Never do for others (the poor) when they have the capacity to do for themselves.
In 1962, author Richard McKenna wrote a novel, The Sand Pebbles, depicting the exploits of a fictitious gunboat, San Pablo, patrolling the Yangtse River protecting American interests in the China of the early 1920s. A film of the same name starred Steve McQueen as First Class Machinist Mate, Jake Holman. His costar was Candice Bergen who was only 19 at the time. The novel and film portrayed the pitfalls and dangers when nations interfere in the affairs of other nations, especially when cultural differences and peculiarities are not acknowledged or understood. These lessons are not easily learned, as our recent history aptly demonstrates. Jake Holman arrives on the ship in the middle of the night, and upon awaking encounters a world he will struggle to understand. The failure or refusal to understand holds tragic implications for all. When he wakes, he immediately is told that Chinese “coolies” do the shaving of all the seamen. The coolie system with its degrading servitudes may disgust us, but, nevertheless, life on the boat was what it was. Holman insists: “I like to do my own shaving.” There follows a stunning silence. Holman is told “shaving is Wong’s rice bowl.” Holman quickly understands: “Well, I sure ain’t gonna break anyone’s rice bowl.” It is how Mr. Wong made his living. It is how he put rice on his table. The story illustrates, at least for me, what Robert D. Lupton teaches when he describes the problems that can result from good intentions. When we do not understand who it is we are trying to help, we can and will cause problems. It was Wong’s responsibility to shave the seamen and that is how it must be.
I am indebted to an Episcopal priest, P. J. Woodall, who led me around Haiti by the nose and taught me how to love the Haitian people. He offered sage advice, completely congruent with the counsel of Robert D. Lupton in Toxic Charity, warning how we can harm those persons we are trying to assist. Each day he and I would travel around Haiti, and then at nightfall, he would serve me valuable lessons during our dinner. Here are some:
++If you are going to begin valuable and lasting work in Haiti, you must see it through. The Haitians are trusting people and they will commit themselves to you. If you are not committed to them and their work, do not start.
++The main purpose of any Haitian relationship is a personal connection in faith, hope and love. The Haitians are more interested in you than they are in your money.
++ We have many things to teach each other and to share together. It is true that we have money and that is the one thing they often lack. But they can offer us strength and confidence. They live in an environment that would confuse and confound us. They deserve our respect.
++Working in Haiti will demand that you understand why and how Haitians do things. If you come here thinking you can solve their problems, thinking you can do it better and you know more than they know, it will certainly be true that your efforts will be rejected and end in failure.
++When you come to Haiti, be prepared to receive the gifts they offer you. Our goal is to empower each other. And remember, the key to effectiveness in Haiti is patience.
What marvelous lessons! I always hope that I have learned these lessons well.