Sunday, April 22, 2012

Day 326: Questions & (No) Answers (The Aid Bitchslap)

"It's going to take a while before I can even make sense of all of this." I'm talking to Paddy as we make our way down a dark street in Leogane, dodging motos and trying to avoid the mud. "It won't happen here. It won't happen until I've left." He nods. He feels the same. Our time in Haiti isn't over yet, we've both got a few months left, but we're feeling the end now, and we're feeling what it took to get here. We're tired, and confused, and frustrated. We're excited. We're proud. We're trying not to pass quick judgements, and we realize how hard that is to do.

Project Leogane is nearly over. Tomorrow marks the final week. April 27th work ends. April 28th we have the farewell party. April 30th the lease on our house is up, and people make their way to whatever is next. In my case, making my way isn't too tricky, as I'll be moving in to the base of my friend Jason, along with Paddy and Billy, where we'll work for the next two months finishing up our obligations to GOAL and the partnership we have with them. We'll also be mentoring our handover partner, the Haitian-American organization FHED (Foundation  for Humanitarian Education & Development), who will be continuing our biosand filter program once we leave. Billy stays until the end of May. Paddy leaves the end of June. Alejandro and Diana will stay until May 15th to support our transition. I will stay until the end of July. I wasn't the first to arrive here with All Hands, but I'll be the last to go.

I know Haiti isn't yet done for me, but the nature of how I've lived and worked here since July 2010 has changed many times, and this perhaps marks the most distinct change. Project Leogane, and All Hands Volunteers, my organization and identity in Haiti, is nearly over. The skeleton crew staying is very much that. We'll no longer be part of the group. We'll be the entirety of it. I've no problems with that. If I'm honest, I'm excited to see how it will play out, but it does get me thinking. Of what, I'm not so sure, or more accurately, I'm not so sure I can yet explain it in any coherent way. Too many things. So many things. Only through a total disconnect will I have the distance and time needed to sift through all of this, and I'll have that before too long, but I still feel the urge to try and write about it, to mark it down in some way, although all recent attempts at doing so result in deleted entries, rambling and uncertain sentences that frustrated me but accurately reflect where my head is at these days. I honestly don't know what to make of this place and this experience.

I do know this. I'm ready to go. Haiti, while still powerful in her effect on me, is beginning to leave a sour taste in my mouth. Going out into the monotonous, seemingly unchanging landscape of Leogane, which some of us have now taken to jokingly referring to as "post-apocalyptic", is something I try and avoid unless in a state of mind sufficient enough to match whatever absurdity is going to come at me. My patience is near gone. I still feel for people. The empathy is there, but it's become something different than it was before.

"Fuck you!" The shouts come pretty regularly these days, sometimes from kids, sometimes from adults, always directed at us for no other reason than the fact we are foreigners, that we are blans. I don't know the people shouting. Sometimes we shout back, other times we shake our heads at the stupidity, sometimes we laugh, other times we stop the car, get out, and watch the guilty children run away, or the guilty adults eye us up. A few days ago it's a group of guys playing football in the middle of the street. "Fuck you!" We pull over, not because of the comment, but because we're at the chicken stand we were headed toward to buy some food. My patience is worn thin. We get out of the car a few paces from where the guys are. "Masisi! Masisi!" They're calling us faggots. Really? Really? I don't even know you. Fuck this. I hammer back at them. "You think we're faggots? Is that what you think? I think you're a bunch of uneducated, ignorant idiots. Instead of playing football in the street and telling blans you don't know to go fuck themselves, why don't you go to school? You're young men. You're not kids. Do something with your lives." I want to keep going. I want to tell them they are pathetic. I want to tell them that you shouldn't tell someone to go fuck themselves one day then come groveling to them the next asking for a job or money or food or a house. I want to tell them they are the problem with this fucked up country. I want to, but I don't, because I know, despite the anger, that while they are ignorant, and they do deserve to get called on their shit, they don't deserve to be shamed for their condition. Most people just play the hand they're dealt. Few opt to really try and change their hand, let alone the deck. That's not Haitian. That's human. Haiti just happens to deal a pretty shit hand to most. I'd be a fool to place the entirety of the blame on them. They're not the cause. They're part of the effect.

We get the chicken and drive away. One of the guys mimics punching us. I enjoy the five second fantasy of laying them all out in the street, although I know that will never come to pass. I'm not a fighter. We laugh it off, but not really. "This fucking place..." Every day. We allow ourselves some ignorance of our own, mocking the wannabe gangster culture the men in the street all had on display. "Oh you're a gangster are you? You're hardcore? You can't even get food. So hardcore. So gangster." We laugh, hard. I know the comment is off-color, but I also know I'm doing it to release. I'm aware when I'm allowing myself to mock a situation that shouldn't be mocked, when I'm engaging something I'm actually against. I'm aware that I'm doing it more and more these days. I'm aware that, at the end of the day, I do it because it helps mask the underlying frustration and sense of overwhelm and guilt that comes with being a foreigner in Haiti.

We come home, tell some housemates about it. They tell us how people started throwing rocks at one of our roommates as he was getting a dance lesson on the roof from a local Haitian girl. They had to come inside and continue the lesson out of reach of the rocks. I get a phone call. My friend Jenny, a Haitian girl I'm close to and care for a lot, tells me her grandmother has died. Paddy and I go to visit her and her mother and sisters to offer our condolences. While I'm sitting with Jenny and her older sister Katia, Paddy is talking to their mother, Madam Michelle. It was her mother that has just passed away. We stay for twenty minutes then say goodbye.

"Fucking hell..." We're in the car, Paddy looks tired. "What's up man?" I ask him. "Madam Michelle was asking me for everything - my bed, my table, my mattress, anything I can give her once All Hands leaves." I can see the frustration in his face. "Your mother just died. For fuck's sake can you stop for just one minute and grieve?" It is endless. Today, here in my room, I hear a knock. Ornela, Madam Michelle's youngest daughter, Jenny's little sister, is at the door. "Qwen? Qwen?" "Hold on a sec sweetie." I open the door and she's there. We talk for a bit. She asks me a question. "Qwen, can you buy a painting from my mom? We need money to go to Jeremie." Jeremie is where their grandmother lived. She's talking about the funeral. My heart melts, but I've learned a long time ago that I have to draw a line. "I'm sorry sweetie, I don't have money for that right now." I hate myself for even saying it, but I know I've done a lot to help her family. Jenny is back in school because of me and some of my friends and family I reached out to. Seeing her finish high school is a personal goal of mine. I have to keep that in my sights and put blinders on for everything else. A week ago Jenny called me, she tells me Katia is really sick, that she has to go to the hospital. She asks me if I can pay for it. My heart hurts again, but I repeat the line I've learned to live by. "Sorry Jenny, I don't have money for that right now." "OK Qwen. It's OK." Jenny, eighteen and whip smart, knows me pretty well. She's been on the receiving end of my anger when she tries to push the boundaries of my charity. She's heard my rants on Haiti and the culture of dependence and expectance. She also knows I really care for her and her family. Still, the requests don't stop. They won't stop until I leave. Even then they won't stop. Facebook chat post-Haiti often involves requests for money from people I know here.

Some things I have become clear on as a result of Haiti: 

1. Good intentions aren't enough. 
2. Rose-colored glasses are bullshit. 
3. The white savior industrial complex is real, demonstrated daily by feel good aid programs that probably don't work, or feel good causes like Kony 2012 that generate plenty of buzz but don't add up to much when people are actually supposed to do something.
4. You can't help people who don't want to help themselves.
5. True altruism is an incredibly rare thing. (See #3)
6. Little victories must be celebrated if you want to protect yourself from the crippling effects of the larger failure.

I came to Haiti very much guilty of believing good intentions were enough, and I certainly had the rose-colored glasses. I knew a bit about the idea of the white savior industrial complex, but didn't know enough to realize I was playing right into it. I believed people inherently do want to improve their lot, and will work hard to see that happen. I also believed myself to be a fairly altruistic person. I'm not so sure about that any more. And while I never came here thinking I could "save Haiti" (an incredibly egotistical idea to begin with), I also didn't realize the importance of allowing yourself to truly appreciate the small things before the big things break you down.

I still believe in helping people. I still believe my heart is in the right place. But I question myself more these days, and question what I'm doing and how I'm doing it. I question whether the work I've done here will really even make any difference. Is it even working? We'll know that as we conduct final follow-ups over the next two months, now that production and installations are nearly finished. I'm wary though. Every biosand filter I've ever seen in Haiti that was not one of ours was broken and unused. Just today I went to get a sandwich and found four or five of them in front of the sandwich shop, all in various stages of malrepair, waiting to be turned to rubble and probably used to patch holes in the street. The problem is we're giving people a "solution". They tell us they want it, but it's not of their own design. And yes, while I have spoken to families we've given filters to and heard from them they are getting sick less, and they no longer fear cholera, I also know of families that never used the filter to begin with, and only wanted to be in the program because their 100 gourdes contribution got them both the filter and a new Culligan bottle, which is worth 250 gourdes. Is that our mistake? Probably. Is there an easy work around to it? Not that I can think of. Asking for a contribution of more than 250 gourdes will guarantee that truly poor families will not be able to get a filter, and not providing a Culligan bottle (or any other safe water storage container) will result in families using open buckets instead, which we've tested and know 95% of the time result in re-contaminated water. It's a small problem in the grand scheme of things, but it demonstrates the complexity of trying to "help" people.

If I were to do it all again, I wouldn't design a solution. It isn't my place to do that. What I'd do is try and be a useful resource for a group of people or a community that have a much better understanding of their problems than I do, and want to work together toward finding solutions. I wouldn't come in as the guy with the answer. I'd come in as the guy willing to try and help them in any way possible as they find their own answer, and act as the bridge between that answer, and the money and resources needed to make it happen. 

Or, perhaps if I really wanted to help, I wouldn't ever come to Haiti to begin with. I'd keep my fight at home in the United States, rallying people to try and build awareness that places like Haiti suffer because of policies benefitting our government, our corporations, and ultimately, ourselves. Policies created by our politicians, sometimes with our consent (the Iraq War) and sometimes as a result of special interests (the Supreme Court's campaign finance reform ruling), result in massive problems for other people in the world. Sometimes I wonder if that truly ever can be remedied. 

Nature has a distinct element to it that is both brutal and undeniable: to be alive means to take care of you and yours before all else. There are rare exceptions to that rule, but they are just that - rare exceptions. The lioness doesn't feel guilt when she brings down the days-old gazelle, despite knowing the gazelle could never hope to challenge her. Is it the same for us? We may all be part of the same species, but we've always cordoned ourselves off in distinct groups, be it religious, racial, or geopolitical, and time and again worked to improve our groups at the expense of other groups. We are not a peaceful species. We are not enlightened beings. And history has shown time and again that, like the lioness, we show no remorse or mercy when faced with a weaker opponent. I sometimes wonder what the Taino people, Haiti's original inhabitants, were like. I'll never be able to know. They were raped, murdered and enslaved to extinction at the hands of the Spanish. There are no more Tainos in the world. 

Is it naive to believe we can ever change this part of being human? I've often wondered this. If we ever had a chance at change, now would be the beginning of it. The internet and advancements in communication and transportation have made the world a much smaller place. I'd like to think that will lead to a greater mutual understanding of the fact that we are all, indeed, human. It might, or it might not. I often think we will have to evolve to the point that the idea of religion is cast aside, that the idea of nation is cast aside, that the way we define ourselves (white, black, Christian, Muslim, American, Haitian) have to be abandoned. Without first accomplishing that, we will always have a way to cordon ourselves off from others, to group up, and to grow to believe that our group is the most important group. Those groups must be broken for us to advance.

It makes me think of something a friend of mine who works in Rwanda told me recently. She told me that the majority of Rwandan children today do not know if they are Tutsi or Hutu. Their parents do not tell them. She told me that it is illegal to ask someone if they are Tutsi or Hutu. She told me that all forms of personal identification no longer have the words "Tutsi" or "Hutu" on them. She also told me Rwanda is one of the more progressive and advanced countries she's visited in Africa. That came at an incredibly high cost, but maybe that's what it takes. The EU, flawed though it is, and in and of itself a group, was born out of the desire for integration that was the result of two devastating wars that killed entire generations of Europe's people. I'd like to think we can learn enough from our history to be able to continue that process of integration without the prerequisite of mass suffering, but maybe that is indeed a prerequisite. If so, there's certainly suffering enough to go around. The world's groups are still devouring each other. The question is, if we do not feel we are affected by it, do we care enough to try and stop it? And, the skeptic in me asks, if we do care enough to try and stop it, why? What do we stand to gain? #5 - true altruism is an incredibly rare thing.

Indeed, a lot of questions, not a lot of answers, and a fair amount of pondering. If nothing else, Haiti has given me that, and that, ultimately, is a good thing. An engaged thinker is a humbled thinker. I do not yet claim to be either, but I aspire to be both.

- - -

Note - thank you to Shotgun Shack for cross-posting this over at her blog. Check it out here.


  1. Wow Quinn!! This is clearly the heart. I can't even imagine what your experience is like, but It's very enlightening to read something like this. Especially when it's coming from someone I grew up wth. You sure are a universe away from Malibu. Despite the frustration, ingratitude, and futility you describe, I still have the utmost respect and admiration for your work in Haiti. It's easy for people (myself included) to just send money to an NGO from the comfort of their home, but it takes something special to go out there to the front lines and try to make a difference in such a hostile place. I think your comment about celebrating the little victories to protect yourself from a larger failure is something that can help everybody in different aspects of our lives. Thanks for sharing your experience. I hope you are well, and wish you the best going forward. You're a good man!!

    1. Thanks for the kind words. Yea, it's a mixed bag through and through. I've had really beautiful moments in Haiti too, where it just seems to click and what I'm here trying to do actually seems to be going just as it should. You have to take those moments for what they are, and accept you're never going to be able to make all the pieces fit.

      On a personal note, who might this be? You've piqued my interest Mr. / Ms. / Mrs. Unknown... Spill it!

  2. Qwen, your blog hits close to home despite knowing its coming from so far away. Thanks for putting in to words something that is normally so difficult to clarify.


  3. Quinn,
    you have given Haiti all of you.
    Haiti gave you you.
    The whole equation is invaluable for all.
    Best to you

    1. Hey Uncle Larry, glad to see you're still following the blog. I know I say it every time but I swear, one of these days we'll be able to actually talk about all this ridiculousness over a BBQ at your spot on the island. Sounds like a little bit of heaven right about now.

      Give my love to the Benson Clan. Been far too long since I've seen you guys.

  4. You have arrived at a thoughful consideration of the problem of category; in this case, the problem of human grouping. Remember the Tower of Babel in which man's attempt to reach heaven is frustrated by the introduction of language, not a bad myth when it comes to explaining difference. And the old joke during Northern Ireland's Troubles about the gangster who emerges from a dark alley and sticks a gun in the back of a passerby and asks, "Are ye Prod or Taig?" (Catholic or Protestant). The passerby, thinking quickly responds, "I'm an atheist". Nonplussed, the gangster pauses and then says, "Aye, but are ye a Catholic atheist or a Protestant atheist?"

    Croations, Serbians, Bosnians, etc, are ALL Serbo-Croation both ethnically and linguistically--they differ only in relgion (Orthodox, Roman Catholic, Muslim). You and I could not tell them apart but, like Hutus and Tutsis, they kill each other on the basis of perceived differences.

    I have sons your age. If I had a daughter, I'd be proud for her to know you. Keep posting.

    1. I'll have to run that joke past Paddy. As the name might suggest, he's about as Irish as they come.

      Thanks for the comment, and the kind words.

  5. A superb & powerful piece- incredibly honest and right on the money. Thanks for expressing it so clearly. It resonates strongly with memories of the year I spent in Niger 2005-6. Exhausted, largely demoralized and struggling with the loss of my idealism, clinging where I could to small victories even while I wondered how anything big or important would ever really change for the better- and yes, perpetually frustrated by being treated like a walking wallet, until by the end of that year I could only identify a single Nigerien friend who hadn't hit me up for money at one time or another. I wish you luck in your journey as you make sense of all the crumbling pieces. Do keep sharing with us.

    1. Appreciate the feedback. Yea, I don't claim to have any real answers yet - I came to Haiti to both try and help, and also just expose myself to a place I know it'd be impossible not to have my eyes opened by if I was willing to give it the time and attention. The realities can be pretty rough, but I intend to keep at it, at least for the foreseeable future. In the end, aid and humanitarianism still feel important, and worth it.

  6. very interesting, its quite honest i like that you were able to question all your preconceptions about human beings and yourself. and i agree that coming in with a ready made solution doesn't work, it never has and history repeats herself over and over again, a friend of mine once told me that we need a war every generation or so because human beings forget what happened last time, he thought blood was the only oil of progress and he may be right but i hope not. i couldn't ever see the blood that rwanda had lost, all it cost, all the families and deaths being worth it and in kenya(where am from) we still define ourselves by our tribes, its still perfectly legal, perfectly normal, perfectly accepted to ask what you are and i think that's a problem. the shedding of all the divisive identities is probably the right step, its the only one left to us but i don't know if all the blood it takes would be worth it.

    this post just gave me a lot to think about i guess

    1. I tend to agree with you about "shedding all the divisive identities", but if you think about it, that's pretty fucking sad. "Divisive identities" are born from cultures and traditions and ways of thinking and being that make humanity interesting and fascinating in moments. They've also shown to lead to violence, and while I hate violence, I also hate the idea of a white-washed humanity as the only means to stamp it out.

      Seems to me a rather impossible problem, born more out of what it means to be human, rather than what it means to be any specific type of human.

  7. Hey Quinn,

    Thanks a lot for posting these thoughts. I wonder if we ever met: I spent almost 1,5 year in Haiti, working for Cordaid from September 2010 to December 2011 (visited Leogane as well on several occasions), and left feeling very much the same way (like so many of us). Mentally and physically exhausted, questioning my sense of emphaty and my ability to feel compassion. Having lost patience... And surely completely questioning many of the beliefs/thoughts I used to have about being able to bring about positive change and 'doing good' (especially after doing a MAsters degree in International Development...).

    Being somewhat disillusioned I also tried to hang on to the idea that at least something positive must have come out of this 1,5 year experience in Haiti. Surely there's plenty. If anything on the inside...As a human being. Perhaps you have to be brought to the limits of emphaty/compassion (or go beyond them) in order to understand it? I don't know. Just a thought. As you said, plenty of those (thoughts) trying to figure out what it is that Haiti did to me. What it brought me. How I've grown from all of this. And not only rationally, but also in the way I feel. I think it'll take time for insights like that to take place. Time and the right conditions (read: peace) to allow the sand in a glass full of water to settle and see again. To rediscover some of the new answers that will come from all the questions that have been raised.

    As I'm writing this from the Dominican Republic (couldn't let go of Haiti entirely after all - even thought this country on the same island is a world away from it), I'm working on that as well.

    Good luck with the last bits there. Always welcome to drop by here and share some thoughts/insights with a fellow (ex)Haiti aidworker! Thanks again for sharing your thoughts, Peace,

    Chris Kaput

    1. Hey Chris,

      There's a pretty good chance we probably did cross paths, Mike over at Cordaid (he ran the Leogane office for a few years) was a good friend of mine, and James (currently running it) is a friend as well. The Cordaid Leogane office is actually right across the street from the old All Hands base.

      Thanks for sharing your experiences. Sounds like we've had a lot of the same questions and processes, and being here for a year and half is certainly more than enough time to really start to feel it. I did Haiti in two parts - my first was as a volunteer for seven months, the second as a more integrated staff member, which will be for just over a year once I'm finished in a few months. It wasn't until the second stretch that a lot of what I wrote about in this entry really started to make itself felt. That also had a lot to do with learning the language (I don't speak French so learning Creole was my only option), and creating real friendships with Haitians who helped me get an insight into elements of the culture I just didn't see before. Not that I can claim to understand it. At the end of the day, I'm fully aware I'm an outsider here, and probably always will be. I sometimes think if it is ever possible to fully integrate as an international. Does Paul Farmer still feel like an outsider?

      Where in the DR are you? Just got back from there myself. Spent a week in a cheap, cool hostel in Santo Domingo's Zona Colonial (Foreigner's Club, yes, the irony of the name is not lost on me given the context of this discussion), drinking cold Presidente, eating not fried plantains, and sleeping a lot. Sometimes it's the simple things...

      Keep on keepin' on my friend.

  8. And surely 'emphaty' should be spelled as 'empathy'. God, I can't even spell the word correctly anymore? Speaking of a disconnect ;-)

  9. I saw this post via Shotgun Shack via a friend on Facebook. And I have to say, this is one of the most honest and courageous testimonials I have ever read on the realities of working in the social impact space. Honestly, I'm tired as hell of people who are blissfully optimistic, undereducated about the actual ground situation, and seize on an ideal and follow it with self-righteous energy. We do need optimistic, charismatic, energetic people, but they need to be well-informed and pragmatic as well. I've seen so much effort that really just looks like waste because they threw in all this time and didn't check to see if their solution worked, if it was sustainable, and if it was the right choice for the right people.

    Good luck with whatever you pursue next -- I know you said you were going to school, but I bet we'll see more of you in the social impact space soon.

  10. Quinn,

    Thanks for writing this! I'm currently a Peace Corps volunteer in Paraguay, but I relate to so much of what you're saying.

    In relation to your first point, have you already read To Hell With Good Intentions? (

    I spend lots of time wrestling with all of these same questions and can't seem to come up with any answers. Let me know if you ever have that moment of clarity! Suerte!

  11. Damn, this hit me hard. I spent 6 months in PauP and I can relate to every fucking word of this.

    I'll be going back for five weeks next month, but this time I'm doing it right:
    "If I were to do it all again, I wouldn't design a solution. It isn't my place to do that. What I'd do is try and be a useful resource for a group of people or a community that have a much better understanding of their problems than I do, and want to work together toward finding solutions. I wouldn't come in as the guy with the answer. I'd come in as the guy willing to try and help them in any way possible as they find their own answer, and act as the bridge between that answer, and the money and resources needed to make it happen. "

    I'm going with a grassroots organization run by a Haitian professor at my school. There isn't a single foreign worker on the ground and all the projects are identified by the community and local organizations. The only reason I'll be there is because I'm redesigning their website... well actually the community is redesigning the website. I'm just taking their ideas and using my experience to make it a reality.

    Enben kouraj fre'm.

    M te santi ekzakteman bagay la. Men, kounye a, m sonje ayiti tout jou.

  12. Dear Quinn,

    I can't commend this post enough. It encapsulates everything I believe about development, but more importantly about humanity and what it means to develop a true community. If it helps, please have faith that there are also many people who share such beliefs, and we're all working in a similar direction.

    Helping isn't easy, but I believe the world is getting better each time people like yourself speak out about the mask of good intentions. As a student of development who is hoping to enter this field as well, I am truly inspired by the honesty of your words.

    Thanks again.

  13. I'm an American living and working in Liberia, in and out over the past four years. Thank you for this candid open discussion; it's one we have many times here and one that continues to battle within my own heart. I still don't have answers but in an unexplainable way the questions have broadened and those little victories have grown and accumulated into something really special. Simple friendships and exchanges of ideas have brought new light and positivity into my work. Please keep writing and sharing!

  14. Wow, I could've written this post (in a slightly different cultural context) back in Nicaragua in 2006. Many of us have been there - some returning to their comfortable First World lives while others kept on in the Developing World despite their disillusionment and world weariness. I left Nicaragua abt as disillusioned as they come and arrived at my next deployment in Mexico as a walking zombie. Nobody noticed due to my excellent acting skills haha. But I got over it, found myself a few years later thriving in the middle of a war, have managed to somehow survive it and here I am. Yeah burned out and cynical as hell but still here trying to make a difference. This fall I'll get my first real break from the field since 2003. Not looking for any sympathy here ... I freakin' LOVE what I do (I'm in education) and couldn't imagine myself doing anything else. Hang in there, my friend, you are NOT alone. Peace.

  15. Mate, if I could be so bold as to dispense unsolicited advice, you need to put some distance between yourself and Haiti. Take a break (sounds as if that's in the cards for you). I'm not saying never come back. The cause is worth fighting for. Just take a break. Re-group. Get some hindsight. And come back, whether to Haiti or to aid/dev work, if that's what's for you.

    And for what it's worth, most of us have been where you are. You're in good company.

    And this:

    "...I often think we will have to evolve to the point that the idea of religion is cast aside, that the idea of nation is cast aside, that the way we define ourselves (white, black, Christian, Muslim, American, Haitian) have to be abandoned. Without first accomplishing that, we will always have a way to cordon ourselves off from others, to group up, and to grow to believe that our group is the most important group. Those groups must be broken for us to advance."

    There's a book's worth of material right there.

    Stay strong.

    1. Hey J,

      Thanks for the comment, and the links. Read them, and your post about all aid leaving Haiti hit home. There's been many a night here at the house with the coworkers where we've talked about the same thing. Disaster response is perhaps a bit different, but long-term development-level projects just don't seem to work here. This country is flooded with aid, and it only seems to sink further. Perhaps it's time we internationals, despite how good many of our intentions might be, acknowledge that fact and leave. Let Haitians take the helm (this is their country after all) and steer their own ship, come of it what may. I'd be lying if I said that didn't scare me a bit, especially in regards to food aid given Haiti's overpopulation and severely compromised agricultural capacity, but again, if something isn't working, why continue pushing on with it? Still, the thought of countless tens of thousands of people (or more) starving to death is horrific. I honestly don't know. This country has problems of a scale and scope that is truly overwhelming.

      As to your advice, it's solid, and I've already made plans to leave before too long. In two or three months I'll be headed over to London in preparation for postgraduate studies at King's College, focusing on conflict, security & development. I wanted two years of field experience (Haiti is my first real go at this kind of work) before returning to get a Master's, and I'm ready.

      Sorry to see you're discontinuing your blog. While I've only just recently discovered it, I really enjoyed your perspectives. They're valuable, particularly for those of us just starting to wrap our heads around humanitarianism. Thanks for being so candid.

  16. This comment has been removed by the author.

  17. Hi,I am in the UK and came across this via Just wanted to say thank-you for a very thoughtful and thought provoking piece. It is rare to see such brutal honesty. I have doubts that such a vast issue such as this can ever be resolved in my lifetime - it is up to you and people like you to teach everyone you meet that globalization has the power to destroy as well as to create. I wish you luck and peace in the future. Thanks again. Nigel.

  18. Wow, thank you. You have taken my own joy, anger, bitterness and small feeling of success and put them into words! I lived in Leogane for 4 years, pre-quake and felt and experienced so much of you wrote about. Hell, we might have been "fuck you"-ed by the same group of kids. It's comforting to know that I am not the only one that struggles with those feelings.

    Kenbe fem.

  19. Im working for an international relief organization in Leogane as well. I just arrived. Its my 4th time in Haiti but my brother has been here for 2 years. He's seen the good and the bad, just as you have. I think I still have my innocent, naive eyes looking at this country. Every day that passes by the lens clears up more and more and im also left asking a lot of questions without getting many answers in return. MOst of the time I just shrug it off... and pray knowing my attempts will always fall short of what is really needed.

    Our base is right on the ocean and we had our puppy on the beach barking and some guys walking by took a large boulder and threw it at her head and broke her face. There is so much ignorance... and yet ignorance doesn't seem to be a good enough work to accurately describe whats really going on. maybe its just the kindest word to attribute to it.

    Regardless, at this point, its early in the game for me. Im often not sure whether I should give the benefit of the doubt, to give 'tough love' or to just let myself be walked over. Its tough, but im sure as the days and months go by, and I have my own personal experiences Ill be able to develop my own thoughts and attitudes regarding all of this.

    that was a way too long comment to really just say, thanks for sharing your thoughts, your feelings, and your experiences. Keep going. Dont give up. You got this.

  20. Hang in there mate! Big hug coming your way from back in the UK - we really apreciate all your hard work for us on the filters! Anna C

  21. Quinn! We worked at Leogane together. And you taught me to make BioSand filters!Caught this at Shotgun Shack. Wow. Poignant. Beautiful truth. I have only 7 weeks in Haiti under my belt but certainly felt many of your truths. I think the duration you've spent there would have worn me down. That said, kudos to you for following your heart (and maybe your soul!), remaining true to yourself and what you believe in, and for affecting soooo many lives. That does NOT go undetected...believe me. Good for you for exercising the self-care (books, being alone) to recuperate and remain whole. Hindsight IS 20-20. Trust me on that. When you walk down that isle with diploma in hand and have had time to reflect from the OTHER side, you'll be patting yourself on the back and saying...yeah.

  22. quinn
    the ways you could help improve things in our good ole country - the USofA are countless! I say keep it within the borders!! We have issues of drought, fire, poverty, citrus canker, unemployment, drugs and on and on and on. You and i are the same - i cant break out of the social service sector no matter how appealing the money may be in other areas. Helping is what appeals to me!!

  23. I was deployed to Haiti for Opperation Restore Democracy. We were all shocked at the "culture". It was very desparate. What did we see then?

    "Some things I have become clear on as a result of Haiti:
    1. Good intentions aren't enough.
    2. Rose-colored glasses are bullshit.
    3. The white savior industrial complex is real, demonstrated daily by feel good aid programs that probably don't work, or feel good causes like Kony 2012 that generate plenty of buzz but don't add up to much when people are actually supposed to do something.
    4. You can't help people who don't want to help themselves.
    5. True altruism is an incredibly rare thing. (See #3)
    6. Little victories must be celebrated if you want to protect yourself from the crippling effects of the larger failure."
    The only gratitude we recieved was the day Aristide returned. They were sweeping the streets, playing music, singing and hugging us.
    Everyday before that and every day after that we were viewed as thugs who gave out free food and water.
    I can't imagine how much worse Haiti could be than what it was then. I understand it is worse, which is hard to wrap my mind around. I'm sure there's systemic problems with the relief organizations that lead to failure in helping the counrty. But, when the system does work it's hard to do your job when all it does is make someone into "havers". Then it make it easier for them to take advantage of the "have-nots." I left there with a job unfinished as well.

    1. I, too, went to Haiti with Operation Restore Democracy. . . and with high hopes and enthusiasm. Thanks, Quinn, for writing this post. Haiti almost killed my soul. I needed this reminder that I survived. It may not have been the darkest period in my life, but it was the most physically and mentally exhausting. Good luck to you. Try to stay real.

  24. Hi, Quinn: If you've run into DOA/BN - Kala Bluntschli and Ari Nicolas - they have some great perspective on this issue. They supported our team while I was part of a small travelling NGO that did civilian monitoring and listening project in the north and in the grand anse in 1996. Truly not having anything to 'contribute' was a horrible experience for me, although we were trying to carry the peoples' voices back to Port-au-Prince and let them know the world had not forgotten them. So many people in the 'en dehors' pleaded with us to help bring appropriate technology to their habitations, and said disparaging things about the blans and others in their big cars who drive around and do... what?... ah, yes, our exasperations! You've probably read Paul Farmer's book, "The Uses of Haiti." If not, you must. I do hope you've had some of the amazing in-country coordinators who make things happen along with you and who will help your work to continue!

    Best wishes when you get back and deal with reverse culture shock -- and in the rest of your life!

  25. Wow! I can really relate to what you're saying. I worked with a ministry in Haiti for years & experienced the feelings & personal revelations that you have put into words. Thank you for doing this! It's too difficult to explain to American who have not been to Haiti. They would look at me like I'm crazy or jaded & heartless. I heard you on Talk of the Nation today. These are not easy things to express, but you were great. I wish you would continue your blog. Cathy

  26. As a fellow blan I have a duty to tell you: You've done a profound disservice to Haiti and Haitians with your comments on NPR.

    Never once did you discuss why Haitians might be resentful or expectant of foreigners, especially Americans. All somebody who's never visited can take from your comments is that Haitians are meaner and more ungrateful than Americans like you, and something about them and their poverty mysteriously causes this.

    A commenter above and the Haitian radio caller both hit on the head, but you didn't pick up on it: your country, along with many others, has continually punished and abused Haiti since it won its independence. Haitians are keenly aware of this. And their sense of entitlement, that we owe something, has been only bolstered by the forced NGOization of their economy and the crumbling of the state. Instead of supporting the sovereign Haitian government (this continues to this day and with post-quake US aid), money flows to people like you, NGOs, and contractors. Of course people are going to ask you for a dollar. Of course the young men who should have been doing the development work you were doing gave you a hard time (though if you'd gone over and calmly talked with them, or played soccer with them, they'd probably have befriended you.) Every time Haitians have gone to the polls in free and fair elections, since Duvalier was escorted out of the country on a US plane, they have voted in droves for a social democratic platform, most often represented by Lavalas. And every time, Lavalas governments and institutions have been undermined or destroyed by the Haitian elite with the assistance of foreign powers. The Aristide medical school, where the people who smear as "dependent" might have trained to become doctors, was trashed and used as a US military barracks after the 2004 coup. You can't make this stuff up.

    Here's an easy-to-follow primer on just some of this history:

    Here's a nuanced piece about rumors and Cite Soleil:

    You're a US citizen, and if you're going to speak with authority about Haiti, you ought to say something about your own government's malevolent role in its travails. You managed to say nothing positive about Haiti's vibrant culture or its beautiful land. I had plenty of anecdotal experiences just like yours. But I didn't generalize from them, play into racist historical depictions, or neglect to ask myself (or Haitians) why people might act that way.

    That this is passes for thoughtful commentary on Haiti and aid work, in this day and age, and so many blan are chiming in to say, "Oh, great job!"...

    Well fuck, that's depressing.

    1. Ans, I agree. I've been in Haiti for almost a year now and have been married to a Haitian for almost two years, and I have been impressed by how many (I think I could say most) Haitians DON'T sit around and wait for aid to come through...they have seen enough broken promises in the past to become pretty self-reliant. I have also found that Haitians are their own biggest critics, so I really don't think they need another blan adding to that chorus (there is enough of that in the American media). I do acknowledge the problems of "aid work"...but to blame that on Haitians is to miss the point.

    2. Seconded. It's incredible that other commenters are patting this guy on the back for statements that buy into that neo-colonial/racist perspective of 'poor, desperate, dependent, grifters' that the Haitians are being portrayed as (yes yes, I know he has 'Haitian friends'--classic 'I have X friends too!' strategy.) Before Quinn starts hating, know this--I worked in Cambodia, which is a humanitarian shitshow like Haiti, and I've definitely had my less than stellar dickish moments as well while there, so I can relate. But on later self-reflection, I realized that I was the one being a dick. Why? Because in humanitarian aid and development, the people you are 'helping' don't owe you a damn thing; because you're rich, educated, and can come and go as you please, while they are stuck in a country that has been fucked over time and time again, and have no opportunity to get out, unless they magically finagle a job at an NGO--hard to do of course when you're too poor to afford to go to school, and thus could never be qualified.

      Young men in a country that has 70%+ unemployment, who would like one of these jobs but arent qualified, since you know, their parents could never afford to send them to school, are of course going to be pissed at a blan 'volunteer' (usually getting paid a stipend and a per diem) popping into a country without any knowledge of the language, even (I noticed you said you don't know French and only learned Creole upon arrival) running an organization and telling other Haitians what to do,and using it as a career launch pad to then move on in a couple years for bigger and better things while they're is still stuck in Haiti. The optics of that don't look good, and you'd feel the same way too if say, a rich Russian oligarch's son blew into Oakland, ran an organization, but didn't speak English, and knew nothing of the city's history or culture, and did it so that he could get into a masters program at Cambridge. You too would call him an arrogant dick, and if you were 14, you'd probably throw rocks at him too.

      Most humanitarian workers are first worlders (or members of elite third world families), all go home to comfortable homes after work in the field, often all living in villas with regular electricity and food, paid for by the organization, and have the luxury of 'calling people out' for their 'ignorance,' while swanning about in first world amenities in a desperately poor country (I know this b/c I saw and lived that in Cambodia), then patting themselves on the back for making all of these sacrifices by going to work in a poor country to 'help,' even though these ingrates don't deserve it, and spending most of their time in the company of other blans. It's a poisonous bubble to get caught up in.

      Humanitarian work is critical, and those with the needed skillsets need to go support and help in places where it's lacking, but I don't for a moment believe that it should be done as an act of charity, which seems to be the viewpoint that Quinn exposits from his writing (and hence the reaction he has)--but rather as an act of justice. That is what Paul Farmer (yeah I know, the gold standard) means when he talks about the 'preferential option for the poor.' The poor owe us nothing, but we owe them a plenty for being winners in a system that has been rigged (by our country, amongst others) for them to lose since the very beginning.

    3. Ans, Caleb, Lili... there's nothing neo-colonial about Quin's blog entry that he doesn't self acknowledge.

      he is questioning what motivated him to be in Haiti - whether it was ego or empathy, a little of both, etc.

      i took his post to be more about an individual dealing with working in a foreign aid system that is fraught with faults. i don't see where he is offensive towards Haitians. in the parts where he says he wants to swear/yell at the locals, he admits that this is an unjust/invalid frustration in a sense, because they are players in a political economy that goes way beyond their control as individuals.

      in fact, that is what i took this blog to be about - how we respond as individuals to an unjust political economy that goes way beyond our control. how we can act as ethical beings, and when we can trust ourselves to know whether we are being ethical or egotistical.

      yeah, it's not very nice to whinge about ppl constantly asking you for a dollar when they are living in poverty. however, the fact that you can understand theoretically why you shouldn't be annoyed by this doesn't mean that in practice you won't be annoyed by this. have all of you lived in situations where literally DOZENS of people ask you for money/possessions every day? I have - it's fucking annoying. sometimes i feel like raging at the people who ask me, even though from a theoretical level i know it's not something that i should logically be raging about.

      but to admit that you feel like raging is refreshingly honest - because it is something that has shame and guilt associated with it, and you have tried to make this person feel shame and guilt for being honest about these feelings. and i dont think he goes easy on himself for having these feelings.

      lili, your post is boring, you state the obvious, and make unfounded accusations about the type of work quin was doing.
      caleb, quin didn't blame haitians - where does he say this? and that's great that you've had a positive experience in haiti, but that doesnt mean that other people aren't allowed to share their experiences and reflections.
      etc etc,

      let's have open discussions about foreign aid without jumping down people's throats when they have something negative to say about foreign aid or even another culture (even though i dont think quin really had anything too negative to say - he was mostly discussing HIS REACTIONS, not inherent faults within haitian people....)

      having said that, i don't believe there is anything wrong with being able to criticise parts of a culture/people/nation state, whether it's your own or someone elses, as long as it's in a balanced, founded, and well-researched way. there's no need to jump down someones throat and call them neocolonical, racist etc for doing this. that is an incorrect claim.

      quin, thank you for your interesting, insightful blog, which showed a great deal more shades of grey than some of the boring and one-sided criticisms that it received. it made my own negative experiences in developing countries seem more validated, and i really enjoyed reading it.

      also, has anyone read emergency sex or road to hell?


  27. Thank you so much for writing this. I spent 10 months in Haiti after the quake and I get so annoyed with aid workers who wax rhapsodic about Ayiti Cheri and talk as if Haitians are innocent children who have no role to play in their future. It's a good and bad country, with good and bad people, like all places. Good luck in your remaining time and good luck digesting all that you've experienced. I'm still digesting my experience.

  28. Some thoughts on your post... Very interesting.

  29. Have you read, "When Helping Hurts" by Steve Corbett and Brian Finkert? After 12 short trips doing medical work in Haiti, this book helped me clear my head and gave me new ideas. I have had many of the experiences you described and more dealing with the sick and dying. Thank you for the time you gave to try to make a difference in Haiti. Perhaps maybe just one starfish will remember what you did and it will be worth it.

  30. Novelist Madison Smarth Bell whose triology chronicles the period of colonialism and independence has his view on the blan (which can mean white but really means "foreigner" and a Haitian-American is often called blan) experience/relationship in/to Haiti--

    the metaphor is Kublers "stages of grief"

    in this case it was 7 steps

    2/delusion of grandeur (experience this?)

  31. Quin,

    You are a Hypocrite, I am sure nobody forced you to go to Haiti. From your post, you stated that Haitians are lazy? I am sure if a lot of you who went to Haiti to work was doing what you were paid to do, Haiti would have move forward. Most of you live a luxurious lifestyle in Haiti (the home, the car, all paid for). How many of you can honestly said you accomplished something in Haiti that is sustainable?

    This girl who simply had a high school diploma and worked in Africa for 3 months was called an expert in Haiti. Do you think Haiti doesn't have expert too?

    Thank God a lot of qualify Haitian children are returning back home to work.

    Shut the fuck up, you chose to be in Haiti and I am more interested in how you helped the country.

    Most of you are fake Humanitarians, you don't really give a shit about the people. All you care about is the nice little package you are receiving on a monthly basis and pay young little girls in PV to have sex with you.

    Quin, you chose the wrong field for a career. I encourage you to change your major in grad school.

  32. Many in the developed world have grown up being told by their media that they were the privileged ones, and that the "third world" population(especially "third world" females), is waiting for their salvation. Tempted with such a juicy fetish for your ego to wank on, who wouldn't succumb to the temptation?

  33. I thought this piece was beautiful and the honesty of your reflections refreshing. You put in words the conflicted feelings many of us have had in this sector and regardless of the judgement of others I hope you still feel them to be true. So many people have a longing to participate in humanitarian/aid/development work and do so for very personal reasons (I am certainly a believer in the White Savior complex, but it's more complex than that), but I think it's what people do AFTER these experiences that is the most significant, probably more so than the work they did during. So my question for you is, knowing what you know now and feeling the way you do in this piece, what will do now? will you continue to work in the aid sector? will it be abroad or at home? will you return to haiti someday?