28 January 2010

Haiti, Charity, Aid, Life

A few days ago, travel guru Rick Steves posted a blog entry titled “No Aid for Haiti.” He has since taken down the post, saying the removal wasn’t over any sense of political correctness, but rather that the piece was going to be published in a newspaper and he didn’t want to usurp their readers.

I’ve read the original post (it’s still available online by searching for the title phrase), and it really isn’t at all inflammatory. Nor are most of the comments reactionary (in either direction). His post is actually about the culture of “helping,” especially from a Big Brother attitude (my phrase, not Rick’s) so prevalent with governments around the world.

On some levels, I totally agree. Jumping on the Disaster Relief bandwagon every time something goes awry in the world makes us feel good as individuals, yet as individuals our efforts are generally so diluted as to be nearly meaningless (except to our sense of doing good), lost among the vast sums coming from governments and large, established charity organizations. (Many journalists and other observers have felt that all the aid that has been poured into Africa – as an example – simply helps the corrupt governments stay in power and makes the aid organizations feel good about driving around in brand-new white SUVs.)

I’ve contributed to charitable causes throughout my life. I’ve also supported many other types of non-profits with time and contributions. And I’ve settled into a stage in life where I’m not really “cynical” (a word Rick uses in the first paragraph of his piece; saying he’s not cynical, but...), but rather that I’ve come to believe in the “teach-a-man-to-fish” philosophy of help for those less fortunate.

Where this all is going is that while my wife and I have made a few specific contributions toward the relief efforts in Haiti (buying bread from our local baker who was holding a fund-raiser; donating artwork for a Haiti charity auction), we’ve primarily simply added more funding to our Kiva account. Kiva makes loans to people attempting to better their lives. Nearly all of Kiva’s loan recipients repay the loans in full. Then, when our Kiva account balance is refilled, we can designate another loan to another individual. (Kiva’s website – kiva.org – doesn’t even have Haiti information on its front page. It does note that this week alone, the organization made more than $1.2 million in new loans, funding 3,400 new individuals, and that their to-date repayment rate was above 98%. To me this represents sustainable support for the needy.)

This is the kind of ongoing help for others that makes the most sense to me as a form of individual giving. In the past we also supported Heifer International, which purchases farm animals, seed, plants, etc. so people can raise more and better food. Yet to us, while commendable, Heifer still “gives” to others – a subtle difference from “supporting” others. It’s not quite the same as Kiva, which tries to create an environment where the recipients want to succeed and repay their loan and become self-sufficient and self-supporting.

There is no wrong or right way to help other people in need, but for me it’s about making my contributions count. And about helping others obtain a better life – no matter how they define that “better life” nor where in the world they live.

(An aside: I very briefly visited Haiti in the mid 1970s, when Baby Doc was in power. Many homes and businesses had two photos hanging on their walls – weirdly, of Papa Doc and of JFK. The country was a study in contrasts: Ancient women selling coal from donkeys below windows whose shutters displayed posters of blond American models advertising Clairol hair products and Colgate toothpaste. Yes, the poverty was pervasive.)

Malawi Africa, 2007. Photo © Francesca Campbell Hulick