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Is Haiti a Lost Cause? A Former Missionary Shares 5 Truths You Won’t Hear From Anyone Else

is haiti a lost cause

Every time Haiti makes the news my friends ask me without fail: 

Is Haiti a lost cause? Why do things seem to always get worse down there?”

Those are hard answers to find. Missionary types have a vested interest in how they respond. Ditto for aid groups raising support. Imaginative preachers share stories of satanic rituals and claim the island belongs to Satan. 

I have a different point of view. 

Once upon a time, I was among the mission teams flying into Port-au-Prince wearing matching t-shirts. I think I’m guilty of all 10 fashion crimes my friend Lee Rainbooth shared on his blog.

After some hard knocks, my love for the place meant getting my own apartment in the city.  My life as a vagabond showed me a whole different side of life. It was anything but a tropical paradise.  This “normal” life was far from the tourist and missionary traps I had known before. To the dismay of some, I married into this misunderstood county. My wife, daughter, and network of in-laws keep me in touch with the struggles the people of Haiti endure. 

My street in Carrefour, Haiti. January 2018.

Today, I’m living back in the United States. I’m no longer fundraising, nor employed by any missionary or relief organization. My only conflict of interest are my strong attachments to my Haitian family and friends. This is not doom & gloom, but an attempt to reframe the conversation and point smart Christians to new ways of loving our neighbors to the South. 

Here are 5 facts about Haiti that smart Christians should know:

is haiti a lost cause

1. Haiti does not need American religion.

In matters of faith, Haiti should be sending missionaries to the USA not the other way around.  Imagine living with prayer as your only hope in desperate situations. No emergency fund. No social safety net. No effective healthcare. Trusting in God alone isn’t lip service for the Haitian people, it’s often their only option.

A common highpoint for American mission teams is their experience of worship in Haitian churches. The joyful songs and earnest prayers are a shock to our religious expectations. Some wonder aloud, “Why doesn’t our church back home feel like that?”

Short answer: worldly comforts reduce our dependence on God in daily life. As Brennan Manning said, “Childlike in faith means the daily acknowledgment of utter dependence and that I owe my life and being to another.”

When it comes to trusting God, we have a lot to learn from our Haitian sisters and brothers.

2. Haitians rarely benefit from our compassion fix.

It’s a predictable cycle. Disaster strikes, heart-breaking photos emerge, and missions and relief organizations call for donations. Much of this emotion-driven giving is soon forgotten, but the suffering in Haiti does not abate. Informed givers have learned that international groups are supporting their own form of bureaucratic bloat. In reality, little help actually makes it to real people in need. 

As the New York Times and other newspapers have often reported:

“Since a powerful earthquake devastated the country in 2010, foreign aid seems only to have helped perpetuate some of the country’s biggest troubles.”

The New York Times

This fact is no longer a secret and social media has made sure the world doesn’t forget.

“Haitians and well-wishers have taken to social media to urge donors to send money directly to Haitian charities or via the government, criticizing what they saw as misuse of funds after the 2010 quake and a major hurricane in 2016.”

Reuters

Yes, it feels good to react and help when Haiti is the disaster de jour on social media. But the real work is done by local groups 365 days a year. Start with groups exclusively working in Haiti. Even better, ask the Haitians you know how to best help their friends & family back in Haiti.

3. Survival is a real struggle for many Haitians.

It’s hard to overstate the challenges of everyday life in Haiti and the situation keeps getting worse. Normal conditions are a crisis that far exceed the definition of disaster. The facts about poverty in Haiti are widely known and should inform any fantasy about easy solutions.

Every young person I’ve met in the country has one dream: to leave the country and find work. Their ambition is not selfish. Haitian diaspora send home their income at an astounding level. Remittance inflows accounted for more than 32% of the national GDP in 2017 according to the US federal reserve. This is the highest level on record and far more than any other nation in the Americas.

This support from family members abroad is the primary income for many of the poorest families, including my own in-laws. There are no jobs to find, no land to farm, and no hope of improvement. 

This struggle to survive has only intensified during the political turmoil of recent years. This makes them easy prey for immigration schemes and recruitment from other low income countries. Work visas for Chili and other South American countries have been a leading option. However, the Covid economy has devastated those jobs and left countless workers stranded in strange lands. 

Their only hope is to make the dangerous passage north seeking asylum and a chance to reunite with family legally residing in America. The outcome is tragic as US immigration politics requires harsh treatment to deter future migrants.

As one French Language newspaper has reported: “The only crime a Haitian has committed is that he wants to live.”

4. Haiti does not need US paternalism.

I once led a team of construction workers to help build houses in the mountains. Our guys were excited to serve and hoped to train some local Haitian men in the process. We came with power tools, a truckload of building materials, and one translator. The main outcomes of this adventure were a series of sunburns, frustrations, and minor injuries.

A few days into the project, a few local carpenters offered their service. We were glad to pay the requested $20 per day. We soon learned their local building methods were much better than our plan. Had we simply hired locals our budget would have resulted in 5x the effort. Had our team just stayed home and sent their plane ticket money, these same guys could have made 20x impact – while having meaningful employment themselves.

Without knowing better, our team had assumed we knew best simply because we brought more resources to the problem. Outsiders have made this same mistake in Haiti for centuries.

This is a recurring theme when the international groups come to save Haiti. Jonathan M. Katz documented this process first hand after the 2010 earthquake and shares this conclusion:

Haitians are, by necessity, the most self-sufficient, creative people you will ever meet in your life. The problem isn’t a lack of knowhow or a lack of desire or will. It is really a lack of material resources. But understanding why those resources are lacking in Haiti is necessary in order to figure out how to fix that problem.

Jonathan M. Katz

The history of Haiti speaks to this fact: international influence has always left the people of Haiti in a worse situation than before. Paternalism is not the answer. 

5. Haiti is not ours to save. 

This much should be clear – God alone can bring flourishing to our fallen world. Believers have always looked to Jesus alone as the answer to the suffering in this world. The coming of His Kingdom is the only final solution for broken people and broken nations.

The Gospel is known in Haiti and many faithful Christians there are praying without ceasing. Despite our urge to “save” these people their needs are beyond what we can even imagine. Outside answers fall short and ignore the genius of the Haitian people to find their own solutions. When God’s blessings come, it will be their hands that build back better. 

If we would be friends to the Haitian people, we must admit we don’t have the answers. 

There is much we can do to support local in-country projects and responsible foreign policies from our government. Better yet, ignore the headlines and ask your Haitian friends about their family back home. If you have money, send it to people instead of organizations. And when you pray, remember that our only comfort in life and in death is that we belong to our faithful Savior, Jesus Christ.

That’s true no matter where you were born.

Written for Stuff Christians Know by Tony and Esterline Kummer

Tony is a graduate of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. He was a Children’s Minister for 10 years before following a call to mission work in Haiti. He started the popular website Ministry to Children in 2007 (last year it had 6 million visitors and is the #1 website in the world for Children’s Ministry). His wife Esterline has a website where people can learn Haitian Creole for free. They live in southern Indiana and serve in a small church.

*Editors Note:

I asked Tony and Esterline where people could donate if they really wanted to make a 100x difference in the life of a Haitian child and they said without a doubt you should consider donating to Little Footprints Big Steps Haiti.

10 Comments

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  1. Tony and Esterline, by whatever means and reasons, your ad was able to grab my attention amidst the meaninglessness of Facebook. Thank you for carefully and thoughtfully getting this out there. Truth is that for so many organizations (and even individuals (even sometimes me)), money is so difficult to manage/steward and it breaks my heart almost more than the poverty our brothers and sisters are in within other places not close to us.

    My regular prayer after reading letters to the church by Francis Chan last year is 1) for the church to somehow be brought near our brothers and sisters’ lives, at least in our hearts, 2) that the simple tool of contrast would have great work among the US church that hardly knows hardship so widespread and common by the rest of the world. 3) Last, that the truth and reality such as described well by your article would turn a lazy, ignorant church towards true compassion founded in selfless agape love…that is likewise coupled with wisdom to mindfully avoid financially abusive organizations.

    Thank you again, dear brother and sister. God give you longevity and continued wisdom and creativity in your service of Him and His people. Thank you also for the link to a responsible organization at the end. More of that is very helpful.

    Blessings and joy to you and to the masses praying down there.

  2. The countrys problems start with not having the proper materials to work with. Goid water system and trash pickup for starters. While there I only saw 2 machines for excavating dirt. While building a floor in a school we had to hand walk buckets of water a long distance to mix the cement with shovels then carry buckets by hand to the second floor. Country can never get repaired at that slow of rate

  3. The local builders, even nurses and doctors is an important message to share. Stay home foreigners and send airplane ticket money.

  4. Great read and agree with much of it. We can also support small business that sell Haitian products.
    One that comes to mind is Papillon Marketplace

    2215 Coconut Ln, Merritt Island, FL 32952
    (360) 763-1006 https://g.co/kgs/AUnsvR

    With great insight help to start this business that supports artisans so I turn they can support their families. I realize this is small scale and much more needs done. I’m thankful to support them when I buy gift.

    We served in Haiti for 3 years on the island of LaGonave, with WISH. Being there though the earthquake and helping with transportation of supplies to the island since the supply chain was deviated in the quake.

    Patricia Alexander

  5. I am a Pediatric Nurse PrActitioner a d I started a small clinic in a place call Shada in the North of Haiti, in Cap Haitian. The clinic is now ambulatory, they have other free standing locales, managed by Hands Up for Haiti. Every donation given goes to patient care. My aim was to hire Haitien doctors and nurses plus other needed personnel to run the pharmacy etc. Children were my focus. Today other adults and women are treated as well. Malnutrition in children and babies is treated early with peanut butter supplements made in Haiti and provided free to patients. Immunizations are also provided for children. The purpose is to be there, on the ground where people live and struggle to provide medical care, medications and education about health care which was completely lacking 12 years ago. These kind on the ground NGO’s managed by local people are successful in Haiti. My heart is there, I love the people. Now I have family from Haiti, my own grandkids. Yes, Haitians are the hardest working people I’ve been with. They are resourceful and very grateful and willing to work hard. If you want to give for medical care give to Hands Up for Haiti 🇭🇹 a worthy organization which truly brings the care to the people.

  6. I wish I could have read your post when I first started serving the people of Haiti in 2004! We all learned many of these lessons the hard way. Thank you so much for this excellent post. Should be required reading for all who want to serve the people of Haiti.

  7. Great article! We actually have several things in common. I work at SBTS and live in Southern Indiana. I have ministry in Northwest Haiti teaching Haitians how to sew. I’ll check out your wife’s Haitian Creole website. I’m still learning the language.

  8. I was truly blessed to be called to teach in Haiti. I was brought closer to my Lord and Savior through the people. Seeing what these people do to survive and praise Jesus. When I arrived back in the U.S.A. I was terrified at the way people talked and treated eachother. My plan was to return but I have not done that. My heart will always be with the resourceful Haitians to survive.

  9. I have been to Haiti a couple times and I agree with the author of this article. I did feel there was a lack of safety there. So much witchcraft, of course we have our own in the US. We send to China to have our products made for $2 an hour and shipped back. Could not Haiti make some of these products instead of sending to China? Assume the Haiti government is working with Dominican Republic, Costa Rica and other more successful countries to apply some good governmental principles. Blessings to those that help their loved ones in Haiti get sewing machines or bakery equipment or knowledge to make brooms or whatever to make a living.

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