In a few weeks, it will be one year since an earthquake killed some 300,000 people and left 1.3 million Haitians homeless. Humanitarian workers and aid agencies poured into the country over the past year. Sean Penn made Petitionville, Haiti his new home. The US, France and several other countries promised monetary aid that has yet to materialize in terms of the millions that were promised. Frustration and anger is building across the country. The UN Nepalese forces allegedly brought cholera into the country and the number of dead are rising daily. To say the least, Haitians are angry and frustrated.
Today, the BBC News is reporting that Jean-Max Bellerive, Haiti’s Prime Minister, made the following statement:
I strongly believe that if NGOs (nongovernmental organizations) are to be truly helpful in rebuilding a country, they should not only have the natives of the country at the table, but ensure they are the leaders and the NGOs are supporting their efforts. What PM Bellerive is complaining about is not new.
Frankly and sadly, some NGOs are coming in and speaking as if they are the know-it-alls and the Haitian people are the village idiots who need to be educated on how to (re)build a civilization. I know those of you who work for NGOs are going to hate me for saying this, but some NGOs are in essence perpetuating the paternalistic attitude that many developing countries once rebelled against. These NGOs are operating under the guise of eliminating poverty and rebuilding lives.
I think it’s time that some NGOs realize that they may have the best intentions, but their methods need to change. Earlier this year, I saw the documentary, Good Fortune, and became so annoyed with some of the NGOs in the film that I had to pause it. (I figured they were not worth me developing high blood pressure issues.) I watched a family that was living “comfortably” lose their entire year’s worth of crops after some Americans who wanted to build a rice farm, flooded the family’s farm. The family was not forewarned about what was to come. Nor did anyone seek their advice or opinion. Can you imagine if I decided to flood a family farm here in the US to make a rice paddy?!
The great thing about Good Fortune is that you get to see what those dollars you donate to certain organizations are doing to people in other nations. It makes you realize the importance of knowing exactly what your dollars are being used for and how. I don’t want my hard-earned dollar going towards razing down a shantytown and replacing it with modern homes that are occupied by the families of politicians. I want to help the people that are always forgotten, not the corrupt politicians.
Finally, the Good Fortune provides you with intimate insight into what it is to be one of the natives at the table, because that is all you are. The radio program, This American Life, also peripherally discussed this phenomena in Act Three of Island Time. (I strongly urge you to listen to it.) In Act Three, a Haitian eye doctor (one of the few in the entire country) has been invited to sit at the table. However, we quickly learn that no one listens to you or cares that you know the culture, politics and lay of the land better than anyone. It doesn’t matter that this man is considered a genius by many. Who cares that he can provide perspectives on how the plans will affect Haitian doctors who have served other Haitians for decades when they could have easily picked up and left the country? Thus, the eye doctor is at the table, so the NGO and foreign governments can say we did have a Haitian at the table. At least the eye doctor is guaranteed to get a meal when he shows up to the meetings…
Haitians don’t just want to be at the table they want to be heard. This is their country and they have every right to decide what they need or want. I’d be extremely frustrated if someone came into my home and started to tell me how to run my home. So why should I tell someone else how to run his/hers? Giving you advice is one thing, telling you what to do is the ultimate level of disrespect in my opinion.