* Michelle Thoughts, When Helping Hurts

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)

* 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.