Is It Working?

When you live and work in Haiti you get the opportunity to see all sorts of methods of “helping”. Some are more effective than others. Some leave me wondering if people are really thinking through the long term effects of their helping.

I don’t want to be critical, because I believe deep down people are helping from right motivation. I’m just wondering if more thought could be put into the process to make it truly something that, in fact, helps. I’ll share an example of where my head is at right now.

I was recently scrolling through some stuff online and was made aware of someone planning for a trip into Haiti. As part of their helping efforts they were raising funds through friends and family to buy shoes to bring in. Every $6 bought an inexpensive, lace up pair of shoes. I get the point and the purpose, but things like this are being done all the time to “help” Haiti. But do they really help?

I think the first big glaring thing for me about this whole situation is thinking about every drive I take by any open air market here in Haiti. These markets are on every day, with specific “market day” a couple times per week where people come from all over to sell. On any given day though, there are any number of men and women (usually women) selling a variety of wares – including shoes.

Shoes that have been shipped in volume, bought by the merchant and being resold to the general population. Some days I look at those shoes and think, “Man, I wish my feet were smaller because those are cute!” Yes, they aren’t fabulous quality, but they are shoes. Shoes being sold in country by people that have children to feed.

And you know what – those shoes will be less expensive than any pair of shoes I could buy back home and bring in.

I question if the thought about long term effects has been put into things like the shoe fundraising project. We tell ourselves it’s something that will help because people will be getting shoes. But, what if we could help more by raising the same amount of money, then going with someone to the open market after arriving in Haiti to buy those shoes. It would feed into the local economy, donor dollars would go further, and it would employ people – accomplishing more than the initial intention.

Like I said, it’s not that the intention is bad or anything like that – it’s that it’s probably not based in a good enough amount of education about the culture, economics etc of places like Haiti. Every time we attempt to help, but do so in a way where we are robbing people of work or dignity or the means to lift themselves up out of their current situation in life we are doing more harm than good.

People often talk to us about different methods of water filtration, sharing what they’ve read about this filter or that filter. Don’t get me wrong, there are some great filter models out there. Some are perfectly suited for disaster situations where a family needs clean water immediately. Some are better suited for controlled community environments. One of our criteria as an organization is that we aim for development – how can we do what we do and help move Haiti forward. That’s why we have chosen a filter model that we not only know is incredibly effective but that can be produced in Haiti with readily available materials. We don’t want to pay someone abroad to push a button on a plastic mold, then pay to ship the units in. We would rather pay people here that have families to support to build the filters. We would rather buy materials locally so that business owners can support their families.

The book When Helping Hurts does a really good job of challenging the reader to really look at how they’re helping. It asks the questions of who, what, why, where, when and how. Who is going to have the greatest benefit – the recipient, or the donor who goes home and tells everyone what they’ve done? What are you trying to do and accomplish through your helping? Why do you feel you can meet this specific need, if there is in fact a need? Where is the most impact going to be made – the place or community you’re helping, or back home where people are getting paid to provide materials or are getting that feel good feeling from knowing they sent or did something? When is the best time to participate in specific types of helping? And, how does one go about it in an effective manner?

Hard questions that challenge us to get to the root of things. If I’m honest, it feels good to say I helped do such and such, whether it was paint a building or bring in shoes or clothes. It’s harder to feel good when we provide the funding to hire a local to paint or build or buy local clothes or shoes. There’s less stuff to put our hands on, so to speak. We like to get our hands dirty, to wash paint and dirt from under our finger nails. Many times we get a surprised look of response when people find out that Chris and I very rarely go out on delivery days with our staff. We choose not to because we want to empower our workers to work with their own people, not hinder what they’re doing by being the “blan”. We don’t need  to be the people visually connected with what’s going on when people get a filter. We would rather provide the organizational leadership and support so our workers can do their job well.

Our motto at Clean Water for Haiti is “Empowering. Improving. Sustaining.” It’s simple, but it’s packed with a huge responsibility. Is what we’re doing actually empowering people? Are they able to make life choices that will move them from their current state of life? Or, is it something we’re telling them they need to do or have? Are we truly improving things over the long term, or just for a blip in time so we can say that our organization has done x, y and z? Is what we’re doing something that’s sustainable? If we stopped tomorrow, would those that we’ve helped still be better off over the long term?

Hard questions, and like I said, a HUGE responsibility. A responsibility we take very seriously at Clean Water for Haiti.


2 thoughts on “Is It Working?

  1. Good stuff, Leslie!! A past co-worker of mine (in human services) always said ‘Nothing about us without us!’ In our attempts to help, we actually have great capacity to harm! Educated, informed help makes so much sense, and rather than handing out fish, if we could teach others to catch fish, it IS so much more empowering! Thank you for putting it ‘out there’ – and I’m going to look up your book recommend, for sure! Love and prayers always!!

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