If you plan to criticize the good intended efforts of others attempting to bring help to the world, then you have to be prepared to also answer this question which gets asked time and again. The logic being, “Well if everyone going there just seems to screw things up more, then why should anyone go at all?” It’s a question that I’ve been asked more times than I can remember, including right here on this blog, and it came up again this past week while attending the Indy Convergence in Indianapolis while one of the artists, a good friend of mine, gave a presentation on his experiences in Haiti and how he saw artists being able to contribute positively to community development there. That meant, however, also demonstrating how he saw many others contributing negatively, from food aid to orphanages, from churches to politics, and more. He gave very clear examples from what he witnessed himself and from history to illuminate the downfalls of some of these systems intended to help Haiti, but then the inevitable question was raised, “Then why go at all?” The question tripped up the presenter a bit as he struggled to find a really appropriate response. He admitted knowing people who had gone to Haiti and spent years trying to help only to give up in the end with the same defeated attitude of not seeing the reason to have even tried in the first place. I know those people too and have even been in danger of becoming one myself in the past.
And yet, I’ve chosen to stay. And this fact has helped me know how to answer the question, for myself at least. And my conclusion is this, if your reason for traveling to Haiti involves “helping” then you probably shouldn’t go at all. Helping should never be a reason for traveling or going to work with any specific group of people. Helping should simply be something that you do in the process of living because you’re a human being and we all need each other no matter where we find ourselves at any moment. People should go to Haiti, but go because you want to go. Go because you want to experience everything beautiful, unique, and exciting that the place and the culture has to offer. Then, if in the process you encounter the opportunity to lend someone a helping hand with your personal skills, then do it just because you have a heart that’s not finished beating. But don’t make help your reason for going. If helping was the only reason to go, then no one should go at all because that’s worked out so miserably historically. The fact is that if Haiti suddenly closed its borders to anyone who’s not a Haitian citizen, the country would not cease to exist. It wouldn’t disintegrate into the Caribbean leaving the Dominican Republic as a lonely island, although the DR might prefer it that way. Foreigners are not the glue holding Haiti together. In fact, the ones that are successful at their involvement in Haiti are the ones that either get woven completely into the fabric of Haiti or experience Haiti without trying to attach at all. The in-between ones are the ones who make things messy. The ones who try to stick their beliefs, and ideas, and perceived solutions to Haiti with wads of chewed up humanitarian, missionary, do-gooder bubble gum.
I want as many people as possible to come to Haiti because it’s worth experiencing and once you experience it you might just want to stick around or keep coming back, and that’s great because it broadens our understanding of each other. But if you are coming to help, the fact is that you can go absolutely anywhere in the world and find a way to help humanity move forward if you want. So don’t make Haiti your experiment in aid just because you heard how poor they were, or read how oppressed they were, or saw how black they were. Please, don’t come to Haiti to help. Come to Haiti, then help.
This might sound strange coming from the director of a nonprofit that ultimately does what it can to help Haitians. And yes, it’s even a nonprofit that accepts outside volunteers to come help us help the Haitians. But I’m always careful not to use this kind of rhetoric when describing what we do because I know the consequences of that word. And truthfully, my perception on the issue has changed a lot over the last few years since starting the organization. I would not have written this blog when I first started Living Media. But I have reached a point now where I can look at my work and my life here and see that the conviction for it all has to come from outside of a notion of helping. It has to be something more raw, more specific, less inflated,and maybe just a little more selfish. It has to be something that you absolutely cannot resist and wouldn’t want to if you tried. The helping one another just comes as a side affect.
My friend at Indy Convergence may not have been able to verbalize his feelings at the moment that he was presented with that question, “Why go at all?” But the answer is something that cannot be easily described. The answer must be felt. It must be lived. He ended up presenting the answer quite eloquently through a artistic sensory performance later in the week entitled, “Doctors, Nurses, Lawyers, Clowns, Musicians, and the previously Inconsolable -Helping Hopeful Haitian Hands Hold Happy Homes Without Borders (Because We Care)” A piece of art that didn’t spend it’s time showing what Haiti needs, but showing what Haiti is. This is what the world needs more of it it wants to know why to go to Haiti at all. Part of the piece featured a motorcycle ride under the stars, which if you’ve ever experienced this for yourself in Haiti, you know why to go. Not because they need your help, but because you need to understand the universe from that perspective in order to more fully live life. A life that demands you interact with other humans, collaborate with other humans, and yes, sometimes even help other humans.