What Haiti should teach us

This article appears in the February 2010 issue of The Four Marks as an Op-Ed. For more information on The Four Marks, please click here.

Some time ago The Onion published a story, in its inimitable style, with (roughly) the following headline: “Sudanese warlords lay down weapons and sue for peace after seeing a picture of a Minnesotan high schooler wearing a t-shirt that said ‘Save Darfur’ on it.” If you don’t laugh at that, you probably should stop reading this.

Lampooning the point of “causes” or “awareness” The Onion was gently pointing out a fact that some of us already know: you can’t “care bear stare” a problem away. Being “aware” of worldwide problems is a failure in two respects: 1) You necessarily ignore your own local needs and problems, and 2) You don’t really contribute (because you aren’t really able to) substantive help.

It is a tale as old as time that even though “charity begins at home” we almost never believe or live that. My rather comfortable suburban town of Overland Park, Kansas, situated in affluent Johnson County, has an extraordinary amount of local charities. They include adoption agencies, battered women’s homes, places for runaway kids, food kitchens, homebuilders for low-income families, thrift stores galore, etc. There is any number of causes that you might find fascinating and that would love to have your help. But why don’t we give our time or our talent or our tithe? Because, as one of my friends put it in a comment to a facebook status update on Haiti, “people aren’t dying on the street.”

We are a very generous people in America: our charitable giving is about 2% of our GDP in any given year – more than any other nation. Generosity is blind. It precisely does not count the cost. But, in the wrong situations, generosity can kill. When the victims of concentration camps were first found by Allied soldiers, some of the poor wretched prisoners found death at the hands of the liberators: not by the bayonet, but by the water bottle. The GIs, anxious to help people who looked like husks of humans, gave them all the water and food these poor souls wanted, and these men, who had survived the horrors of these camps, died because their weakened organs couldn’t take the sudden surfeit of nutrition.

The same murder by generosity is going on right now in Haiti, and it is because we are tremendously uninformed as a people. (An aside: I’ve often tried to explain to friends and relatives who live outside the United States that if they lived in a country that was a six-hour flight coast-to-coast, you’d find local and national politics a lot more germane to your lives, especially because the US mainland has never suffered a real military invasion since we have become the nation we are today. We have a big enough country to fill our minds. This isn’t an excuse, just a mitigating explanation on behalf of my countrymen.) All that being said, most people don’t know that Haiti’s corrupt government has prepared it for this situation – or rather, prepared it to be unprepared. The earthquake has destroyed government offices, churches, private homes: it has left no one untouched. But, even had Haiti been hit with half the magnitude of the quake it was hit with, it is likely that the government would still have been powerless to help its people.

The instinct of tender-hearted Americans (remember Katrina? The Tsunami?) is to scream: “For God’s sake, DO something!” More often a nation of action and less one of thought (for better or worse) we’ve often been, in both war and peace, a shoot-first-ask-questions-later type of people. The problem is, Haiti is like that starved concentration camp prisoner. It is severely compromised in its governmental functions, there is basically no infrastructure, and there are dead everywhere. The 24-hour media, with no dead Michael Jacksons to talk about, excitedly rushes to the scene to send home scenes of horror, hour after hour after hour. Americans are rushing to donate in every way possible and yet we will likely help to cripple Haiti for decades to come, not because we aren’t generous, but because we are so clumsy with that generosity.

Americans, because they are mostly ignorant of the rest of the world and its politics and policies, don’t realize that in simply pouring in money (because that solves everything! Check out the bonuses paid at Goldman Sachs with our money!), we may be opening up all sorts of opportunities for the unscrupulous, who have already proven themselves quite capable of making Haiti completely unable to respond to a disaster. Even if I felt like I could somehow exonerate my fellow countrymen for this error in judgment, the 2004 Hurricane Katrina disaster would condemn them.

That disaster happened on our own soil (read Douglas Brinkley’s masterful The Great Deluge or watch Spike Lee’s When the Levees Broke if you want to know what really happened before, during, and after). We had FEMA, the National Guard, Coast Guard, Navy, Army, Marines, thugs from Blackwater, et al. down there and through various failures of leadership and overloads of generosity, we witnessed the same suffering that is going on now in Haiti. Dead bodies, not lying out on roads, but floating in the water, where bacteria helped metastasize the problem, dominated news coverage. Rampant looting. Murders. Massive fraud happening through the Red Cross and other “charity” organizations that managed to use disaster for personal gain (if you do give money, have the common sense to give to someone other than the Red Cross, who has, in numerous situations around the world, been guilty of waste and fraud. Give it to charities that were there before the quake, and will be there long after the cameras, the Red Cross, and Slick Willy and W are gone). Sometimes “just do something!” is just plain wrong. Sometimes we have to sit, watch, pray, and (get this!) think about what we should do. A country that is never told “No” is utterly confounded by the idea that sometimes, you can’t solve a problem just by sending money, military forces, food, and water. That may indeed solve the problems of today, and of the next 6 months, and of the next year, but it will do very little to help the Haitian people, who likely will have another earthquake in our lifetime, and we will offer the same unthinking help we did this time. It’s hard for denizens of the so-called “indispensable nation” to think that there is actually a problem we can’t solve overnight: heck, you can get a tan in ten minutes; we should certainly be able to solve the problems of Haiti over a 7-10 night cycle of watching Anderson Cooper!

What Americans should remember the most is that Haiti is not like America, where 9 times out of 10, you can trust that where you send your money will be where it will be used, especially in the case of Wall Street bailouts: we know that our money will end up being spent in San Moritz, Davos, and Monte Carlo on wine, women, and song.

Ultimately there’s nothing wrong with contributing to help those in desperate need. I just think those people are a lot closer than the Caribbean. They are next door. They are in your city. And they’d love your help. You owe it to them. First, because you’re going to make a bigger difference in their lives than your donation won’t ever make in Haiti. Secondly, because whether we believe it or not, charity really does begin at home.

Stephen Heiner

Stephen lives in Paris, France. He founded True Restoration in 2006.

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