Wednesday, July 25, 2007

It's the attitude of the "aid" that counts

Among my first friends and neighbors here was a couple- he Swiss- she from Burundi- who had hoped to start a life here together more compatable to them than either of their home countries. They had met when he worked for CARE International in Burundi, fell in love, married, moved to Geneva, where she had spent two years freezing in the climate and the atmosphere.

It didn't work out for them here in the long run, she being as dark as a Haitian was mistaken for one and treated badly. Yet I remember them with fondness and I will always treasure her observation of me "You are the first African I have met outside of Africa!" I have never been to Africa but I was warmed by her welcome.

They talked to me at length on how "aid" was delivered to Africa, the "white" aid workers, with fantastic European salaries, all expenses paid, high living,SUVs and the "Christians" with their Bibles in one hand, food in the other. They shared a general disgust with the entire operation.

It wasn't long before I saw the same thing for myself here. Aid is a business here. The very best job in Haiti and, to some extent here, is with an international NGO. Even though your boss is likely to be a foreigner. The people who direct the big money, like the USAID budget, only stay in the country for four years, sometimes never learning the language,often never interacting with much local input.

Do a search on the blogs on Haiti and you will find hundreds of good Christians, and, really, I have no doubt that many of them are, who are led to help Haiti, and "spread the Gospel". My only concern here is that Haiti has long been "exposed" to the Gospel and yet still appears to hold onto its own religious tradition. Are we to deny them that in order to help them? What if all the medical teams and missionaries who go there were to educate and empower the local shamans, the hougans and mambos, who already have the respect of the people, instead of replacing them with a western model.

It is no wonder that all the "foreign aid" hasn't worked. Here is a recent article in the Washington post by Uzodirnma Iwela who speaks of the predicament in Africa. The discussion in the comment sections is well worth your time.

It might as well be Haiti.

I have a Haitian friend who saw a picture of a young Haitian boy, naked, on a website of one group asking for aid money. He wrote to them saying that he considered it child pornography, and how would they feel if he put a picture of a naked American boy on his website? They apologized and removed the picture.

It is clear that we in the "developed" world have to shift our mindset if we wish to close the global divide between the rich and poor nations. From "us" being the generous benefactors and "them" being the poor, ignorant savages to a new model of development which acknowledges a more mature, equal and respectful reality.

Certainly neither Africa nor Haiti would be in the condition they are in now were it not for the Western slave trade, colonialism, and all subtle and overt forms of imperialism.

What if, for instance, we were to humbly acknowledge that our system of development, of progress, has led the world to the brink of environmental catastophe? That our lifestyles are not sustainable? That we might just have missed a few things along the way?

Nevertheless, I applaud everyone who has a concern for Africa, who cares about the wages being paid to foreign workers, who protests when China censors Google. In America, at least, it isn't easy to even hear anything about the rest of the world, unless we are at war with them.

It isn't our intention, it's the ignorance in our attitude that needs to change.

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