Relief work in Haiti continues at a rapid pace, funded by exceptionally generous governments and donors.
But a growing list of incidents and trends suggests that some benefactors, at least, are being driven by paternalistic impulses, not just humanitarian ones. Givers must not let their own biases or value systems dictate how the aid gets delivered, or who gets it in the first place.
The most sensational example involves religion. Haiti’s supreme master of voodoo, Max Beauvoir, has alleged that evangelical Christians running food distribution have discriminated against voodoo adherents. It is a troubling accusation; voodoo is integral to the lives of many Haitians, with millions of followers. Voodoo is a belief system of African origin with many Christian elements. As well as being a religious practice, it forms part of Haiti’s national identity.
In extreme cases, good intentions can lead to criminal accusations. Ten volunteers from an Idaho-based charity were arrested on suspicion they tried to take 33 Haitian children to the Dominican Republic without authorization. Some of the children are evidently not orphans, but that didn’t deter the volunteers, who wrote that they wanted to help “each child find healing, hope, joy and new life in Christ.”
More facts on these cases are needed. In any case, it is wrong to let questions of religious doctrine drive the aid effort.
There are other less outrageous, but perhaps no less pernicious, examples of paternalism. Some programs that are effective and more likely to be sought by aid recipients are not getting the funding they need. Cash-for-work schemes, championed by Oxfam Canada and the UN’s Development Programme, pay Haitians 150-180 gourds (around $3.75 to $4.50 (U.S.)) a day for the work they are doing anyway: clearing rubble and sorting reusable material. The money gives a measure of dignity to the recipients, and can be used to buy local goods and could connect rural agriculture providers to an urban market, especially with an imminent harvest. A UN-led attempt to raise $41-million for its program to employ 200,000 Haitians has, to date, received only a fifth of that in actual donations.
Similarly, the campaign to cancel Haiti’s debt is a cause célèbre driven more by Western activists than Haiti’s needs. The country will owe only $9-million on its debt interest payments to international donors this year – not nothing, but not something worth spending considerable capital on, when more money can be rallied by other kinds of advocacy efforts.
Haiti is in need. But to service those needs, those delivering aid should listen to Haitians and do what is known to work well, to help them take control of their circumstances. A West-knows-best mentality will assuage no one but the donors.
CTVglobemedia Publishing, Inc
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