Sunday, November 8, 2009

Becoming more of a Cynic

There is a heartwarming.. really quite breathtaking story here of a group of 260 Irish volunteers who came down to work in the dust and dreariness of the border town of Ouanminthe to build 200 homes for.. well... 200 families of the perhaps 60/80,000 people who live there.

In order to do this, they had to pay their own way, and sleep on the construction site, the way the Haitian construction workers here sleep inside the building lots of the high rises in Santo Domingo, or the resort hotels. Each volunteer had to raise $5,000 which is no small piece of change.. and amounts to a total of $1,300,000.. bringing the cost per home.. with land to $6,500, which is certainly modest in anyone's book.

So who could object to this act of generosity?

Let me be the first to cast the stone... forgive me, for I am certainly not without sin... it reminds me of the time an old high school friend and I met after college and she asked "do you ever find yourself having a not so liberal thought?"

If you read the article, you will see that first, of course, this is Digicell, which is the number one provider of cell phones in Haiti, so there is a publicity aspect to be gained here. Now they have done a great job of providing phones in Haiti. Prior to their arrival the phone service was abysmal. The Irish guys are a living legend in Haiti because they came down and camped out! No one does that. All the foreigners always stay at the best hotels. Now there are cell phone towers all around Haiti and communication is vastly improved. It has been an enormous service to the country. As long as a person can charge their phone. But electricity is very scare in Haiti.

And what they have not done so far is gotten charging stations in the country side.

So what would have been a really great project, for instance, would have been to take that 1.3 million, put it into a micro finance loan fund for folks to get solar panels which can charge the cell phones, as I saw one industrious young teacher had done. The panel could charge ten phones at a time. From the proceeds, he had paid back his loan, paid his cousin a salary, and paid his uncle for the rent on the little mud and wattle house.........Then the recipients would have had an ongoing source of income and enough money to build their own homes.

I would suggest the radical notion that the mud and wattle construction with the thatched roof which can be seen in parts of Haiti and in Africa is fa superior to the baking heat of concrete blocks with the tin roofs that pass as modern. Give me mud and wattle!!! Just work on a good protective varnish to shield it from the rain. Pine trees yield a very good varnish.

The idea that concrete construction is somehow better housing because it is more modern is just cultural bias and comes from some very good marketing from the part of the concrete industry. I stood next to one prominent Haitian from a large diaspora group and had this same argument over this very house. "But it will come down in a hurricane" He said. "I bet it is over fifty years old, ask them" "Who built it?" "My grandfather's father"

There is a composting toilet project now operational a few miles down the road which perhaps can be incorporated in the next phase of the project

But then, of course, those 260 Irish folks would not have had the soul scrubbing experience of living like the poor which had to be life altering. Even an hour in Ouanaminthe is life altering.

They do a lot of this type of tourism here in the DR. Most of the groups charge about $1000 per person per week to have you go up and build a school or a house or something for the poor. We joke that the poor are sitting under a palm tree playing dominoes and drinking beer while you are doing it. It has led to what we refer to here in the DR as the "da me" culture, the "give me" something.... oh, you poor child who is somehow less than because you are poor, let me the rich white foreigner just give you something. here is a peso, here is a book, here is a xxxxxxxxx. Now the streets of both Santo Domingo and Santiago are filling up with young Haitian children sent to beg. Many of them are trafficked just for that purpose.

Note please that in the article they went to find the poorest of the poor to give the houses to... NOT the ones who had done the most for the community, not the ones who had perhaps struggled and scrimped to send one kid to college in the Capital, not the ones on the top of the heap, but the bottom of the heap.

What lesson does that teach?

Note also in the article that they could not even get the government of Haiti to build an access road. Nor could they evidently get the town of Ouanaminthe to lobby to get an access road. Most likely because they were giving the homes not to the Most deserving, but to the least.

I suggest that they watch a few episodes of the US program of Extreme Makeover where the families are chosen because they are the most deserving, not for their neediness, but for the greatness of their generosity. By the choice of the recipients, the Haven could muster the community heart, their wish to honor their own community leaders, and then the community will see to it that the access road is built and take pride in their community accomplishment.

Now I applaud this effort. And I do not in any way want to discourage this form of radical generosity.. this amazing and impressive hands on effort. Because it really is very, very impressive. And I tip my Obama baseball cap to each and every one of you.

But it has to be more thought out.. For years people, governments, missionaries, and the Haitian diaspora have just been giving ... and giving... and giving...

Clearly that does not work,has not worked, and only teaches people to be better beggars.

So I weep a bit when I read that this doctor was in Ouanaminthe, where the Red Cross Clinic has no supplies and no doctor, and chose to build a concrete house rather than teach first aid.

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