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flawed thinking about haiti

January 26, 2010

The disaster visited upon Haiti this month has elicited visceral responses from the victims of the earthquake, and those seeking to help, and those commenting on both of the first two parties. I offer a  simple plea for the avoidance of "either-or" thinking.

1. Professionals and Volunteers. A catastrophic event inevitably results in a clash between the professionals and the volunteers. The professionals have a knowledge base, access, resources, and a history of involvement. The professionals are essential. There is also, to be sure, a mixed history among some of the professionals (two recent examples would be U.N. peacekeepers in Africa and the Red Cross in New Orleans), and so there is an understandable mistrust of the professionals by some. The volunteers have a passion and a calling. At times the volunteers also have a knowledge base, resources and a history of involvement. Some volunteers were formerly professionals. The ideal outcome, of course, would be a partnership between professionals and volunteers. Obstacles include the human desire for power and control, and questions related to money, which flows toward these events. The most effective professionals know how to utilize the skills and call forth the passions of volunteers. The most effective volunteers also value the role of the professional. In the years to come the resolution of this relationship will be critical in responding to the needs of Haiti.

2. Money and Material Goods. A disaster, natural or man-made, evokes compassion and cries out for justice among people of good will. And so very quickly another question arises: whether to give money or material goods? Institutions will always encourage the giving of money. This allows them to be in control of the mission (and at times this is all to the good); it also prevents them from being the beneficiaries of unnecessary material contributions (anyone involved in disaster relief will recognize what this means---old coats, used shoes, etc.). At some point along the way the money must be converted to material goods---the people of Haiti cannot consume financial resources....they need water, food that is non-perishable and requires little energy to prepare, and medical supplies. And so the question is not really money or material goods, but the wise contribution of material goods, and a sure pathway for those goods to people in need. Some, and I have met more than one in recent days, simply do not entrust their money to agencies and institutions (the debacle of the United Way in 2008-2009 in my own city of Charlotte serves as background for some of this). And it is also true that a person can give money and material goods. One simply needs to make wise decisions about the destination of one's gifts, in order to achieve the greatest good.

3. Mission and Administration. I have heard more than once recently, and have found myself saying this as well, that funds are going to mission and not administration. I want to say a good word for administration. Sam Dixon and Clint Rabb (of the United Methodist Church's General Board of Global Ministries staff who died in the earthquake) in my own denomination were involved in administration, and for the common good. The question is not whether to have administration, but the quality of administration, and the scale of it within the big picture. There simply must be knowledgeable, trustworthy and compassionate people serving in professional roles, in order to insure the right use of charitable gifts and the effective deployment of volunteer labor. Administration makes mission possible.

4. The Quick Fix and The Long Haul. In this world there are, to borrow Ken Callahan's language, "sprinters" and "marathon runners". Both are needed. Some are inspired to make an immediate response, and perhaps a spontaneous gift. Others are more deliberative and rational, and are more comfortable settling in over time. Some are pioneers, wanting to find the quickest pathway to the place of need. Others are settlers; they will enter into the situation once they know it is safe. There are some needs that are met with a quick fix (the medical images here are obvious)-there are those who have a strong desire to be in Haiti, right now, and this impulse flows from a variety of motives; there are other needs that can only be met over time---here I think of the work of Paul Farmer, and his comment, in Tracy Kidder's Mountains Beyond Mountains, about "the long defeat" (a phrase borrowed from Tolkien).

Much of our thinking about a tragedy like Haiti suffers from flawed thinking. It is does not have to be "either-or"; it might be "both-and".

I welcome your thoughts, as we move into a new and different future with our brothers and sisters in Haiti.


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