Volunteering for good

In the March 22 issue of the “New York Times,” Jacob Kushner who reports on foreign aid and immigration in East and central Africa and the Caribbean published an column headlined, “The Voluntourist’s Dilemma.” Kushner recalls encountering a group of older Christians in Haiti on a short term mission trip. These, misguided do-gooders, according to Kushner, were shoveling cement while able bodied Haitians stood by and watched. The Haitians, Kushner recounts, watched with amusement as these well-off Americans who had paid thousands of dollars for the privilege, did mundane construction work.

Indeed, Kushner is right, at least in part. When one flies to Haiti from Miami, the plane is filled with well-meaning “voluntourists” who are going to Haiti to try to do good things with their vacation time. Yes, many of the people on that flight, me included, often do not have the slightest idea how to “do good.” We often do not have any of the skills needed to carry our complex sustainable development projects in a foreign country.

It is hard for Americans especially, to know how to be good neighbors. We like fixing things. We talk about our blessings, but believe we have earned those blessings by our hard work and our exceptionalism. Because we understand that our blessings come with the responsibility to help others, we try to do just that. Unfortunately, often we lack humility when it comes to offering our help.

I know that personally.

I was riding next to my friend Jorel, our Haitian liaison, driver, and interpreter, on market day in Port-au-Prince. There were vendors on every square inch of sidewalk and roadside. Every manner of goods were offered for sale, from baked goods, barbecued chicken, to nuts and bolts, clothing and housewares. Having pitched a tent and sold my goods at art fairs and having worked for more than 25 years in a retail business, I felt some expertise in marketing. I asked Jorel if the vendors really earned enough selling their inventory on the street to make it worth their effort.

Jorel, with typical Haitian grace, good humor and patience, looked me in the eye and said, “If they didn’t, they would do something else!” Duh. Of course they would. Haitians are survivors. They don’t need my “expertise” to tell them how to make ends meet in a subsistence economy. I was humbled.

Seeds of Support, the group I work with in Haiti, works hard to practice a model of “accompaniment.” We strive to develop a long term relationship with the community in which we work. We work beside our Haitian friends. We ask them what it is they would like us to help them with. We listen to their ideas of how things need to be done. Yes, sometimes we dig in the dirt and mix cement. We try to do it with them, not for them. We give them the support they need to continue the work when we get back on the plane and head home. We hire Haitians to oversee the work between our trips. We work with them to plan for sustaining the work into the future.

Kushner seems to think that only those with expertise in international development or those highly skilled in medicine or engineering should attempt mission work. However, since the 2010 earthquake that devastated the island country, millions of dollars have been donated to international aid agencies full of “experts” who told the Haitians they would fix things. The International Red Cross surely has many experts in international development on their staff. Yet, hardly any of the money raised by the organization has produced long term sustainable changes in Haiti. Perhaps those of us who are willing to get our hands dirty, who become friends with the people we work with, who listen to our friends and are willing to work on small scale efforts might make a bigger difference. Our own egos may not be quite as big an impediment to “doing good.”

I would disagree with Kushner that volunteering abroad is only effective if one is an expert in international affairs and public policies. It is important to visit the places we want to help. We need to see others as fellow humans and as neighbors whom we are to love as ourselves. We shouldn’t, however, go just to gawk at others’ desperate poverty so we can come home and feel grateful for our many blessings.

We need to be open to the possibility that the people we meet on our voluntourism might teach us something. We might learn how to survive on nearly nothing and to still be gracious and loving people. They can teach us how to know what is important, and how to say “no problem” to all the other inconveniences along the way.

Yes, the vast amounts of money spent by well-meaning volunteers traveling to Haiti and other developing countries might be better spent on building materials, well digging, school books and teachers. The reality is that unless we have have a personal connection with a place, financial donations tend to dry up.  It is easy to forget about poverty and injustice if the people suffering are simply faces on a news reel. Knowing people’s names and having had them greet you with a kiss on each cheek makes that impossible.