When Helping Helps (maybe)

They say nothing we learn goes to waste.  In relation to language progress in Creole, I’d say that is true.  Every time I learn a new word I quickly find a use for it.

In the process of memorizing John 3:16 in Creole I learned the word for “eternal” (p’ap janm fini).  At the bank today I needed that word to describe the speed of the tellers: eternally slow. 

Then today I learned the word for daughter (pitit fi).  This evening a neighbor came to our gate asking for help with his sick teenage daughter who needed an operation, something wrong with her stomach.  The cost of the operation was US $70 and could I please help?  He had a stamped paper from the Dr’s office dated from yesterday with both diagnosis and cost listed.  I couldn’t tell, but wondered if the problem was perhaps a ruptured appendix.

People here often make reference to the popular book, “When Helping Hurts”  which lays out the basic premise that handing away free stuff creates unhealthy dependency and should be avoided.  It says our best intentions usually hurt people more than help people, especially when we try solving local problems through doling out cash.

In general, I agree. Nevertheless, each situation is unique, and requires wisdom.

As I listened to the father describe his situation, some advice came to mind I’d recently heard at a seminar here in Haiti.  A long-term missionary said when you move into a new neighborhood, undoubtedly a situation will arise where you are asked to give emergency medical aid to someone in the community.  He added that the manner in which you first respond will set the tone and precedent for all future dealings.  He laid out three options.

The first was to do nothing and turn the person away.  This is arguably the least compassionate response, though does certainly avoid the pitfall of creating unhealthy dependency. Some would argue this option is best for helping in the long run.  The result in reputation is having the neighborhood perceive you as seperate from the local community.  Not to mention a miser, because it’s no secret “white people” are loaded down with money.  I may not perceive myself as rich, but considering I have enough money to fly to and from Haiti at will, I’m far and away richer than the majority of people here.

The second option is to simply give the full amount of cash required.  At face value, this response seems most compassionate and even most Biblical as well.  After all, didn’t Jesus say, “Give to him who asks”?  Nevertheless, this does most certainly set up a patronage relationship.  The result in neighborhood perception is to be viewed as a pushover, a money bags, and worse yet, perhaps even a sucker (if the story wasn’t even legitimate). 

This leaves the third option of helping pay some of the costs.  The long-term missionary I was listening to implied this option is perhaps the best balance between compassionate and culturally appropriate.  It both helps the immediate need while at the same time defusing patronage dynamics.  The reputation hopefully garnered in taking this option is to be seen as one who stands in solidarity with the community, as a part of it.

As you might guess, I decided on option 3, but not before first discussing the situation in private with our Haitian yardman, getting his input into what he thought the validity of the actual need was. 

Giving the man some money, I also told him I felt quite bad about the situation and would be praying for his daughter.  His response was a thankful one and he implied he would ask others for the remainder, telling me that while he had some money of his own he had used it all on the doctors examination and tests. 

Anyways, maybe I did the right thing, hard to say, but I did feel bad because the entire bill was such a small sum ($70) it hurt to not just pay it all. What if he can’t raise the rest of the funds? What if, while he’s out collecting donations from neighbors and friends, his daughter dies of internal bleeding? All because I was following an idealistic principal of what would truly help more? Following a principal that is based, at least in part, on maintaining my own reputation in a certain light within the community?

I wrote this post to help process my own rationale for what’s best, and to get wise input from them what has more experience than myself (them what wants to share it).  I tend to over-analyze everything in life. Both a strength and a weakness. Feel free to comment.