Editorial by Susan Chambers, M.D. Chambers is a current World Neighbors Trustee and a founding member of WOW! Work of Women.
I marvel when I travel in developing countries that life happens on the side of the road. As we swoosh by we glimpse women selling bananas, men on bicycles with huge loads of wood, families cooking over an open fire in their dirt front yard. We see young men bathing in a river, school kids in uniforms on their way to school, neighbors chatting, dogs, chickens and goats herded toward home. Beautiful faces and sometimes beautiful scenery accented with dilapidated buildings, homes made out of tin and roads littered with trash.
Most visitors to developing countries don’t keep traveling very far down those roads. Most never take a right at a nondescript tree, a left at a rock along a bumpy, dusty piece of earth to get to the end of the road. But if you do, you will see something you missed on the first part of your journey: hope and dignity.
I recently had the opportunity to travel with a small group to Haiti on a World Neighbors Journey. These excursions are always special. But this trip to Haiti was different. For the first time, I really witnessed just how difficult it is to make lasting change.
We visited Haitian communities at many levels of development. During one of our visits, a community leader in charge of agriculture made a plea for a water pump: “If we just had a pump all our problems would be solved.” Kate Schecter, World Neighbors CEO, kindly explained to him and the other leaders that our group doesn’t give things away. This “confrontation” was initially hard to experience. I understood the point Kate was making about a hand up rather than a hand out. Yet I was deeply moved by this Haitian man’s desire to quickly solve problems and improve lives.
This became a crucial “aha” moment for me and, I believe, others in our group. We were not in this person’s shoes, and never could be. Desperately poor people want help and want it yesterday. Talk of changes that will enable long-term self-sufficiency can sound empty when the immediate need is so acute. Yet the facts were the facts: a water pump would not solve all of this community’s problems. The local leaders eventually acknowledged this and recognized many more things had to be done before a water pump would actually achieve what they hoped it would.
The following day we traveled to a community that had graduated from our assistance a few years ago. The community now operates without any outside support. What we found there was beyond amazing. They had acres of beautiful crops, a fishpond to generate additional income and a farmer field school to teach organic techniques. In our meeting with the leaders, they spoke of their successes in areas of health and education and empowering youth. They concluded their presentation to us with their vision: to help all 5,000 community members become self-sufficient. From what we saw, they had patiently put the pieces in place to achieve this.
The international community committed billions to rebuilding Haiti after the 2010 earthquake. Most of that has either been unspent or misspent. The failures have led many to throw up their hands. My week in Haiti visiting communities at various stages of development may not have refuted that story. But it did tell a different one.
Many Haitians have in fact changed their lives for the better, by building on the skills and economic activities they have long possessed and practiced. And they can do much more with the patient and targeted assistance of development groups that invest small amounts of money in intelligent and creative ways. Haiti can be rebuilt. It is being rebuilt — slowly, carefully and one village at a time.
Change that ultimately changes the world cannot be a quick fix.
A version of this editorial by Susan Chambers, M.D, was published in The Oklahoman on April 15, 2016. It appeared in the spring/summer issue of Neighbors Magazine and has been reposted on this blog with the permission of World Neighbors, a Partner in GFAR. The GFAR Secretariat celebrates the work and collective actions of Partners who share in our mission to strengthen and transform agri-food research and innovation systems globally. For more information on the Partners in GFAR, and to become a Partner, click here!
Photo credits: World Neighbors