helping Hurts Intro: Caring

As I (Michelle) mentioned in my last post, I’m starting a blog series related to what I’ve been learning lately. A central part of my study has been the book When Helping Hurts: How to Alleviate Poverty Without Hurting the Poor . . . and Yourself, by Corbett and Fikkert, and their online resources at the Chalmers Center. The concepts and quotes in my next posts will primarily come from these sources.

When I was about eleven years old or perhaps younger, I stumbled upon the notion of privilege. I say stumbled because the thoughts that I pieced together at the time seemed to be coming from somewhere other than my own, simple childhood brain- though it was less like stumbling and more like I was deliberately being led down a particular path of thought. Sitting in my room, surrounded by toys, a dresser full of clothes, a house full of nice things, and a beautiful view out my second story window, I realized that all these things had been given to me without even having to ask. Soon, the image of an African girl came to my mind. She was my age and she didn’t have any of the things in my room. She had experienced a childhood altogether different than my own, where safety, health, and basic necessities were never certain because she was born into a different house on another land. I wondered what she thought of me, if she was angry with me. It wasn’t fair, I decided. But other than feel guilty and try to be more grateful, I didn’t know what to do about it.

In high school and college, my understanding of the injustices around the world grew as I learned about historical and current events. I can still remember watching a video about Ghana during a youth group “30 Hour Famine” when I learned that children were forced to kill their own families with axes. Horrific. The sickening image was a wake up call as to the enormity of ugliness, brokenness, and evil in the world. I was so thankful everyone had their eyes closed in prayer as my face had become a mess of hot tears and snot- it was one of the first times I felt so deeply that our world is not as it should be.

The introduction of the book, When Helping Hurts, says:

North American Christians are simply not doing enough. We are the richest people ever to walk the face of the earth. Period. Yet, most of us live as though there is nothing terribly wrong in the world. … We do not necessarily need to feel guilty about our wealth. But we do need to get up every morning with a deep sense that something is terribly wrong with the world and yearn and strive to do something about it. There is simply not enough yearning and striving going on.

I don’t consider myself to be an emotional person but from time to time, I have had experiences similar to the “30 Hour Famine” where I’ve been deeply moved to mourn for what is wrong in our world. Recently I had a break-down after watching Defiance (Jewish brothers in Nazi-occupied Eastern Europe escape into the Belarussian forests in order to protect themselves and about 1,000 other Jews) because it reminded me how inherently messed up and distorted the human condition is, and how desperately we need God. I recall my own shortcomings- how I want to be a better person yet I keep criticizing my husband, I don’t express love and appreciation enough in my relationships, I defend myself instead of taking correction, I take the self-serving path much too often… On a personal level, we all fall short no matter how we try. Our relationships with others are broken as well, evidenced by everything from divorce rates to road rage. Our neighborhoods and cities suffer from crime, inadequate education systems, isolation of the elderly… Our nations are plagued by income inequality, political slander, irresponsible corporations, apathy, war… The lists go on and on. I don’t mean to sound so pessimistic, but I think it’s important to realize the depth of our problems- that we are in over our heads and we can’t get ourselves out. Why? Because then we realize how we desperately need God. He is quite literally our only hope.

I know we are not meant to be in a state of mourning all the time- that would be depressing and, in turn, debilitating. But I think it is far healthier to let the weight of the world hit you profoundly from time to time than to feign ignorance and live as if nothing is wrong. This means allowing yourself to see the ugliness in the world, paying attention to current events and being aware of historical injustices. Look people on the streets in the eye, literally and metaphorically, acknowledging their existence, acknowledging that all is not right. Don’t let yourself become desensitized. When I accompanied a group of college students to Arizona (see video blog here), they asked an immigration lawyer working in Operation Streamline how she copes when her clients are continuously treated so unjustly. Her response was that she doesn’t cope and doesn’t want to. She cries- in court- because she refuses to be desensitized or to go on as if nothing was wrong.

Caring about people and the situations they’re in is the first step. The next step, taking action, goes hand in hand. And when we do take action, we must also desire to act in a way that is not only effective but also avoids any harm.

That leads me to our topic for the series which is to follow. I want to address one more thing before I really get into the concepts of serving others without harming them (or yourself). As you can already tell, I’m coming at this from a faith-based perspective, as does the book “When Helping Hurts.” Faith doesn’t just fit into the picture, it is central to it. More on that next.


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

 

Are you still paying attention?

http://www.pbs.org/newshour/bb/world/july-dec11/paulfarmer_07-28.html

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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