Haiti: Thanking those who gave

My organization, Equitas – International Centre for Human Rights Education, held a small reception this evening in recognition of donors who contributed to a fund we created for our Haitian alumni following the devastating earthquake in January. A few people apart from the staff showed up: members of a choir that has some Equitas staff members among its singers, board members, and friends and relatives of the organization’s staff. We were also privileged to have among us the Haitian participants who are taking part in our organization’s massive International Human Rights Training Program (IHRTP), an annual event now in its 31st year which brings together over a hundred human rights educators from around the world for a three-week training. Also present were two former Haitian participants, Jean Joseph Alfred Gibbs and Patrick Camille, who are returning to the annual program as co-facilitator and facilitator, respectively.

The get-together was a simple but significant opportunity to say thank you for donating. There was a message from the board’s president, Rob Yalden, who was genuinely touched by the generosity of those who donated. Another board member, Thérèse Bouchard, who has worked for years with civil society in Haiti, also offered words of gratitude. Our Haitian facilitator Patrick spoke next, and eloquently spoke of the transformative effect the IHRTP had on him. By the second week of the training he attended in 2002, he realized that the training was not simply on international standards, laws, and mechanisms, but was about who we are as human beings. The program affected him deeply where it mattered most: in his heart. It’s a message that left a mark on him and reinforced his conviction that teaching about human rights is so much more than teaching about what the rights are: it’s about what we value. A focus on values has guided our organization’s recalibrated efforts in Haiti, and thanks to two recent visits in the field by my colleagues, value-based human rights education is taking root with the alumni who have been part of our programs.

He answered for us a question every donor asks, no matter what the contribution: how was the donation used? Even though the amount raised didn’t rival the hundreds of thousands or millions of dollars raised by other organizations (but Equitas is not a fundraising organization, we do human rights education), every dollar made a difference. He recounted the words of one recipient: “Yesterday, I had no water. Today, I can drink.” There is no gesture too insignificant.

Patrick was kind enough, as were so many others tonight, to recognize the contribution of my younger son, who donated most of the money he received from his birthday to the Haitian alumni. My son then proceeded to quietly make his way to the centre of the room and wave, and for a brief moment my heart swelled with pride. I told a friend earlier today that, at my son’s age (he’s seven), I would not have donated my birthday money the way he did. Taking the train home with both my sons, they told me how happy they were to have attended this small reception.

In an age where disasters – either natural or caused by our own hands – seem to dominate the headlines, it’s reassuring to know that there are people out there who are willing to help in whichever way they can. Colleagues and board members donated, as did their friends and families, as did the schools they visited or the choirs they sang in, and believe me, it does make a difference. Even if your donation gives a family water to drink for a day, think for a moment how appreciative they will be. Any contribution that brings people out of misery and enables them, for however brief a moment, to live in dignity, is a gesture that gives me hope.

Some final thoughts were spoken by Equitas’ executive director, Ian Hamilton, who aptly remarked: “It’s not the time for reconstruction in Haiti, but rather the time for construction.” And that means that we cannot and should not forget those still living there, suffering.

Photo of Patrick Camille courtesy of Daniel Roy.

An Albanian, an Indian and a Greek walk into a bar or, When the helpers need help

Once a month, sometimes more frequently, I meet three good friends – an Albanian, an Indian, and a Greek – for a few drinks at a local bar. Over beer and nachos we talk – OK, sometimes argue, but the way good friends do – on a wide range of topics from the latest hockey scores to a variety of human rights issues. When we met back in March, we revisited the issue of justice for pedophiles. A couple of friends were quite comfortable with the death penalty for offenders, one neutral or at least not divulging too much of an opinion, and finally me, opposed to putting them to death even though I thought their acts were absolutely heinous.

For our April get together (with an extra guest doubling the Greek quota at the table this time) we discussed humanitarian assistance in Haiti. Apart form the terrible misery faced by the victims, one friend mentioned how difficult it would be for those providing the assistance and how they would be deeply scarred by what they saw. One of the guys told us of a friend who went to Kosovo to assist in picking up corpses after the conflict there, and how he was never the same after that.

I have never done such a grisly job, nor have I been to Haiti either before or since the earthquake. But the conversation resonated with me and made me realize that there are probably many humanitarian workers and human rights defenders who are emotionally walloped by the misery and human rights abuses and violations they face in their work. It has occasionally happened that I am overwhelmed by the pain and suffering I have seen and heard from human rights defenders. The violations some defenders have witnessed or investigated in the Middle East have been unbearable to listen to. The anguish recounted by survivors of the tsunami has been equally draining. Four years living in Africa, bearing witness to extreme poverty on a daily basis, kept me up at night plenty of times or gave me nightmares when I did sleep.

A lot of human rights defenders don’t have an off switch. They don’t go home at night and forget about their work; it often permeates and preoccupies much of their lives. But offering support for human rights defenders – emotional, psychological support – is not something you hear much about. Whether you’re an educator working with abused children in Winnipeg or war-torn orphans walking the streets of Baghdad, sometimes you yourself just need someone to talk to. I am by no means diminishing the violations perpetrated on the victims, but I am saying that those who help those in need may need a little help themselves once in a while.

To end (although I would like the discussion to continue), I quote a statement from a female journalist in Columbia who recently recounted the abuses she has faced as a human rights defender. It goes without saying that emotional or psychological support for human rights defenders is only part of what should be done to protect them. In the words of the journalist Jineth Bedoya: “Almost 10 years ago on 25th May I was kidnapped when carrying out my work as a journalist, I was tortured, raped by three men and then however I decided to stay in Colombia and didn’t want to go and choose the exile path, but to continue with my work in Colombia because I believed that was my responsibility but I have to say that there are no guarantees, there are some security guarantees, but there is no justice guarantee for me to carry out this work and it is very difficult to carry out this work when you know that the perpetrators of these crimes are free.” Her account is one of many described in a recent report on the protection of women human rights defenders by the Conservative Human Rights Commission

Upon returning from my two-year stay as a teacher in Africa, an experienced consultant in development offered me these words: “You’re going to come back home with plenty of stories of hope and despair, of joy and of misery, and you’re going to want to tell all your friends and family about all that you experienced and how it changed you. And unfortunately, nobody will care.” He wasn’t far off the mark: only a couple of people listened to me. And so a humble suggestion to anyone who knows of someone who tirelessly defends the rights of others: take the time and listen to what they have to say, they’ll appreciate it.

Questioning development

Two friends of mine have returned from a trip to Haiti. The devastation there is unimaginable, they have said – no surprise there. The mismanagement of aid is unimaginable – again, no surprise there. It could be argued that no one was prepared for a devastating earthquake that left hundreds of thousands dead. The same could be said of the 2004 tsunami that wiped out about as many people as Haiti’s earthquake.
What we – and by “we” I mean everyone else who is not directly affected by a disaster such as the earthquake – do to help and how we help is crucial. Donating money to humanitarian organizations is fine, as long as the organization is reputable and that you know the money will be well spent on creating and maintaining an adequate standard of living for those affected: basic access to food, water, lodging. Security as well – people need to feel safe. Organizations that send food or other basic necessities to Haiti are doing so in droves, but sometimes that kind of essential aid does not get distributed evenly or fairly. It sometimes falls into the hands of those who greedily control access to it, and demand payment in other forms, one example being girls as young as two and women who are raped in order to have access to food and shelter.
I have not been to Haiti, but if I were to go I’m sure I would be filled with hope seeing ordinary citizens continuing to live under pathetic circumstances, crushing chunks of concrete, living on the street, mourning loved ones, and probably wondering “Why isn’t anyone else in the world helping us?” It would warm my heart to see the fantastic work that countless volunteers are doing. And it would piss me off to see how some aid is being colossally mismanaged.

I visited Banda Aceh, an area horribly ruined by the 2004 tsunami, just over a year after it was destroyed. As I wrote in my journal back in March 2006 [the drawing, “sorrow,” was part of the entry], “The day left me hollow inside. I had begun to feel disdainful towards the international community’s efforts at reconstruction. My first exposure was an anti-malaria campaign, where I was handed a free cap and t-shirt seconds after jumping into the donor’s vehicle. Hotels in Aceh are fully booked, prices have increased tenfold. Rents gone up 400%. Prices for food gone up dramatically. INGOs [international NGOs] recruiting people who used to work for local NGOs, leaving them to suffer. Disorganization, mismanagement are words everyone is using concerning donor assistance. 

All true, however, looking at the devastation, the area is being rebuilt, and that wouldn’t be possible without the efforts of the UNHCR and others.”

In other words, it’s not unusual in my line of work to be totally psyched and excited about great development efforts and to be equally depressed and disheartened by bad ones. So here for me lies the one issue which has conflicted me the most during my years working in international development: how does one reconcile/live with/find balance with the tremendous disparity between well-intentioned but misplaced and mismanaged assistance/charity and development efforts which truly engage and empower those whose rights are not being fully realized? The former types of efforts have, in my experience, greatly outnumbered the latter. And I admit to having been part of development initiatives which, in retrospect, were not all that effective. I questioned my first posting as a volunteer teacher in Malawi back in 1993 (I’m writing about it here); was I not, after all, taking the place of a well-qualified Malawian teacher? It could be argued that I could have taught my colleagues some innovative teaching practices, but in fact I had none (or at least not many). On a personal level, my first experience in development rendered me aware of what could be done right and what had been done wrong. The organization that hired me the first time, WUSC, sent me out again two years later and their approach was entirely different: it focused on the often-misused-don’t really-know-what-it-means term “capacity building.” But it worked, because we worked with local partners, made decisions with them, and let them take the lead. I can’t help but think that if donor organizations in Haiti trusted local organizations to help them more in distributing food, organizing shelters, building schools, and distributing water, there might be a few happier people sleeping in their tents there tonight.