I have spent a lot of times on planes over the last few months. My favorite part of every flight is the first time I see the new country I’ll be visiting. There’s something incredible about catching a glimpse of a new place through the clouds as the plane starts to descend. Haiti was no different. As the blue Atlantic gave way to a mountainous island, I could feel the familiar thrill of seeing somewhere new. Here’s the thing though, what do you think when you think of Haiti? What’s the first thing that comes to mind? As we were landing, I couldn’t help but think I was landing in the poorest country in the Western hemisphere. I thought of corrupt governments and foreign interventions and devastating earthquakes as the song “We are the World” played in my head.
Haiti is a poor country. It was devastated by an earthquake four years ago today. Many Haitians have suffered and continue to suffer in a way that no person should have to. But, that’s not all Haiti is. It is stunningly beautiful. It has a wonderfully kind and welcoming people. It has a long and complicated history, but that does not diminish the pride heard when one says, “I’m Haitian.” Haiti does not need our sympathy. It doesn’t need our pity. Recovery and rebuilding are time consuming processes the outside world should see as an opportunity to build relationships, not dependency. In our haste to intervene and improve, we undermine this country’s ability to change for the better on its own.
Earlier this week, I was riding through Port-au-Prince after visiting an incredible organization that is working to employ Haitians, not simply pass out charity. As we made our way through town, sometimes on smooth, paved roads, sometimes bouncing along gravel and dirt, I watched the city pass by my car window. We passed the U.S. Embassy, an enormous building that towers over all other structures in the area. After that, we were passed by several UN trucks, the blue helmets of the police peeping out of the back. Next, a Red Cross vehicle rolled by. Then, a Doctors Without Borders van passed us.
I did not write this blog post to criticize foreign aid organizations. I admire the work that they do and the assistance they provide. If I’m fortunate enough to go to medical school, I’m interested in working with Doctors Without Borders, or an organization similar to it. But, in that moment, I wasn’t filled with the familiar warm fuzzy feelings of seeing these organizations on the ground and in action. Instead, I wondered what it would be like to watch these vehicles roll through the streets of Summerville or Spartanburg. I wondered how I would feel if the rest of the world assumed my country couldn’t function without their presence. I thought about what it would be like to see these trucks every day, not just on posters and commercials, but on my walk to school or home from work.
I’m not denying the important work all of these organizations have done. Countless lives have been saved because of their presence. I’m thankful for the men and women who have left their families and the comforts of home to come here and help create change. I just don’t think we should be so distracted by the organizations at work here that we forget to see Haiti. Yes, Haiti’s political history is filled with corruption and leaders who let personal interests cloud their judgment. Only 50% of Haitian children have the financial means to attend school. Many people lack access to clean water. But, that can not be the only thing we see when we look at Haiti. We can’t continue focusing on the flaws and failures. (And, let’s be honest for a minute, we all have flaws and we’ve all failed at some point or other.) We can’t assume we have all the answers. Rather, we can recognize the importance of working together and seeing the strengths of others.We can work with the dedicated Haitians who are already working to make this country better. Before we reach for pity or sympathy, before we pull out our checkbooks to support a “starving Haitian orphan”, we can remember that Haiti is not simply statistics and failures. It is a country with people just like you and me. It’s filled with moms and dads who want to send their kids to school. It’s filled with kids who one day want to grow up, but who are happy today being kids. It’s filled with churches where people come for worship and comfort. Sure, there are complicated problems to be worked out. Yes, there are years of hard work ahead. But, if we start out focusing on all of the things that have gone wrong in the past, how do we expect anybody to do better in the future?