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Don't Make This Mistake When Helping Haiti

When I first started really learning about Haiti (when considering taking this position), I was initially struck by two things: how many nonprofits were working in Haiti and how many of those nonprofits were not registered with the government. Were there really over 20,000 nonprofits actively working in Haiti - the most nonprofits, per capita, in the world - and did the government of Haiti really not know the actual number? It all seemed incredulous to me. What were all these 20K+ nonprofits doing, especially those not registered? And on that note, don’t we typically knock on the door before walking into someone else’s house? Recently coming from Rwanda, where the government had a tight system for registering and overseeing nonprofits, it became clear to me that I had a lot of listening and learning to do.

As I recognize more so now, like many governments in emerging market countries, the government of Haiti is severely underfunded, under resourced, staff are under trained (and some under motivated) and corruption abounds. It takes a lot of energy and sophistication for any bureaucracy to maintain a robust tracking system, so Haiti has major headwinds in this regard. With the challenges the Haitian government faces in providing even basic services to its citizens, let alone knowing which nonprofit is doing what, inevitably large gaps emerge.

helping in haiti
photo credit: Troy Livesay

Into this large gap many people and organizations of good intention step in. The problem arises when they do so without first doing the hard work of gaining an understanding of the substantive and often nuanced challenges Haiti is facing, and run forward without the large dose of humility that this hard work requires. The last blog post illustrated this well, through the story of how well-intentioned North Americans help perpetuate child trafficking in Haiti through what can only be described as “the orphanage industry.”

I won’t delve here into the ways integrity and witness are harmed for the sake of expediency of “doing good” - I may do that in another post. Haiti’s story is replete with stories of outsiders with resources and good intentions doing more harm than good. The international response to the 2010 earthquake is a case study in itself of how those with money, resources, and an oversized belief in their own capabilities can add to the grief and disempowerment of a people already suffering. During my years in philanthropy, where I had the unique opportunity to give millions of dollars in grants to good work around the world, the concept of “the other Golden Rule” continually haunted me: “he who has the gold makes the rules.” Money simply creates imbalances in power within human relationships (I’m fairly certain this is why Jesus talked about money in the Gospels as often as he did). And nowhere is this more prevalent than in the enterprise of doing good.

Extollo is soon launching a program to connect North Americans with the work we do in Haiti. We’re not calling these trips “vision trips” - as this signifies that we’re bringing “our” vision to Haiti - and we’re definitely not approaching these trips as short-term mission trips. We’re calling these trips “Listening and Learning Expeditions.” We believe that anyone who wants to help Haiti, particularly through Extollo, should first listen and learn with a large dose of humility and a hope that can take a lot of punches. An expedition is a journey a group of people take for a clear minded purpose. These Extollo Listening and Learning Expeditions will spend significant time listening to our Haitian staff, Haitian business and civic leaders, and our Haitian students - along with learning about the history of Haiti and the manifold dynamics that brought Haiti to where it is now - and continues to dog its potential. You will see many things, but not as merely a tourist. You will be invited into pain, hopes, joys, challenges, and disappointments. For only when we first listen and learn can we be emptied of our sense of control enough to receive insight from on high.

Once the program is officially launched we’ll add the link and more info here in this blog. Until then, consider this a teaser. And a warning. When you listen and learn with humility and a hope “that does not disappoint,” the way ahead will not be clear nor a simple solution of giving money. But our God is in the business of transformation - and so are we.

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