Calculating Priorities


1) Sometimes I use this blog to write well thought out interpretations on international social issues affecting human beings that I deeply care about. Other times I just use it to vent my frustrations typing like angry finger diarrhea. This may be one of those times. These sort of posts have had a history of being unpopular with certain readers, so I’m putting a disclaimer on this one from the beginning so if you want, you have a chance to turn back now.

2) I’m going to use the second person pronoun “you” a lot in this one, because I see no other way. I have tried to stay away from that pronoun for awhile, but in this case, I’m going to have to use it. So, if you feel in some way personally implicated in what I’m saying because of that pronoun, then I can tell you nothing else than to honestly analyze your own perspectives and actions to see if you are truly guilty of the things I may be complaining about.

3) Also, I usually try to leave my organization out of my posts here on this blog because I don’t want my personal opinions to create any liability for the organization that I work for and most of the things that I write about apply to a much broader system of aid and help. But my particular frustrations inspiring this post have a direct relationship to one of our programs and I will probably be citing some figures and examples from that program. This does not mean that any of the opinions shared reflect in any way the official position of the organization or the program.

4) For the record, and for anyone who may be reading for the first time, I am pro short term mission team and pro individual volunteer. Pro smart short term mission team and pro smart individual volunteer.

Okay, that being said…

I have been doing some math lately. Anyone who knows me knows that that’s dangerous territory. As I figure it, the average cost of one American to come spend a week in my community of Mizak on whatever mission they may choose, is $1400. That factors in cost for transportation to get to Haiti as well as in country, plus room and board. And that is calculating for the guest house in my community which is probably the cheapest in the country, especially considering the services they provide. This number does not account for project costs of whatever the person may be doing, this is the dollar amount for their simple presence. $1400. Feel free to try to do it for cheaper. I’m sure it’s possible, but not likely, and certainly not common. Granted, for an international mission trip experience, this is relatively cheap compared to what someone might pay if they decide they’re called to Africa, Asia, or South America. However, for one person, for one week, to my area, I think it’s a safe estimate. $1400.

But here’s another calculation for you. The average cost of one Haitian young adult to attend a university for one year: $1650.

I’m going to make this as simple as possible.  Anyone thinking of taking a short term trip to Haiti to do some sort of good, please ask yourself: IS YOUR ONE WEEK IN HAITI MORE IMPORTANT THAN AN ENTIRE YEAR OF UNIVERSITY EDUCATION FOR ONE HAITIAN YOUNG ADULT?

If you’re having trouble answering that question, then I’ll help you out. What are some the biggest problems facing Haitians today? Here’s a hint: it’s not a lack of foreigners in their country to do mission work. Their biggest problems are: a lack of good local leaders who are educated in fields that can contribute the development of their country. A generation of young Haitians who have lost faith in their country and in their own futures. A culture that’s been diluted by foreign influence and now struggles to find relevance with the youth who will be the only ones left to carry it forward. These are Haiti’s biggest problems.

What’s the solution to these problems? Educating this generation of young adults and encouraging them to believe in their dreams for a better society so that tomorrow they may become the strong, honest, creative leaders that their country needs.

Now, do I need to ask the question again?

The last couple of weeks I have been doing lots of presentations around the Midwest to a variety of different groups: churches, schools, college students, professional associations, civic clubs, etc, to promote the work of my organization, Living Media. Herein lies the source of my frustration; through these presentations I have found a multitude of people interested in coming down to Haiti. At each place I speak there is at least one, if not a whole group of people who are ready to start making plans towards spending that $1400 to come down. And yet, at these same presentations I am promoting LMi’s Sponsor a Dreamer program which enables young Haitians to attend university programs through sponsorship and guides them through mentorship and training. $1650. I have absolutely no difficulty finding people wanting to come down, but it is nearly impossible to find people willing to sponsor a young adult.

Why is it when two different forms of “helping” Haitians cost almost the same amount of money, and one option clearly has much longer lasting effects, do we tend to choose the other one?

Let me put it this way: We have 19 young adults registered in this program right now, and we make it very competitive, accepting only the most talented and most driven applicants. Out of these 19 we have sponsors for 12 so far. However, in the past year there have been at least 175 foreigners who have come to area for less than 2 weeks on some sort of mission trip. Each one of them spent that $1400 to be there and do whatever they did. Some of them have done very good work which I and others in the community have been very grateful for. Others have simply come to check something off their heaven list or add a line to their resume. Whatever the result of their work there, it doesn’t change the fact that there are that many people willing to spend the money to come down while I have to absolutely fight like hell to find a few sponsors for our university students. And, the majority of our sponsors also come on one of those teams. Those who are able to make the sacrifice to do both, I respect highly and consider bright examples of intelligent intervention. But for those who can’t do both, we need to ask the question: which is more important?

In my little community of 17,000 Haitians, I dream of a day when 175 passionate, intelligent children of farmers and market vendors can attend university every year.

I’m not delusional. I know that hardly anyone would ever make that decision to say they won’t travel but just send the money that they would have spent to support a college student instead. Sending a check isn’t near as glamorous as taking the trip. And since the goal of mission work has become the simple glamour of the privileged and not the sustainable development of complex societies of underprivileged populations, then math makes no difference.

So maybe I’ll just quit doing math and keep believing in silly dreams.


  1. I agree with you 100%. I would love to go to Haiti, but I have chosen instead to help one young person there have enough food and and an education. The reward is immeasurable. He and I chat every day through the Internet. Over the past two years, I have taught him English. He has taught me patience, hope, gratitude and the Haitian culture. We both have grown intellectually and spiritually, and will be life-long friends. Jobs are scarce in Haiti, even for the educated, but at least I am helping to give him a chance for success on some level. I don’t think one week of volunteer work would come close to doing that, unless I was a doctor saving lives. Thank you for sharing. I always look forward to your posts.

  2. Dream #1 for me/priority= To send a Haitian to be educated which I am working on and will hit my goal hopefully soon.

    Dream #2 for me/ for fun= Have some extra money to go hang out with my dreamer…and my friends in Mizak:)

    ?? Maybe you should make it “all inclusive”….for $3,500 you can sponsor a dreamer and take a vacation to Mizak….haha That way they can impower Mizak by sponsoring a dreamer and also hang out with their dreamer at the beach in Jacmel for a long weeekend?? haha j/k…not really…Sad to say, but more people would probably be up for that.

  3. Bravo! Don’t back off on this one Lee.

    Those people who are lining up to buy tickets to go to Haiti to volunteer should do two things instead: 1/ hand their money to programs that directly support Haitians (and DO NOTE those are often few and far between!) like Living Media. and 2/volunteer for something else in their own community, ensuring that that program respects the people it tries to serve.

    It is time we Americans started realizing that much of what we do benefits no one else but ourselves. Maybe one day we will be able to understand that there are people at the end of our so-called “generosity,” are people who often are kinder, smarter, and have better solutions for themselves than we do for them. Unfortunately, so many of our “generous” actions are no more than arrogant acts that look down on others and are simply disrespectful.

    How many books like “Toxic Charities” and your blog must be written before people realize the poor outcomes that result from processes that don’t adequately consider the people on the other end of what should be a conversation and not a monologue? We argue that because it feels good to us, it must be good for the recipient. How sad that the data doesn’t support that.

    Oh Lee, you’ve hit my hot button!

  4. Ok, so now I’m replying to myself….. drinking the kaopectate offered to Lee’s acidic fingers and trying to invoke my own Buddha nature. Mondmwen (the first to respond to Lee’s October 15 blog) is doing the right thing and showing us the right way to provide support for Haitians to lead in their own country. Thank you Mondmwen for teaching us in a peaceful and positive way.

  5. Yes, I travel to Haiti yearly for a week, but my family also sends 5 students to school and has assisted 2 students with medical school. The reason I know Haitians who can and will benefit from these opportunities and the reason we make the effort to make the payments on time and without fail is because we are in personal relationship with people in Haiti. Many of the people who have traveled with me also sponsor students in various locations in Haiti
    When the earthquake hit, people called our church and asked if they could send money to assist with rebuilding and emergency medical care. Why did they call us ? Because they knew we had first hand knowledge about the area and the needs.

    Also, except for the airfare , most of the money we spend goes into the Haitian economy since we hire translators , drivers, cooks, buy local art, and so on. We pay fair salaries/fees as much as possible.

    Do we waste some money? Probably. Do we provide necessary services? We try to. Do we ask what the community desires before we go, Yes. Would the community benefit greatly from the $14,000 we would save by sending the money instead of coming this year. Yes….for one year. But , along with our selfish desires to enjoy for a week what you have had for 5 years , we desire to make long term differences. For this to happen, we need to visit Haiti.

    I imagine that a smart ,college educated individual working in the US could get a job making $40,000 to $50,000 per year, live with family members for less than $20,000 and even with paying taxes , send 12 or more students to university in Haiti. I know very few people who would do this.

    I do know many bright Haitians who could and would run programs offered by long term American workers on the ground in Haiti. Should we discourage all Americans from working in Haiti?

    Complex problems have complex answers. But , I do agree , education is of primary importance for Haitians.

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