Maria Shriver's Posted Essay from Our Founder on International Development
October 26, 2015
Just hearing the word “Haiti” triggers emotion. Haiti’s pain has been seen and felt across continents and cultures. Even in the midst of more recent tragedy, this island still beckons our attention and our sympathy.
Images of the destruction and despair still appear on the television, online, and in our minds- piles of rubble and waste, children sobbing in the streets in tattered clothing, and droves of missionaries and aid workers sifting through the debris and serving lines of despondent people food and medical treatment.
This is the story of Haiti we have learned and that continues to play on repeat. Passionate and kind people still reach out to help “fix” Haiti. But, despite the immeasurable doles of heartfelt generosity, there seems to be little progress resulting in true development or sustainability for Haiti.
When our organization, Well Aware, was initially asked to help with a water system in Port Au-Prince, my reaction was one of distance and skepticism- not because I did not want to help, but because I wasn’t sure we could. But, I started digging deep into the history of charitable work there, and I became intent on learning even more. I discovered a tragic trend. Reports of billions of dollars in aid were unaccounted for, and the approach to addressing the suffering there was stagnant, not evolving with Haiti’s needs. I realized that, to understand this dynamic from the perspective of Haitians, I had to be there.
So, a few weeks later, and after more careful consideration, my eager team and I were on an airplane to Port Au-Prince.
On the drive to our hotel in Port Au-Prince, we passed something I have never seen before. We were on the highway near the coast, and there were piles of clothes at least 5 feet high- lined up on the side of the road- for a half a mile or more. I asked our driver what was happening, and he explained that these were the “donations” that boats dump into the country.
When I was finally able to spend time speaking in depth with Haitians (their skepticism of me proved deeper than mine of Haiti), it became clear that they are, in fact, discouraged with the state of NGO support there. No, that’s a euphemism. I will say it- they are pissed off.
I was humbled and inspired by my new Haitian friend, Franquis, with whom I had the pleasure of being stuck in Port Au-prince traffic with for a few hours one day. He could not have been kinder to me, and he treated me with the distant respect and submission I was feeling from many of the people I was meeting (a dynamic they both resent and certainly don’t need).
I initiated our conversation about Haiti’s feelings about outside assistance, and he expressed a rehearsed gratitude and looked away while speaking it. I said, “Franquis, you can tell me, I think I might see things differently that most,” He gave me a big smile and said a polite, “Ah, Ok”, followed by silence.
Then I said to him, “I can not begin to image the pain and frustration the people of Haiti must feel about everyone who comes here to say they are helping but they are not. It makes me so angry.’ And, then, he really spoke to me.
To paraphrase, this is what he said (as he looked at me in the eyes in between brief glances at the road), “They say they are here to help, but we do not see it. We see food and shoes like we still have an earthquake. But, people come here and they go home to raise so much money, but no one listens, and we don’t see how it helps.”
On top of the perfect storm that is a horrible history, natural disaster, and political turmoil, most of Western aid being delivered to Haiti is tragically ineffective. My personal feelings aside, and barring strong exceptions, it became evident that most of what is contributed to this country in need is a colossal waste of resources.
It’s an incredible challenge for us (in the U.S) to grasp the dynamic in a country like Haiti- where they are scrambling to be the recipient of continued and damaging “disaster relief” aid but are ashamed and angry that it’s happening to them.
But, I get it. Extreme poverty breeds desperation and corruption. And these “Band-aid” fixes are necessary because they are there. It’s a cycle we need to break.
That’s where organizations like Well Aware can enter the scene and, with respect and sensitivity, make an impact. Any NGO or enterprise can work toward long-term goals and initiate development projects that are the catalyst for permanent change.
We have a call to action for our readers. As global citizens, we invite you to consider working or investing in long-term solutions for communities in need. If there is any development potential at all, we ask that any resources be channeled to sustainable work being done to that end.
- know where your investments are going
- ask for detail on the forecasted impact of your gift
- insist that your contributions be applied to development projects
- please remember to listen, ask questions and think about what every action means for your beneficiaries twenty years from now
- educate your funders on the importance of funding development work
- change your messaging to those following your journey to enable your network to see countries like Hiati and a place of potential, and not a pit of hopeless despair
Thank you for joining us on our crusade to move donations and compassionate efforts towarddevelopment when disaster relief is no longer working a solution.