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My parents moved to Haiti when I was six and I grew up surrounded by expatriate missionaries and NGO workers who had dedicated their lives to improving Haiti. They were dedicated to their causes--clean water, reforestation, improved schools and hospitals--and passionate about helping Haitians, but by the time we left, when I was fifteen, I was very aware of how little we had accomplished.
I returned to Haiti this spring after the earthquake to do a week of reporting for "This American Life" (www.thisamericanlife.org/radio-archives/episode/408/island-time). Some of the missionary compounds and NGOs that I remember as a child are still operating in Haiti. Many have left. The missionary hospital where I grew up still saves lives, but many of the decisions are made by foreigners, which breeds frustration and anger.
Smaller, Haitian-run clinics have fewer resources than their foreign-run counterparts and more to lose. If an NGO/missionary organization loses funding or moves on to the next cause, the people from that community are left to figure out what to do next.
My parents, and many of the other missionaries I grew up with, were inspired by their curiosity and by a desire to do good in the world. My father planted trees and living terraces, made friends with peasant farmers and still visits friends in Haiti. He gets frequent emails and phone calls from Haitian friends. Haiti has changed his life. But in terms of what he has accomplished, he is the first to admit that it's been only incremental change.
Americans like success stories and we like to do good in the world. There is a certain seduction to countries--like Haiti--where there is so much that needs to be done. Haiti is a reformer's paradise, but it is also a graveyard of development projects. Growing up as a missionary's daughter taught me that I need to be wary of altruism (in particular, assuming that I know what's best for other countries/cultures). But it also taught me that if we are willing to accept the limitations of cross-cultural development projects--lots of failures followed by, at best, incremental change--the experience has the potential to transform us.
posted 2 years, 9 months ago
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