When Non-Haitians Ask How They Can Help Haiti

Since the 2010 earthquake, I’ve been invited to sing at a fairly large number of Haiti fundraisers. They all go something like this: banquets full of Haitian food, projected slide shows of Haitian children playing in dusty clothes, and many concerned white faces. After all of the tragic news they’ve heard about Haiti, the humanitarian in them tugs at their heart strings and leads them to this gala ready to write a check. I perform my songs, and sit quietly enjoying a glass of wine (or two) until it is time to leave. The person who runs the organization hosting the fundraiser goes up and gives a heartfelt speech about what inspired them to start this initiative. This person is usually a Haitian American trying to do their part in rebuilding Haiti, searching to strengthen their connection to a country they either left a long time ago or never had the chance to live in. A Q&A session usually ensues, and almost every time one American asks, “what can I do to be more involved in Haiti? How can I help Haiti?”

Let us stop giving this kind of advice.

The answers vary, but most carry the same basic theme of urgency and desperation that Haiti needs any form of charity you have to offer. One Haitian American man at a fundraiser I performed at in 2014 told a group of American college students: “Haiti needs everything. You name it, we need help with it. If you know how to do something, anything, just come do it.” I’ve heard these speeches many times before, they are well-intentioned, but more often than not are  filled with outdated statistics and broad generalizations.

I beg you, my friends, let us stop giving this kind of advice. This kind of advice is counterproductive, and it points to the many issues with how the diaspora interacts with Haiti. The diaspora tends to forget to listen to Haiti, we often  forget that we are not always the best mouthpiece as we are no longer on the ground. We fail to research and work with Haitians in Haiti who are already working, work we could be amplifying with our resources. (But that’s a topic for another day.) 

Many people who ask are looking for guidance on what charities to donate to, or where to sign up for a volunteer or mission trip. But what about the people who aren’t interested in going the voluntourism route? What about those who are leery of the missionary approach to aid, the folks who don’t believe that donating to charity is effective? What about the people who have a healthy dose of cynicism who are justifiably skeptical of the names of large organizations like the Red Cross? Many times when Black people, or other people of color, speak to me of their interest in Haiti, they speak about their admiration for the history, the legacy of 1804. One Black American man proudly showed me his collection of literature on Dessalines, who he spoke so highly of, alongside other books about Black liberation. He loved Haiti and what Haiti represents, although he had never been there, but had no clue which avenues to go through to show support for our people. Someone like him isn’t going to join a mission trip to help an orphanage funded by a church of do-gooders in Iowa.

I have served as an interpreter for a few medical mission trips, one in particular started with a young evangelical man from Texas telling me “On the trip over here, I could see the immense spiritual warfare just by looking in the eyes of the people of Cap Haitian. Satan was everywhere.” That was my last mission trip.

So, what do you answer when non-Haitians ask you this question? I asked France Francois, travel blogger and international development professional, what advice she has for someone considering helping Haiti via the typical mission trip model or “voluntourism”:

My knee-jerk reaction to the question of what one should consider before going on a mission trip is “don’t go”. Missionary work is often tied to colonial and imperialistic beliefs about the inferiority of non-Western based religions and the supposed benevolence of white saviors. However, it also contributes to the socioeconomic decline of a country, rather than its advancement.

Secondly, if one feels so inclined to “help Haiti”,  I’d stress the need to ensure that you have a skill set that fills a gap within the local community. Take the time to find out if there is a Haitian who could do the job better than you, or someone you could train to keep that skill-set in the country. Haiti has plenty of doctors and engineers that could complete a project for far less than hiring a European, Canadian, or American. However, if you have a specific skill set or specialty that is currently lacking in Haiti, then you can make a reasonable contribution to bettering the lives of Haitians by passing those skills along through teaching and apprenticeships. Your contribution to Haiti must be selfless in that it betters Haiti for generations to come, not just pads your resume and your social media albums.

Your contribution to Haiti must be selfless in that it betters Haiti for generations to come, not just pads your resume and your social media albums.

The question “how can I help Haiti?” is clearly a tough one to answer. Especially since many of the established methods of helping Haiti have proven to be ineffective, or demeaning, or harmful, or racist, or all of the above. I guess there isn’t one correct answer to the question at hand, but the one I’ve chosen to go with is: read Woy Magazine, and recommend it to your friends. Ok, not really. (Although, that isn’t the worst advice you could give.)

To people who have Haiti on their heart, but don’t wish to fund questionable charitable initiatives, the ones who are inspired by Haiti’s history, the ones outraged by the often unfair reputation Haiti has gotten, I say: demystify Haiti for yourself. Read about Haiti, read about Haiti from the perspective of Haitians. Visit Haiti, eat some griyo. Visit La Citadelle and see the wonder that a newly freed country of former slaves built to keep their colonizers out. Visit the sites where that Haitian history that fascinates you so actually happened. Go and see the good and the bad, the ugly and the beautiful, figure out which things you’ve heard about Haiti is simply a bad rap and which are actually warranted. Without minimizing the very real problems facing Haitians everyday, learn to separate the reality from the hyperbole.  All in all, I find this response was best summarized by Twitter user @ian_rolf: if you want to help Haiti, “treat it like a normal country.”

If you want to help Haiti, treat it like a normal country.

Is that not how we treat any other thing we find interest in, be it a movement, or person, or a country? If your non-Haitian friends want to help Haiti, it starts by them understanding that they cannot save Haiti, only Haitians can do that. Helping Haiti cannot happen without listening to, knowing, and understanding Haitians, and certainly not through stripping people of their dignity and agency.  If you learn to approach Haiti while shedding the notion of it as simply a dark land of Satan worshipping, kidnapping and disease, and aiding in shifting the paradigm surrounding that, then you are helping. If you want to help Haiti, look at us and truly see us, hear our words and actually listen, help us remind the world we are still fully human.

Addendum: 

I posted this essay before I even knew that a disaster was headed our way. Now is a great opportunity to do some of that listening and understanding I suggested up there. Like I said: “Helping Haiti cannot happen without listening to and understanding Haitians”, and right now many Haitians and people who know and love Haiti are speaking and pointing you in ways you can help us in the context of this emergency. Many are urging for people to donate to local organizations, and which organizations to stay away from. The most important thing is to do your due diligence to research before donating your money to any place. This is a good read up that gives good context about why there are so many warnings around how aid should be handled this time around by Emily Troutman on Aid Works. And if you are looking for suggestions of where to donate, this is a list of local organizations compiled by Haitian writer, Edwidge Danticat.

Nathalie Cerin

Nathalie Cerin is a singer-songwriter, music teacher, blogger and graduate student in Multicultural Education. She likes to think of herself as the class clown all grown up. Nathalie has a deep passion for Haiti and the arts, especially wherever these two topics converge. She is the editor for Woy Magazine.

6 Comments
  1. That would be great Terry Curtis but I would guess, 99 percent of us non Haitians don’t have the money, etc, to buy a home. If one is just a “regular” black american, no special skills per se and is asking from a good place in their heart, what they can do to help their brothers and sisters in Haiti, I’d love to hear. The article is great but sans special skills and all you have is basically modest monetary donation, what can one do?

  2. Always find it hard to judge another person’s heart. Clearer are the actions and words. If someone comes out of concern to help it isn’t always “colonial and imperialistic beliefs” or sense that others are inferior. Sure, some are jerks, but are we throwing the baby out with the bath water. Has there been none that came and really contributed?

    Can’t come right now, but want to help. If you don’t want it, fine. If you do, tell me the ones with a good heart, sincere actions and uplifting works.

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