There are so many thoughts going through my mind right now, so many things that I want to talk about, but I have no idea how to articulate any of it. I don’t even know where to start. Today was challenging for me, but perhaps the most valuable day I’ve experienced thus far. And it wasn’t because of anything I saw, it had nothing to do with any of our surveys or something I witnessed or heard on the streets of Leogane. It’s because of conversations that I had with members of my group. Interesting conversations, but challenging to say the least. So far, this summer has consisted of some of the most reflection and critical thinking I’ve ever done.
This morning when we went out for our fieldwork, we passed by a huge group of young students wearing their school uniforms. We stopped to talk to the kids, and a man standing outside asked if we wanted to see the school. Of course we said yes, thinking it would be a welcomed break from our long trek into the village. He made a phone call and another man came out, whom we had met before, who lives across the street and works for a missionary organization that runs an orphanage and five schools in Leogane, one of them being the one we were standing in front of. After giving us a tour, the man spoke to us for about an hour about his organization and the work that they’ve been doing in Haiti, as well as the dangers of doing aid work in a developing country. It was a conversation we have now had dozens of times, but this one really struck us. For the rest of the day, we couldn’t stop talking about it.
It’s not that this organization is not doing honorable work. It is. Their school is nice, the students and teachers seem to be happy, the tuition is free and a meal is provided every day. But something about the man’s description of their work left me feeling uneasy. It seems like every single American we’ve spoken to in this country knows exactly how a nonprofit should operate to be most effective. It seems like everyone knows best. Get to know the Haitian people, learn what they need, and work with them to provide it. I can’t even emphasize how many times we have heard that. So then it seems strange to me that this is such a prevalent problem. And that so many organizations come in with the intention to stay for an extended period, but end up leaving early. It seems like everyone thinks they know best, when really no one does. So what’s the solution? Where do you start?
There are so many conversations to be had on this topic. The four of us in my group literally talked for hours today, about the work of these NGOs and the connection to business and politics and economics, about why exactly we decided to come to Haiti and what we hope to accomplish here and gain from our experience, about the ultimate purpose and impact of our research project and whether it’s the real reason we applied to this program. We also talked a lot about how lucky we are that Duke has such a progressive and forward-thinking program like the Global Health Institute, with professors that know all about the ethical dilemmas of aid work and can help us find the answers to these questions, but how that makes it easy for us to become jaded or to be extremely disappointed when we leave our university and realize that most people do not have a similar background in global health.
We also discussed the connection between aid work in developing countries and religion. The man that we spoke to today said that he believes the only people who can truly have an impact are people who live here and know the people well, which are missionaries (but that confused me – I would think that the only people who really understand the community and the population are Haitians themselves). Before coming to Haiti, I didn’t even have a clue that there was a link between religion and development work in impoverished countries. But now that I’m here, I see it every single day. We have yet to be introduced to an American organization that has no affiliation with Christianity – including Family Health Ministries. But since religion has never been a part of my life, I struggle to understand the importance of faith in this type of work. Why does Christianity play such a major role in the work of aid organizations? What does it say about me as an individual that I am here, in Haiti, not because I believe I am doing the work of G-d or because I have a duty to do charitable work, but because I am genuinely interested in learning about these people and experiencing this country firsthand? Religion is obviously a valuable tool for garnering widespread support for a nonprofit organization, both in the U.S. and in Haiti, but is it absolutely necessary for an organization to function and be effective? Does the belief that you are doing the work of G-d help the process or hinder it?
I said it already, but I’ll say it again. There are so many conversations to be had. So many dilemmas. So many conflicting emotions, so many thoughts I can’t begin to articulate so I won’t even try. I wish someone could just sit me down and tell me what to think. But the fact is, that’s impossible. The fact is, most people who start NGOs don’t even know where to begin. But something has to be done, so they end up being forced to choose a strategy. And more often than not, that strategy is not a good one, as we can see every day when we walk through the streets of Leogane and see the half-finished buildings and the number of people who don’t have any source of income. I just wish there were a way that we could contribute to this search for the solution. I wish I could walk through the streets of Haiti without feeling like just being here is doing more harm than good. And I’m sure that this feeling will subside in time, as I continue to study global health and ethics, I talk to advisors and professors about my concerns, and I eventually find a job in this field, either on the policy side or for an actual nonprofit. But there’s only so much that can be done in one summer.
Ultimately, the root of Haiti’s problems lies deeper than its schools, the trash on the streets, and its lack of access to clean water. It lies in the infrastructure, the economy, the country’s resources. It reaches all the way back into the government and the politics, the corruption and the inefficiency. NGOs can do a great deal of help by building schools and churches, employing Haitian people, and stimulating the economy, but there’s only so much that they can do. Haiti simply doesn’t have the infrastructure to provide education and health care, the ability to produce and export goods and thus improve the economy, or the political power to influence other nations. Which again begs the question: what can be done? And where do we start?
I said in my last post that we should not feel bad for the Haitian people, and we should not think of them as miserable people. But that does not mean we cannot be sad. I am sad every day when I hear the stories of the people we meet – a 22 year-old boy whose father beat him and his mother every day and who has both witnessed and survived multiple assaults; a 65 year-old woman who has resorted to stuffing tobacco in her nostrils to relieve the stress caused by the death of her brother and child; a 40 year-old grandmother who never went to school and can only sign a consent form with an “X.” I can spend months, even years in this country, but I will never know what it is like to live here. I will never know what it is like to be Haitian. So no, I can not pity the Haitian people, but nor can I romanticize their poverty and misfortune. They may be a resilient, happy people, but they are still poor. They suffer every day. They have lost children, parents, siblings; they have narrowly escaped death; they have had to sacrifice a day’s worth of food in order to clean their school uniforms or pay for a trip to the hospital. They struggle more than I will ever comprehend. And I think it’s okay if that makes me feel sad.