"Haitians have a story about that sculpture," my colleague remarked as he steered our truck through city traffic, past a hollow, wire-frame globe held up by three gargantuan hands. The statue was a welcome diversion from Port-au-Prince's crumbling cinderblock landscape. "They say two hands represent the people, and the third is the hand of the government helping them hold up the world. The fourth hand is missing because it's shoved in the people's pocket."
As a writer, my job is to show my organization's American Christian donors how their money is turning the third world into a better world. There's no question their generosity has impacted lives. But what struck me during my recent trip to Haiti was how the reality has fallen short of expectations. What I saw was that seemingly little had changed in the two years since the 2010 earthquake.
Internally displaced persons camps still littered empty lots, and the white domes of the National Palace still lay where they fell, ripped down by the power of God. A post-apocalyptic gloom hung over the formerly elegant compound where "Mama Doc," the wife of tyrant "Papa Doc" Duvalier, had allegedly refrigerated a room so she could wear her prized fur coats. No surprise the impoverished masses sleeping on the ground and eating "mud cookies" felt no urge to rebuild such decadence.
Caught in bumper-to-bumper traffic, we received a phone call warning of a roadblock up ahead. Roadblocks are Haiti's Occupy Wall Street for the angry unemployed…and anyone else who wants a soapbox. Some weeks prior, a roadblock had been set up by the city police themselves. They'd been protesting the murders of five officers in the country's most notorious slum, Cité Soleil.
Who do you call when the police go anarchist? Apparently U.N. peacekeepers, who postponed their bureaucratic paperwork to uncork the traffic bottleneck.
West of the city, we passed a couple uniforms idling on the porch of a small, rustic police station. My colleague told me how the station had been assaulted by rock-throwing villagers after one-too-many motorists (including himself) had been pulled over and fined for missing a required sticker that doesn't exist.
By all counts, Haiti is a disaster. But in theory, it should be thriving.
We've all heard the utopian promise, "If every person or country would just give "X" amount, we could eradicate (fill in the blank with your favorite humanitarian plight)"? If ever there were a test case for this marketing slogan, it's Haiti.
In 2008 alone, for example, international government aid to Haiti totaled $1.3 billion, while remittances (money sent home from Haitians living abroad) reached $912 million. These numbers don't include the many private charities that have supported schools, hospitals, orphanages, feeding programs and other crucial services. Everywhere you turn, you find the logos of Haiti's generous benefactors printed on tarps and boxes: USAID, Samaritan's Purse, Food for the Poor, etc. I've been told that after the quake, one nongovernmental organization erected a giant banner over the front of a camp where it hadn't even provided any services. Then there is the infinite stream of church mission trips and volunteer workers. These young, idealistic white people keep the hotels and airports in business, even if their crusade to save Haiti hasn't quite panned out.
While in the city, I was also constantly aware of the ubiquitous U.N. presence: the rifle-toting peacekeepers and armored vehicles that have been clogging the capital's arteries ever since the army was disbanded. Unlike regular police, this international force enjoys diplomatic immunity against prosecution for crimes. And unlike the church mission teams, they aren't winning any popularity contests. Right now, the majority of Haitians blame U.N. peacekeepers for carelessly unleashing a brutal cholera epidemic that resulted in thousands of deaths.
I'd be lying if I said no Haitian has ever benefitted from the compassion of a foreign benefactor. I've chronicled the lives of orphans, widows and families who wouldn't be where they are today without a donor's generosity. But when so many bleeding-heart causes bear down on one stubbornly blighted nation the size of Maryland, the distinction between philanthropist and prospector is sometimes blurred.
As I toured the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere, a sense of shame and impropriety haunted me. I didn't belong in the non-profit swarm. Or maybe I belonged too well.
"I feel like a vulture," I confessed to my colleague. Yes, a vulture, claws out, beak poised, competing for the bones of the dead and dying. Asking families to let me photograph their dirt floors and cardboard walls for marketing magic.
"If you feel like a vulture," my colleague replied, "that means you still have a soul."
Maybe cynicism is the natural result of inflated expectations. We begin with a naïve optimism that poverty can be conquered if we just do X, Y, and Z. If the government would just give money. If the churches would just build schools. If we would just endorse regime change. When those expectations aren't met, we fall deeper into cynicism, blaming ourselves, blaming the church, blaming western civilization. The slick marketing campaign loses its luster; and eventually, we stop giving.
But the truth is that change comes slowly, and it comes by God's grace. As Christians, we have our marching orders to love our neighbor and preach the Good News. What we don't have is a guarantee that our neighbor will prosper or that Christ will be received. Haitians are people, not targets in a charity competition. We must allow them the dignity to walk their own path. As much as we desire the ego boost of transforming a shantytown into an idyllic middle class paradise, we should be just as willing to celebrate when one child has a meal to eat.
When I shower praises on my donors for their gifts, I'd also like to tell them, "Your money might not be as important as you think it is." I want to tell them to march forward boldly yet cautiously, hoping big but being grateful for small victories, neither accepting too much credit for the good news or too much blame for the bad.