Back in 2009, I was sitting in church, listening to someone talk about a mission trip that was going to happen in Haiti. I had never been on a mission trip to a third world country. My husband and I are pretty spontaneous, so we looked at each other and paid our deposit that day to join the team.
We were told that all of our personal belongings needed to fit in one carry on suitcase. The checked baggage would all be used to take needed supplies for our trip. A few days before we were to leave, we all got together and packed all of the items we had been collecting. Our suitcases were full of shoes, clothes, medicine, first aid supplies, candy and toys. We didn't realize that our generous hearts were actually hurting the people we were going to meet.
1. Mission Trips Can Hurt Local Businesses
The amount of items brought into Haiti in suitcases to be delivered to locals is staggering. The hurtful part is not that people are genuinely hoping to help, it's that in their efforts, they are actually crippling local businesses. It's hard to compete with free. All of those shoes, clothes, medicine, first aid supplies, toys, tools, etc. etc. etc. that are brought in can actually be purchased in Haiti. The minute shoes appear with a mission team, the local shoe vendor at the market has been put out of business for days if not weeks. Multiply this times the hundreds of items that come in with teams who visit Haiti each month.
The same thing happened back in 2010 after the earthquake drew attention to this beautiful Caribbean island. In an effort to help, the United States sent rice and flooded the market. A month later, Haitian farmers were ready to harvest their rice crop only to be outsold by the cheaper rice sent from the United States. More than ten years after the earthquake, Haiti farmers are still struggling to compete with the foreign market.
So how can we help?
Connect with Haitians or long term ex-patriots (ex-pats) living in Haiti. Raise money and let your host know what you'd like to buy. They can either have the items waiting for you when you arrive, or they can accompany you to the local stores and markets to find what you need. This is another way to learn more about the country and all Haiti has to offer. There are times, however, that you just can't find what you need in Haiti, or the price of being imported makes a local purchase unreasonable. Although this is not the case with most items, it does happen from time to time. As often as possible, please purchase all of your supplies locally. Did you know there is a home store where you can even mix your own paint? You would be surprised at what is available! If you are looking for something specific and don't know where to start, Extollo would be happy to give suggestions!
2. Mission Trips Can Take Jobs From Locals
On our second trip to Haiti, similarly to the first, we found ourselves with the mentality that we would do whatever needed done. We came to serve and be a blessing, so even if it was not something I was skilled at, I would do my best. My husband found himself laying blocks while I assisted a physician at the local hospital - our backgrounds being business and education respectively. While my husband was laying blocks, he noticed a few men sitting on the perimeter wall in the distance watching. Later, we found out that these men had been employed to do this job the previous week; but again, it's hard to compete with free.
In this scenario, we again are hurting the economy. This time, we are not only hurting the economy, we are also taking a job away from someone who most likely has been trained and can do a better job that we can.
So, how can we help?
First, agree that you will not do for a local what they can already do for themselves. If you must paint a wall, make sure that you are painting next to a paid local worker. Let them show you the ropes, not vise versa. I realize that a team of 15 people can get a lot of work done in one week! Instead, plan to hire a local team of 15 professionals and then ask your host to teach you about their country.
Most of the time, finances are the issue for projects not being completed. Raise funds to help complete projects with local labor. Sometimes, skilled labor can be difficult to find. This is another way you may be able to help. Think of a skill that you have, something that you have experience in that you could offer to an individual or a group that will help them once you've gone home. Extollo is always looking for ways to partner with people in order to offer skills and training to Haitians. This will give more resources for the local Haitians to find employment.
3. Mission Trips Can Create Dependency
Our family had been living in Haiti for three years when a category 4 Hurricane Matthew struck in October 2016. The morning after the hurricane passed, we drove around to survey the damage that had been done. We were surprised and thankful to find the area we were living had fared pretty well. As we were driving, we came upon four men drinking Coca Cola and playing Dominoes on the side of the road. As we passed, they called out to us, "Kisa w'ap fe pou nou?" What are you going to do for us?
Over the years, mission teams have time and again handed out free gifts in the name of "charity." From a young age, children learn to approach "blan" or "the white people" with their hand outstretched. This attitude of giving not only creates dependency, but also strips many adults of their dignity. Once the mission team leaves, other ex-pats living abroad take on the day to day challenge that comes from the mentality that the handouts have created.
So, how can we help?
Look for organizations who encourage Haitian leadership. It is possible to find qualified local individuals to be leaders of an organization. Dependency is created when the ex-pat team has no intention or plan to ever step down from leadership. Create relationships with locals and ex-pats who live and work in the area you are visiting. They know best what the true needs are. If you have toys, candy, shoes, etc. that you'd like to give away, (after purchasing them in country) give them to your host and let them decide how best to distribute the items. This way, things are not seen as coming from the visiting team, but from the Haitians and ex-pats who have built relationships with them. Also, talk with local government and leaders and learn what the true needs are. Focus your finances and energy where the locals see the need most.
4. Mission Trips Can Encourage Orphan Care
Wait, isn't that a good thing? How can that hurt? Well, during their trip, many teams will visit an orphanage. They will go hold babies, sings songs, pass out toys and candy and leave...usually with a comment along the lines of, "Oh I wish I could just take you home in my suitcase!" What many don't realize is that orphan care is a business in Haiti and many of the children in orphanages have living parents.
An orphan is defined by UNICEF as any child under the age of 18 who has lost one or both parents to death. In 2015, there was an estimated 140 million orphans globally. Today, that number has reached an estimated 153 million. From these statistics, there is a misunderstanding of the word orphan. 26 million of the estimated 153 million orphans have lost both parents. This means that the remaining 83% of orphans have at least one parent. While we were working in Haiti, we realized the reality of these numbers. So many orphans become orphans because their parent(s) do not have the resources to feed and educate them. So, they abandon them on the streets or at the door of an orphanage because they know there are better odds that their child will be supported there.
Lumos estimates that the total amount of support to Haitian orphanages exceeds $100 million annually. With figures like that, why would any loving parent who watches their child go to bed hungry every night not try to get them into an orphanage?! Does this mean they don't love or want their child? Absolutely not. Does this mean that an orphanage is the best place for their child? Again I say, absolutely not.
Here is a recent story from another current missionary living in Haiti:
"This morning I was busy in the kitchen when my daughter's friend called her to the gate. This usually involves a phone or something being dropped off to get charged at our house. The kids haven't been playing with their friends a lot lately because of COVID and trying to keep safe distances. Social distancing is almost impossible here in Haiti, but we try. For context, this friend lives closest to us, just across a field. She has 4 other siblings that live at home. My kids play with 3 of the kids and are these are their closest friends here in Haiti. They span in age from 9-14.
My daughter came back in the house a few minutes later and proceeded to tell me that her friend and her older brother were going to the Dominican Republic to live with a family member. This has happened with other family, so not a total surprise. The next thing was the record scratch moment - two of the younger siblings, the ones my kids play with regularly, were on their way to to Port au Prince with their mom to be put in an "orphanage".
You guys, I don't even know if I can articulate what was going on in me in those moments following.
When we hear the word "orphanage", we think kids who have no families to care for them. We don't think about kids coming from a family where they may be poor, but Mom and Dad are both still in the home and very much alive and well. We don't think about kids coming from a home where they are able to go to school as much as possible because Mom and Dad work really hard to make that possible. We don't think about kids that eat every day, have deep relationships in their communities, and are loved. We don't think these things, do we?
I immediately told Chris what was happening, and within an hour he was talking with the family trying to get more info. It turns out that the pastor who was leading our well drilling crew for the past few weeks (all of whom did a fabulous job) was doing some side hustle in our community. He told several families that he has a "blan". "Blan" is a white person. This "blan" is helping to fund an orphanage that this pastor is starting. Except that instead of taking in kids that actually don't have people to care for them (a rarity here in Haiti) he's telling parents their kids will be better taken care of, have opportunities, etc IF they come live in this orphanage.
Here in Haiti this is a business. These "pastors" will find a foreigner that has a heart to help people. They plead the need for helping "orphans" and get funding to set up an orphanage. They poach kids from families who are poor, telling them that their kids will have opportunities and be well cared for. They keep the kids in a state of need in the orphanage so that when foreigners come to visit, they see the needs and donate more money, believing they're helping. Their intentions are good and they believe the stories the pastor/director tells them. What they don't realize is that the pastor/orphanage director isn't going to use that money for what they say they will. Most likely they'll keep the kids in exactly the same state for the next group that comes along. We've seen it time and time and time again.
Friends, this is what child trafficking looks like in the real world - kids taken from their families to be used to make money. I will let your mind run to ALL of the potential things that can happen in a situation like this.
It turns out there was another family that was on their way to do the same thing from our community because of the same promises by the same man. That would have been 4 kids given up by their parents into this destructive system because of lies and false promises. All because these families didn't have a lot materially.
Why does this happen? Because of us. Because of well intentioned foreigners/white people who so desperately want to help, but don't know enough. Because we see a materially poor family and want to fix that, not paying attention to the fact that the parents are alive and well, the kids are in their family unit, and they are loved. Rather than work at creating job opportunities, we set up or support structures that remove kids from their homes, and destroy families - because we're "helping"." -Leslie Rolling, Clean Water for Haiti
As long as there is outside support for orphanages, stories like this one will continue to happen.
So, how can we help?
Find organizations, like Extollo, that invest in moms and dads and gives them the skills they need to find employment and take care of their families. Make sure that any orphanage (or any non-profit) that you may be supporting is LEGALLY registered with the government. Work towards eliminating the need for orphan care by investing in orphan prevention. This is done through education and training.
Extollo is unleashing Haiti's potential to build a stronger future by training a construction workforce of character and capability, while adding strength and safety to Haiti's infrastructure. Our approach is based on the Chinese proverb, “Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day, teach a man to fish, you feed him for a life-time.” For the past five years, Extollo International has been developing and implementing a program that teaches Haitians how to care for themselves. Using the apprenticeship approach of “learning while earning and learning by doing,” Extollo combines classroom instruction with on-the-job training and supervision. Haiti has a need for skilled construction workers at the journeyman and contractor level. Extollo is meeting this need by teaching employable skills and character development to the people in Haiti that need it the most, those living in extreme poverty.