I recently brought a small group from Canada to visit my dear friend Enoch Firmin at his home in northern Haiti. It was a “learning trip” to immerse ourselves in Haitian life and to see Enoch’s work at Lecol Dlo (Water School, a Haitian charity). One morning Enoch was telling us about what he has seen work and fail in the international community’s efforts to improve the quality of life in Haiti:
“Development work here can’t be done by outsiders,” he told us. He explained that for a project to work in a given village, the project’s leaders have to have the respect of the community – otherwise they will be viewed as another source for free handouts, which will tie us over until the next free handouts come along, etc: a band-aid solution, not true development. In the words of Fraser Edwards, a career development worker and a mentor to both Enoch and myself, “You have to earn the right to be heard.” And we foreigners rarely do.
Enoch has earned the right to be heard in Haiti. He has several degrees, he speaks four languages, he teaches at the local university (“to make sure I stay sharp”), and he runs several free music programs for kids. He has remarkable leadership skills and charisma (I’ve seen him talk his way out of dangerous situations with a smile on his face) and he is well-known and well-loved in his city. And of course he’s running Lecol Dlo. This resume makes him a prime candidate for “brain drain,” but Enoch stays in Haiti because he is passionate about improving the lives of his people.
Enoch is exactly the kind of person who can do development work in Haiti. And he has assembled a team of comparable leaders in the surrounding villages, who together teach their communities about healthy living (sanitation, hygiene) and safe drinking water.
But if development work has to be done by local leaders like Enoch, what are we foreigners doing here? Why not just stay away?
Foreigners are generally not the best fit to be the visible actors on the ground – to work day-to-day with the elders and schoolchildren and families – but we do have a role to play. A supporting role. The best job we can give ourselves is to identify capable local leaders, and then empower them to achieve the great things that only they can do. Empowerment means that they make the on-the-ground decisions – we are not puppet masters, we need to ask them how we can best support their work. Of course there needs to be accountability. But just as the local leaders are accountable for proper use of resources and for delivering outcomes, we need to be accountable to truly empower them, rather than actually holding onto control. Shannon Blake, a veteran of community development work, says we have to be “trust-risking.”
It is profoundly important that we consider with sober judgement how we can add value and how we can’t. Overstepping that line has led to countless development projects that have ultimately left communities worse off, through problems like addiction to hand-outs, increased corruption, undermining local leaders or local markets… And then it really is better to just stay away.
Instead, our goal should be to earn the humble yet essential title of “Best Supporting Actor.”
(read an article written by Marcie Good, a journalist who joined us on this trip)