We all consider helping communities in need. This enthusiasm typically arises during natural disasters. We risk romantisizing how we will benefit a community which we know little about. However sincere, our efforts may not produce the result we imagined.
As new Anthropology students, we are just learning the importance of ethnography. Although foreign relief programs have good intentions, few expose their participants to the practices and beliefs engrained in the community they will visit. As anthropologist Erin Taylor highlights in her article regarding the influx of foreigners in Haiti, the goal of foreign aid workers should not be to reshape society, instead to provide the local government with the resources to lead.
During her time in Haiti, Taylor spoke with Catholic priest, Father Marc. He observed that foreigners in Haiti, can be classified into three groups: missionaries, mercenaries, and misfits. Mercenaries are expat employees residing in developing nations for financial gain. Missionaries “justify their labours on the basis of humanitarian convictions, though these may be at odds with local beliefs” (Taylor). Misfits are unable to function productively within their home countries.
Taylor recalls a group of American missionaries in Haiti wearing T-shirts which stated, “God sent us to save Haiti”. This conviction gives them the false impression that their efforts can save a nation which will always be subject to natural disasters. “Whether such conviction is grounded in religion or any other ideology, it dangerously blinds the believer to being dismissive of local abilities.” (Taylor). Taylor remembers meeting a missionary who builds houses for Haitian citizens. Despite his positive attributes, this man only helped individuals who contributed to his church. “This is not saving Haiti, it is using resources to deliberately engineer the local culture in the image of the foreigner’s beliefs” (Taylor).
In Paul Farmer’s book Haiti After the Earthquake , he writes “more money should be directed to the Haitian government so that it can look after its own people. Corruption may be endemic, but without a budget, the government will never be able to turn itself around. NGOs cannot save Haiti.” (Farmer). Our primary focus should not be on helping, rather supporting others in their initiative to lead their own society.