During my study I followed some courses on Latin American literature. One of my favorite stories was a story called “La causa que refresca”, or “the cause that refreshes” by José Miguel Sánchez (Yoss). It is a monologue from the point of view of a young Cuban man. He picks up ladies at the airport to “guide” them around the island. The inevitable happens and the young Cuban and the European tourist share moments of passion intertwined with political, cultural and social discussions. The European is a successful young woman with romantic ideas about socialism en social equity. She feels guilty for what she possesses and helps the (incredibly hot) Cuban guy with material goods he might need. He reassures her that she doesn’t have to feel guilty.
He describes himself as a priest, listening to her sins. She is forgiven for being from the West and he assures her she is not like “the rest of them”. He accepts her penance; her suitcase was full at arrival but is now nearly empty, as is her wallet. He grants her permission to see herself as a freedom fighter, a woman with social conscience and he grants her peace of mind so she can sleep well at night, knowing that she made a difference.
I was reminded of this story when I read an interesting opinion piece on Haiti the other day, written by Isabelle Dupuy, where a similar situation is sketched and the role of the victim and the savior have become confused. Haiti has fallen into a bizarre situation with “more nongovernmental organizations working on its shores than any nation in the world save India, a country a hundred times more populous.” This article left me thinking –and those really are the best articles- about development work and if it is ever really wrong… As she put it, “No doubt it is a good thing that so many people are willing to go to Haiti to help. And help and relief is all outsiders can do. Only Haitians can save their country.”
I must admit I too feel a great urge to make myself useful somehow for “the Third World” and I have my brains working overtime to find a way to avoid the hypocrisy sketched above. But in the end I will always be the rich idealist buying off my guilt, seeking “redemption with a tan”, as Dupuy puts it.
The real question that must then be asked, is what kind of aid is really useful on the long run? And which kind might actually do more harm than good? It is very evident that aid can have a paralyzing effect on the people it aims to help forward. As said in the article, Haitians “have become professional beggars, stretching out [their] hands and showing [their] wounds to these saviors from fortunate lands”. So, mustn’t we teach them how to fish, instead of handing them over the fish, as the proverb suggests? In the specific case of Haiti I think we might be handing out fishing rods, nets, cod, canned tuna and ready to eat sushi, all at once.
Try telling people that their help is not right, though. Tell the community groups that raised money, through garden sales and sponsored runs, that what they did was wrong and that they shouldn’t feel good about themselves at all. That their help is just getting in the way of the people that REALLY want to help… It’s a message nobody really wants to deliver and to be honest, I’m not sure if I am ready to admit my help isn’t good enough either. Next time I run into a collector of donations in the street, I will probably give him my spare change, just to get a quick fix of absolution. I might not even know if I am sponsoring a fish or a rod or an ansjovis pizza. But I will go to sleep with a smile on my face, knowing that I did something to help. Mea Culpa.