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Dispatch from Haiti: Quiet Before The Storm
March 27, 2014 11:37 AM   Subscribe

Dispatch from Haiti: Quiet Before The Storm "For the past five years, I've traveled annually to Haiti. When I first went there as a reporter I ended up staying through an earthquake, a cholera outbreak (and the protests it inspired), and a fraudulent election (plus more protests) over the following two years. I just made another trip there to consult on a research project. And when I come back to the States, here's what people always ask me: How are people doing down there? Are things getting any better?"
posted by capnsue (31 comments total) 10 users marked this as a favorite

 
I hope the left pushes Hillary Clinton on this issue hard during the primaries.
posted by angrycat at 11:44 AM on March 27


I hope the left pushes Hillary Clinton on this issue hard during the primaries.

I hate to say this, but that sounds really unlikely to me.
posted by josher71 at 12:00 PM on March 27


I hate to say this, but that sounds really unlikely to me.

Yeah, I have this idea for a single panel comic with a rear view of a politician's limousine, and the tag says LOL ISSUE.

It's interesting, though - I've noticed several articles and many comments on MeFi and elsewhere lately on the concept of just sending money versus anything else (including yourself) that you think might help a country in crisis.

On one hand, it makes a lot of sense to me, because I'm pretty damned sure the Haitians don't need a well-meaning database programmer to come down and offer to install toilets for free when they could use the money I spent on a ticket and ten toilets to pay a Haitian to install 100 of them.

On the other hand, I find myself becoming increasingly suspicious of "just send money."
posted by Mooski at 12:23 PM on March 27 [3 favorites]


avan or apre douz janvye

In French this would be avant or apr├Ęs douze janvier, and pronounced the same. I know that's "creole spelling" but I wonder why it's written that way. Did someone/some group invent a new spelling to match they way they thought people were speaking (or perhaps to make it just different enough to highlight the differences in the languages), or was everyone in Haiti really writing things this way?
posted by Pruitt-Igoe at 12:30 PM on March 27


Pruitt-Igoe, Haitian Creole is considered its own language and has its own syntax, grammar, and spelling independent of the substantial French influence. Here's a very good academic overview of the language.
posted by Mo Nickels at 12:54 PM on March 27 [16 favorites]


I am someone who has more time than money, and I always think of this scenario in any charity situation. (not actual quotes for those who can't figure this out for themselves, which I didn't realize was a problem until recently) "Gee, I can't give cash, since I have a business that runs in cycles and this is down time so I'm cash poor, but i could DO something." "Nope, we don't need bodies, just dollars." I think there are a lot of people who would help, but not with money. And unfortunately, the people with money are not always the people who would help. If you don't have money to offer the message seems to be --and is reinforced here-- then you really might as well not try to help. It's like everything American: dollars or dick off, a-hole.
posted by umberto at 1:03 PM on March 27


It's like everything American: dollars or dick off, a-hole.

I get what you're saying, and I know this is something that really bothers a lot of people who actually work for aid organizations. But at the same time, foreign aid should not be primarily for the benefit of people who want to help - it should be primarily for the benefit of people who need the help.

It seems to me that aid organizations are being honest when they say "Nope, we don't need bodies, just dollars." And for someone who can't give dollars, that might be hard to hear, but it doesn't make the answer wrong.
posted by lunasol at 1:12 PM on March 27 [11 favorites]


I need dollars too, but that is not always the help I get. I'm not saying that the help is for me, I'm saying that when people say, "No one wants to help," they are cutting out an enormous amount of folks that DO want to help, just not with money.
posted by umberto at 1:16 PM on March 27


To clarify, when people say Americans won't help, they are saying Americans don't DONATE CASH to the extent they would like. Not that they don't want to help. I guess I"m bitching at how my only form of assistance is reduced to giving cash I don't have to organizations I don't trust.
posted by umberto at 1:18 PM on March 27 [2 favorites]


I'm saying that when people say, "No one wants to help," they are cutting out an enormous amount of folks that DO want to help, just not with money.

If the cost of flying someone to Haiti to do work would accomplish less good than spending the same amount of money in Haiti, we're not really talking about people helping with money or without money, we're talking about effectiveness of an identical unit of money -- on transit and housing for volunteers vs. materials and local labor.

It's usually not a choice between volunteering and sending cash: it's between spending cash to volunteer and sending that same cash instead.

The unfortunate reality is that, in some situations, there may not be much a given individual can do to directly help; we should not take that as a reason to abandon volunteerism, but rather as a reason to find better, local, venues for volunteering.
posted by cjelli at 1:24 PM on March 27 [4 favorites]


The way I see it, before going somewhere to help, you have to ask yourself: if $bad_thing happened here, would a person like me (with my skill set and resources) be able to help? Like, if you're in Illinois, and there was an earthquake, would Bob or Jane from Ohio be able to help the local people if they came?

Unless Bob or Jane have some sort of special skills (the obvious ones are medical or firefighting skills, though people like machinery operators are often useful).
posted by Monday, stony Monday at 1:26 PM on March 27


I might be willing to pay $400 to fly myself to Haiti. I might not be willing to give $400 to Haiti relief so that $200 of it can go to administration, and $100 can go to ads about the situation in Haiti and $50 can go to support staff who will give $5 of it to Haitians actually doing something. OK, enough arguing; sorry for pissing in the thread,
posted by umberto at 1:44 PM on March 27 [1 favorite]


Truly, it's hard to know how to help. Does it help to donate to Partners in Health? (Paul Farmer, Subject of Mountains Beyond Mountains) Probably. I don't trust the Red Cross a lot, but donating to them is probably better than not donating. They don't need used clothes, they could really use building supplies, probably textbooks, definitely medical and sanitation supplies, but the best way to get that stuff there is with cash. It's tragic that UN aid workers brought cholera, and how could someone not be bitter? The UN should take up a special collection for reparations, not based on law, but because it's the right thing to do, but that's not how that hidebound bureaucracy operates.

What do Haitians make? If there were a product people could make and sell, that would be a start. I've been told that after the 1999 earthquake in Turkey, there a project to renew interest in scarves with beautiful, traditional, crocheted edges. Women were provided cotton scarves, and they crocheted the edging. Small export business provided families with income. You can buy quite beautiful Haitian metal house numbers and art here.

There should be a (significant) tax on US election ads, proceeds to benefit those who've been just plain screwed by us.
posted by theora55 at 1:49 PM on March 27 [2 favorites]


If the cost of flying someone to Haiti to do work would accomplish less good than spending the same amount of money in Haiti, we're not really talking about people helping with money or without money, we're talking about effectiveness of an identical unit of money -- on transit and housing for volunteers vs. materials and local labor.

Yeah, but people aren't perfectly rational economic actors, especially when it comes to their altruism. People feel a surge of compassion, they want to do something that counts as help within that emotional, psychological, cultural, entirely human context --- and you can't easily and utilitarianly convert those emotions to $X. It's not merely that the giver doesn't get the same sense of satisfaction from cutting a check as they would from showing up and spending a day building a house or what have you. It's that the values you're demonstrating when you provide time and effort and your actual presence are entirely different. When you can look someone in the eye and shake their hand, you're saying, "I care about this and i care about you and that's why I'm here" in a way you simply can't by wire transfer.

So it's not that I don't get what you're saying. But it's like two entirely different symbols and systems, and you can't just flip a switch and shunt all the power you stir up by activating the Compassion Array into the Cash Demployment Current.
posted by Diablevert at 1:54 PM on March 27


Perhaps a better and a simpler way to say that is that the very fungibility of cash makes it a less effective symbolic medium with which to demonstrate compassion.
posted by Diablevert at 1:57 PM on March 27 [1 favorite]


Yeah, but people aren't perfectly rational economic actors, especially when it comes to their altruism.

Oh, I agree completely -- wanting to lend an actual hand to help people should be lauded. I don't want to be dismissive of people volunteering their time rather than their money, especially considering how many people do neither. All I was getting at was that, if it is a choice of someone looking to spend $x efficiently, there are situations in which wiring cash (to an effective, well-vetted organization) is better and situations where in-person human help is better, and that volunteering in person 'for free' isn't necessarily a no-cost proposition. Aid organizations looking for money are often doing that for entirely non-shady reasons: they really do need money more than help, sometimes. Apologies if that was unclear.
posted by cjelli at 2:06 PM on March 27 [1 favorite]


If the cost of flying someone to Haiti to do work would accomplish less good than spending the same amount of money in Haiti, we're not really talking about people helping with money or without money, we're talking about effectiveness of an identical unit of money

Does this factor in corruption? Sending funds directly would almost certainly be directed to a different island, say an anonymous account in the Grand Caymens. I expect there are NGO's that put up their staff for extended stays at the Occidental is that a better use for funds than a software guy on a working holiday? Don't think there are many clear cut options. Inefficiency is quite established.

The book about the good doctor Paul was an amazing read, and Partners in Health is probably one of the best directions to donate, but it's just not likely that the overall stories will be sunny very soon.
posted by sammyo at 2:26 PM on March 27


If you want to find charities with low overhead costs just look on the internet, but be aware that sometimes you get what you pay for. If you want to fund a large well-run charity with years of experience, good politics, and deep local connections, take a look at the American Friends Service Committee. If you want to support a (very) small relief organization founded and run by Haitian-Americans, look at Haiti155.
If you want to sit around agreeing that nobody can possibly do anything because [cynicism|bourgeois self-hatred], that's a choice too.
posted by jcrcarter at 2:41 PM on March 27 [4 favorites]


Another worthy (although admittedly a for-profit enterprise) is Spiralis Ventures. I know the owner and will attest that she is mostly interested in helping local artists and people through the joy of art.
posted by sfts2 at 2:57 PM on March 27


First do no harm. And then if you see someone else doing harm go over and tell them to knock it off. And then donate cash.
posted by vicx at 2:57 PM on March 27 [1 favorite]


Another thing with volunteers travelling down there to do labor instead of just paying Haitians to do it is that you might bring another strain of cholera in with you, even if it's just something you picked up on an airport layover.
posted by XMLicious at 3:05 PM on March 27


The infrastructure in disaster areas often can't support the people already there, so adding more people to house, supply with clean water and sanitation can be overwhelming. Unless you have disaster response training or civil engineering experience, the most useful thing you can do is support getting those who actually have the needed skills into the area.
posted by figment of my conation at 5:22 PM on March 27 [1 favorite]


There are quite a few decent groups in Haiti by varying standards like local vs foreign, % of aid going to programs etc. and they're not difficult to find online.

If you don't want to do the NGO route, look for Haotian art or other products and buy them at a premium to support local businesses there.

I think the effectiveness of aid in general is a tangent to this thread, but I wanted to add that I strongly disagree with decent conditions for aid workers being a luxury.

Most aid workers are doing a job. They should get to work in decent conditions and be paid fairly by local standards (including for expat talent, by whatever the expat rates are) rather than being expected to sacrifice their financial security for aid. A lot of them turn around and donate to aid in turn, but what you get by refusing to pay a living wage is burned out idealists and people who aren't good enough to be hired anywhere else.

I don't think they should get paid generously and international workers should get pegged to local wages to a degree, but it's shortsighted to prefer a place that pays badly and has little infrastructure because more proportionally goes to the program. People in crisis deserve good well run aid, not cheap leftovers or corrupt but attractively packaged rackets.

Tangential! Buy from Haiti!
posted by viggorlijah at 5:44 PM on March 27 [1 favorite]


I might be willing to pay $400 to fly myself to Haiti. I might not be willing to give $400 to Haiti relief so that $200 of it can go to administration, and $100 can go to ads about the situation in Haiti and $50 can go to support staff who will give $5 of it to Haitians actually doing something.

But what will you do when you get there? Even if you have specialized, relevant skills, you won't be terribly effective wandering around on your own. Directing you to a project, coordinating your efforts with those of others, at least attempting to provide supplies and resources for the work as well as housing and food for all of you -- that takes work and spending, otherwise known as administration.

Give money, even if it's just a little. Definitely do your due diligence as far as how the money is spent. (Partners in Health, mentioned above, does amazing work with not a lot of overhead--far less than what you mentioned.)

But just buying a plane ticket and showing up will never, ever be the most effective use of your money. Because it's really not about you.
posted by dogrose at 6:48 PM on March 27


I'm not suggesting you buy a ticket and just blunder around. I don't feel like posting a resume, but I can/have/do build houses from scratch. But I'm not playing measure-my-badass-coolness here, I'm saying that the problem is that people who DO have skills and abilities that would translate can't help unless they give money. This is not some kind of I-am-so-great-because-I'm-helping thing. There are considerations beyond that for some people, believe it or not. What I'm saying is that some people have something to give beyond money and we have evolved into a culture where --no matter how helpful you can be, and how much you want to help-- cash is the only thing we are allowed to offer. And I'm not a cash guy.
posted by umberto at 6:58 PM on March 27


Why is so much of this thread about us and what will or won't make us feel better?
posted by BillW at 7:24 PM on March 27 [3 favorites]


Since people are talking about projects in Haiti: I have a Haitian friend who started an orphanage with his mother after the Earthquake. It started out with them taking in some kids whose parents died, and now they have a dozen children. They are doing very good work and I can attest that there is basically no overhead. Feel free to memail me if you'd like to help.
posted by lunasol at 8:25 PM on March 27 [1 favorite]


Why is so much of this thread about us and what will or won't make us feel better?

Because that ultimately is what volunteered charity is about. That's why people towards the left want government to dispassionately hand out out money instead of relying on individual people to do it.
posted by codswallop at 9:24 PM on March 27


What I'm saying is that some people have something to give beyond money and we have evolved into a culture where --no matter how helpful you can be, and how much you want to help-- cash is the only thing we are allowed to offer. And I'm not a cash guy.

posted by umberto


I don't think it's culture so much as "that's just the reality of it" - getting people in and out on a short term basis (a few weeks / months) is very expensive in terms of training, admin, and just getting them up to speed doing work in an unfamiliar environment. Turnover costs for entry level employees (earning in the $50,000 range) are the lowest and are still estimated at around 30% of annual salary, or equivalent to a 3 months "learning and transition period" before they start fully contributing what their pay grade is worth.

What the charity organizations need are people who sign on to do long term work (several years) as people who come in for less than 4 months end up "costing" them more than the useful work they provide.
posted by xdvesper at 10:12 PM on March 27 [1 favorite]


Haitians can build a house from scratch just fine, and they need the jobs more.
posted by save alive nothing that breatheth at 11:03 PM on March 27 [2 favorites]


I recently returned from an experience that could be described as voluntourism. This was my third experience with this organization. I know it would have been more efficient if I hadn't paid to buy myself a plane ticket, a visa, hotel rooms, etc. and just written a check to the organization. And I've written plenty of checks. But on this particular occasion, I wanted to meet the people to whom my money would be going. I wanted to see how they live and what their needs are. And I wanted to work with them.

When I donate to an organization, I get something in return. I don't think that acknowledging that relationship makes me a bad person. Sometimes I get warm-fuzzies from supporting a cause I believe in, sometimes I get to feel good about donating to Planned Parenthood after being harassed by pro-lifers. Volunteering is similar - I always get something in return. I occasionally volunteer at the animal rescue because I love animals but I also want to pet some dogs. I like volunteering with Habitat for Humanity because I spend a ton of time in an office so doing physical labor and knowing that the tiny amount of work I do is going to be a part of someone's home where they will live is super rewarding for me.

I think that I benefited more from volunteering abroad than the people on whose behalf I was volunteering but they also benefited, and not just from the money or my labor. They weren't just extras in the movie where I learn about myself and other cultures. When I volunteered with this group in Egypt, a woman said that she needed people to help her with her home but when she saw that we were Americans, she said she didn't want us in her home. After a few days of working in the community, she invited some volunteers in and they helped her with her home. I don't think that kind of thing would have happened if we had all banded together and just sent money. Plus I think that, now that I can tell my friends and family how poor people in this area are, they are more likely to donate to help them out too. That wouldn't happen if I had just sent a check.

After the first time I volunteered abroad, someone commented, great, so you put some poor guy in that country out of a job and I thought, no, that guy was there with me, showing me how to do my job, laughing with me when I goofed up the first few times and working alongside me once I figured out how to do it on my own.

Telling people to just send money is understandable. Volunteering abroad isn't for everyone. But volunteering and donating money aren't just about the beneficiaries. I think it's a fallacy to suggest otherwise.
posted by kat518 at 7:36 AM on March 28 [2 favorites]


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