Toward Wholeness Blog

The quake: shaking our assumptions?

David Brooks excellent article about this week’s quake in Haiti is a must read.  Whether you agree with his diagnosis or not, he shines a light on a problem that absolutely must be addressed:   There is no formulaic relationship between $$ aid and economic development/autonomy.  Haiti is the ongoing recipient of immense investments.  By some estimates, they have the highest per capita ration of NGO’s (nongovernmental organizations, like World Vision) in the world.  In spite of this, Haiti has remained locked in poverty, and it is this poverty that prevents the kind of infrastructure (building codes, sewage systems, access to water, hospitals, schools) from developing.  What do I mean?

  1. The government is not able to provide the resources to educate the nation’s next generation.

  2. The unemployment rate is over 80%.

  3. More than half of Haitians live on less than a dollar a day.

  4. There are few paved roads, an inadequate supply of potable water, minimal utilities, and depleted forests.

  5. About 60% of the population lives in abject poverty.

  6. Less than 20% of Haitians age 15 and over can read and write.

  7. Fewer than 75% of children attend school.

  8. 40% of the Haitian population does not have access to primary health care.

  9. The United Nations estimates 6% of Haitians are infected with HIV/AIDS. The highest rate in the Western Hemisphere. An estimated 30,000 people die of AIDS every year.

  10. One in twenty Haitians is infected with HIV/AIDS and there are over 150,000 AIDS orphans.

When things begin to shake, the underlying social and economic pathologies are revealed, and the devastation is exponentially greater than would be the case, were there adequate infrastructure present.

So why is it that infrastructure doesn’t develop?  And how can we, who are opening our wallets, invest our dollars in the best way to assure that we not only triage the damage, bury the bodies, and provide acute care to those who need it now, but also begin addressing the systemic issues that have kept Haiti stuck for so long?

Brooks declares that beginning with the assumptions that all cultures and beliefs are morally equal is the height of folly.  Ideas have consequences, and the tragedy of Haiti isn’t just that there’s poverty, it’s that the poverty is interwoven with deeply held beliefs and practices.  Until these beliefs change, the poverty will remain.  Brooks says it this way:

In this country, we first tried to tackle poverty by throwing money at it, just as we did abroad. Then we tried microcommunity efforts, just as we did abroad. But the programs that really work involve intrusive paternalism….It’s time to find self-confident local leaders who will create No Excuses countercultures in places like Haiti, surrounding people — maybe just in a neighborhood or a school — with middle-class assumptions, an achievement ethos and tough, measurable demands.

When WWII ended, the German government sent hundreds of young people who’d been raised in the ethos of the Hitler Youth movement, to Capernwray in England for moral re-education.  International Needs is taking a similar strategy in Romania.  This, it seems, is the path in Haiti offering the greatest light.  But such a strategy swims against the popular current that eschews any challenge to another culture’s world view.

We’ll take an offering at our church on January 24th for Haiti as part of the important effort to contribute to the acute crisis of the moment.  But it’s vital that all of us with means think long and hard, not about whether to invest, but about how to invest, so that our investment leads to changed lives and changed cultures, not just handouts.

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