There is an old saying, "Give a man a fish, feed him for a day. Teach a man to fish, feed him for a lifetime." Though there is much truth in this statement, reality is more complex. Does the man want to learn to fish? (Is coercion involved?) What will he teach us-is the relationship reciprocal, in that each culture is assumed to have something of value to contribute to the other? On a government scale, helping is often called development. When we talk about development, is there built into the word an assumption that they should be more like us? And finally, if we decide to help, what will be the unforeseen side effects (overpopulation, ecosystem destruction, exploitation) that call into question our decision?
As we begin looking at these questions, it is worthwhile to see what anthropologists and sociologists have to say. They have identified four main approaches for those attempting to help others:
If you decide on trying to help, from where does legitimacy come for your efforts? Do you represent a group of people, especially the ones you seek to help? What is your value system? Is it in agreement with those you seek to help or are you trying to impose a different one? Are you effective, or mainly making yourself feel good while wasting resources and potentially harming worthwhile projects? Are you empowering others or glorifying yourself? Why are your trying to help in the first place? Your own neurotic need to feel worthy? An addictive personality trait that compels you? A sense of shared humanity?
This trip is an educational trip, not a helping trip. But for many of you, a desire to help may follow. Be honest with yourself. Examine your motives. Think about the implications of what you want to do. Good will is nice but not sufficient-anyone who has studied families of alcoholics knows that. You and I are not the experts on life in Haiti-the Haitians are. We are going there to learn from them. Afterward, we will examine what we may choose to contribute. First, we need to be open to their reality.
This was written for students planning to travel with me to Haiti.