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: Caring, Intro: God and Poverty, Context Is Critical, Hung Up On Material, What To Do When, How To Be Positively Helpful (Part 1), How To Be Positively Helpful (Part 2)