“True charity uplifts, preserving dignity in silence.” –Maimonides
Haiti is sometimes called the land of NGOs. By some estimates, there is a higher density of NGOs in Haiti than any other nation in the world. One might think it a good thing that there are so many Non-Governmental Organizations in the desperately poor country. But the truth is that having so many NGOs is more of a mixed blessing.
Before joining the Mission Lazarus team as the Director of Development in October of last year, I worked for a think tank in Grand Rapids, Michigan called the Acton Institute. During my time at Acton, they produced an critically-acclaimed documentary called Poverty, Inc, which showed just how detrimental it can be for a country like Haiti when the good intentions of NGOs are disconnected from sound economics. If we’re not careful, charity can foster dependency—and Haiti is a cautionary tale in this kind of misguided compassion.
So when I went to Haiti for the first time in March of this year, and again in May, I felt like I knew a little more than the average person about the thorny challenges facing the beleaguered state. Also, I had lived for years in developing countries—Paraguay and Senegal—so I knew more than the average Joe about what it looks and feels like to live below International Poverty Line (which the World Bank currently calculates is less than $2.15 a day).
Of course, it is one thing to know about the causes and effects of poverty from a macro-economic perspective—and it is quite another to hear it directly from the mouth of someone living in it.
During this last trip I was blessed to spend some time with one man, Meseye Franklin, at his home in Gras, Haiti. His adorable 12-year-old daughter, Roselineda, attends our school, Académie Lazare, and he had agreed to let us film his family in their humble compound. Our goal was to hear directly from them what their life is like and what impact our school has had on their lives so that we could share this with our donors.
At some point during the filming, Jarrod and the filmmakers left Meseye Franklin and me alone in the compound while they filmed Roselineda’s mile-long journey to and from the nearest well. I sat down next to Franklin in the shade of a mesquite tree and tried to talk to him about his life. It turned out that I spoke just enough broken French and he spoke just enough broken Spanish that we were able to communicate. It was a conversation I’ll never forget.
I asked how he learned Spanish, and he told me about working for many years as a laborer in the Dominican Republic. I told him that I had seen, at the border, how the Dominican authorities were deporting Haitian in these enormous cage trucks. I asked if this was the reason he no longer worked in the DR. He said no—that he stopped working there years ago, after his brother passed. He said that he is the only surviving son of his mother, who cannot care for herself. So he needed to stay in Gras to care for her.
I asked him what he did for work. He told me that he made charcoal, which is used for cooking. I knew a little bit about this process from the time that I lived in Paraguay and asked if he used the same method that the Paraguayans do: filling huge mud ovens with wood that smolders for days. I told him that it seemed like very hard work that was not very lucrative. He agreed but said there was nothing else he could do. The soil in Gras is not particularly fertile and the climate is extremely arid. It is his only option for work, really.
The gloomy mood of the conversation was palpable, so I changed the subject to our school in the community, Académie Lazare. “Isn’t it great that there is an excellent school nearby?” I observed. He agreed it was indeed a blessing and added that perhaps the most important way it blessed his family was that they serve two meals a day there.
In broken Spanish he said it like this: “Sometimes, when we have enough food for the whole family, Roselineda comes home from school and is so full from her school meals that she doesn’t even want the food that we made here at home.”
It broke my heart, the way he said—so casually buried in the sentence—that there are times he doesn’t have enough food to feed his family. He said it like it was just a detail, not looking for pity or even ashamed of it. Just a fact of life.
When he said that, I thought about my cushy life in Naples, Florida. My house, my wife, my three kids and two (fat) dogs. It struck me, in that moment, that I will probably never know what it is like to not know where our next meal is coming from.
Since then, I’ve thought a lot about that conversation. Mainly how it challenged everything I know about poverty and the way organizations like Mission Lazarus can help. One of the reasons I wanted to join the Mission Lazarus team is that we are careful not to just give a handout, but also a hand up. So much of what NGOs in Haiti do fosters dependency and, because of this, ends up hurting people more than they help.
But what am I to make of my conversation with Meseye Franklin? To him, the most important blessing he gets from Académie Lazare are the two meals a day. Sure, his daughter is getting more than just food—she is getting an excellent education and a community committed to her holistic (emotional/spiritual/physical) care.
I’d like to think that, on some level, Mr. Franklin appreciates these higher aspirations of our school, to truly break the chains of generational poverty. But he’s a practical man whose worldview has been formed by the crushing poverty that he was born into. And the truth is that he knows none of those higher aspirations would be possible without the two meals a day that Académie Lazare provides.
I am reminded of the passage in James: “Suppose a brother or a sister is without clothes and daily food. If one of you says to them, 'Go in peace; keep warm and well fed,' but does nothing about their physical needs, what good is it?”
I think this verse could be applied to organizations the Mission Lazarus as we endeavor to provide the sort of help that dignifies and empowers the people we serve. Sometimes, a basic handout, like a hot meal, is the best first step to our loftier aspirations.