A growing number of travelers are volunteering on their vacations, but they sometimes end up doing more harm than good. DORINDA ELLIOTT report builds a house in Haiti and reports on the rewards—and risks—of lending a hand away from home
By DORINDA ELLIOTT
FEBRUARY 2013 ISSUE
OLINE CASTEL, who has short dreadlocks and wears a dusty skirt that she has to hold up because the waist is ripped, keeps thanking me for helping her build the house she hopes to move into in a few months. “God bless you,” she says in Creole. “You are wonderful people. Thank you for remembering us.” And then, in English: “I love you.”
Since the massive earthquake that hit Haiti in January 2010, killing many of her friends and neighbors and more than 250,000 others across the country, Castel has lived in a sweltering tent—every time it rains, water pours through the roof and turns the floor to mud. I am sifting gravel under a broiling sun in Léogâne, 20 miles west of Port-au-Prince, with 11 other American volunteers. We are under the auspices of the Fuller Center for Housing’s Global Builders project, which constructs homes for the needy. (Its founder, Millard Fuller, established Habitat for Humanity.) Each of us has paid $950, $400 of which pays for building materials and a Haitian construction team, with the rest going toward our food and dorm accommodations. Working with Grace International, a Haitian Baptist nonprofit, Fuller has helped build 13 two-family homes.
After the earthquake, Grace, which runs orphanages, a home for widows, a school, and a clinic, suddenly had 23,000 people living in tents on its grounds. Overnight—and unwittingly—it became an emergency aid organization. Fuller says that it will build 64 houses here and that the families who will live in them will all come from the tent camp.
Our Fuller group leader arrives with photos of us volunteers and the Haitians, who are now crowding round to catch a glimpse of themselves. Edith, another prospective homeowner, jumps to her feet, waving a photograph in the air: “Les blans, les blans!” (Blan, Creole for white, is how Haitians refer to foreigners.) “The foreigners have come!” she chants, hopping from one foot to another, then skipping off to show her friends.
It’s a heartwarming scene. And yet…
I’m uncomfortable. I tell Castel she doesn’t need to keep thanking me. I speak French, but the other volunteers communicate only through smiles and sign language, underscoring my sense that we are alien angels swooping in to help. I am embarrassed that my work is so negligible: I sift sand at half the speed of the Haitians, and my hammering skills are laughable. Wouldn’t it be better, I wonder, if we had just sent money so Grace could hire an all-Haitian crew to build these houses? Aren’t we perpetuating the “white man coming to save us” dependency that has characterized Haiti’s relationship with America ever since the United States occupied the country in 1915? (The occupation ended in 1934, but the United States, for better or worse, has been deeply involved in Haiti ever since.)
A YEAR AGO, when I came to Haiti to take a look at post-earthquake recovery efforts, the country was still in crisis mode. Mountains of rubble and garbage filled the capital’s dusty streets. Downtown Port-au-Prince had become a wasteland inhabited by poor people still living in filthy, unsafe tent camps, while the big NGOs and the UN operated across town, near the airport, and the rich—as always—looked down on it all from the leafy, relative comfort of Pétion-Ville, up on the hill.
Humanitarian workers at local NGOs complained about how little had been done, despite the $15 billion that had been pledged by foreign governments and organizations. By some counts, more than 15,000 international NGOs had flocked to Haiti, yet it was hard for me to see much positive change.
A year later, I still wanted to help. I had heard aid workers grumbling disdainfully about what they called the “matching-T-shirt brigades” of condescending and insensitive volunteers, often Christian groups, pouring in to spend a week at a time “working” in orphanages, building homes, and handing out Bibles—but making little real difference.
Voluntourism has become a global business, fueled by a growing desire among travelers to take meaningful trips and try to do some good. Scores of companies offer travelers the opportunity to do everything from count and monitor wildlife to teach in schools. As voluntourism has taken off, experts have started questioning its merits—even suggesting that volunteering can cause more harm than good. “To be honest, I have never really felt like I truly helped anyone,” says Alexia Nestora, a former employee of the voluntourism company I-to-I, who blogs as Voluntourism Gal. She adds that voluntourism can be a good thing if you go in knowing that you aren’t going to “save” anybody.
Real development, beyond delivering emergency supplies, requires a deep understanding of culture and issues on the ground, which big international organizations often lack. So how, I wondered, can travelers help? I decided to return to Haiti to see for myself what difference volunteering could make. On my flight down, I bumped into one of the matching-T-shirt groups I’d heard about, young people from a church in Georgia dressed in red shirts emblazoned with the words helping haiti. “Do you think we’ll see any of that creepy voodoo stuff and satanism?” I heard one of them ask.
THERE IS NO QUESTION about whether the doctors and volunteers who flew into Haiti right after the earthquake helped. They did. But there are big questions about where the international aid has gone and how to truly promote long-term development and poverty relief. A year after the earthquake, less than half the money had even been disbursed, according to Ben Smilowitz, founder of the Disaster Accountability Project, largely because of concerns about Haiti’s corruption and unstable government. Much of the money that did come in has funded short-term relief—food, medical care, drinking water—as well as NGO offices, cars, and staff. Unlike Haitian organizations like Grace, the international aid outfits had to build from the ground up, which was expensive.
Bouncing along on a motorcycle taxi past gutters lined with muddy garbage, I can see that the city is coming back to life. Ti machann—women merchants in worn, baggy dresses—squat along the sidewalks selling daily necessities, from used clothing hanging from electrical wires to hair clips and bows, batteries and crackers. Bulldozers are clearing away rubble. But across Haiti, almost half a million people are still living in tent camps. They are stuck in hell. So building houses is a good thing.
At the Grace/Fuller project, though, I am wrestling with the subtle social implications of volunteering. I am heartened by the fact that the Haitian homeowners and we Americans are working side by side. But to my alarm, I learn that the construction work stops each time the Americans depart because of lack of funds—leaving the Haitians waiting around until another group of “saviors” arrives.
Sifting gravel is one of the easier jobs at the Grace/Fuller Center project in Léogâne, Haiti, where American volunteers work alongside future homeowners.
I am also troubled by the criteria for choosing which lucky families get to live in the new homes. Jonny Jeune, the project manager and son of Grace’s founder, says they were recommended by the committee running the tent camp and that these families are “progressive,” explaining that “they have a chance of building successful lives.” Doesn’t this contribute to jealousy? I ask. The homeowners admit that they worry about security and the anger of homeless people across the way. They have asked the builders to seal their transoms—to keep not only spirits from creeping in during the night, but also robbers. Haitian NGO workers I talk to later roll their eyes, saying the project is exacerbating social divisions.
And there are other issues at the tent camp. More than a year ago, Grace hired security guards and started making plans to shut it down. Refugees have filed a lawsuit, accusing Grace of intimidating and harassing them. Jeune admits to an unfortunate reality: The nonprofit wants the land back so its school and clinic can start functioning normally again. Fuller is aware of the situation but has decided that the project is still worth supporting. “This kind of situation is playing out all across Haiti,” says Ryan Lafigliola, director of Fuller’s field operations. “This may not be perfect, but at least we feel like we are making real progress.”
After an exhausting day, we all climb into a van and head back to our dorm, where I ask the others, over beers and peanut M&Ms somebody brought from home, why they are here. Many of them, it turns out, go on Habitat or Fuller “builds” all over the world several times a year. “Look, I have been blessed. I have a great job and a nice house,” says Kaye Hooker, the team leader. “I’m here because there are so many people in the world who can’t even meet their basic needs.” Adds John Stanford, a retired heart surgeon: “I’d rather practice my hammer stroke than my golf stroke.”
These are kind, generous people. So why do I feel uncomfortable? Something is nagging at me, but I can’t quite put my finger on it.
I learn much more valuable lessons on my trip to Haiti than how to handle a hammer or sift gravel: I learn the surprising amount of damage that can be done with the very best of intentions.
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