In today’s digital social media world, it’s very easy to contribute to a whole lot of causes that are claiming to fight poverty. Everywhere there are non-profits and organizations that claim to help people in developing nations – the Red Cross, Samaritan’s Purse, Feed My Starving Children and more. It’s so easy to contribute without thinking critically about where the money is going and if it’s actually making an impact.
As a native Haitian who spent a year working at an innovative non-profit fighting poverty in Haiti, I believe we need to seriously reevaluate how we contribute to eradicating poverty.
First off, we can’t assume that non-profits, even the biggest ones in the world, are using donations properly. Two years ago, NPR found that $500 million in donated funds for Haiti earthquake relief were missing. This is not an isolated incident. Non-government organizations aren’t often transparent about where donated funds go to, partially because we as the donors aren’t that interested. We just want to feel like we’ve done something good.
Our desire to feel good about our contributions goes so far that we sometimes inadvertently hurt the very people we’re supposedly trying to help. This excellent New York Times article shows how volunteer missions trips to do stuff like build homes puts local construction workers out of business and strains the local resources.
Volunteering seems like an admirable way to spend a vacation. Many of us donate money to foreign charities with the hope of making the world a better place. Why not use our skills as well as our wallets? And yet, watching those missionaries make concrete blocks that day in Port-au-Prince, I couldn’t help wondering if their good intentions were misplaced. These people knew nothing about how to construct a building. Collectively they had spent thousands of dollars to fly here to do a job that Haitian bricklayers could have done far more quickly. Imagine how many classrooms might have been built if they had donated that money rather than spending it to fly down themselves. Perhaps those Haitian masons could have found weeks of employment with a decent wage. Instead, at least for several days, they were out of a job.
This type of short-term, self-gratifying contribution is so common that we’ve become immune to it and have lost the ability to see that it’s happening. Instead, we need to partner with local communities to determine their needs, their desires and gauge the resources they already have at their disposal. As the incredible documentary “Poverty, Inc.” demonstrates, the work Westerners often engage in rarely involves the locals in terms of vision-casting, planning and execution. We assume these people are unable to do it themselves, so we must do it for them. It’s demeaning and it perpetuates the cycle of poverty.
What must we do instead? Work with organizations that express an interest in long-term change that involves the local communities and allows them to set the priorities and direction. Consider if the way we’re each contributing is actually helping people, or just making ourselves feel good while furthering their poverty.
That is how to be an enlightened partner to these people.