ON DEVELOPMENT: Getting Rid of Helping that Hurts

January 11, 2016

By Catherine Parrill, Founder, Creative Exchanges Initiative, Jan 9, 2016

Twenty-five years ago I went to Haiti to work in a school. It was a short trip. But in only ten days two things happened that would alter my life. I fell in love with Haiti and its people. And I knew intuitively, though I couldn’t put it to words, that we were doing something wrong. Our project had built a school and clinic and we were ramping up to add an agriculture program. What could be wrong with that?

Yet, as I became more involved, I became evermore certain that in spite of our good intentions, and in spite of the positive effects that our work was having in some ways, we were also perpetuating poverty and oppression. Armed with curriculum I’d created from models such as Paolo Friere’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed, I packed up and moved to Haiti in 1996, to train teachers. More about that another time. For now, suffice it to say that over the course of the next two years, I learned first-hand about how our efforts were feeding corruption, fostering inequality, and perpetuating poverty.

Well-intentioned donors don’t like hearing this. They want to help, not hurt. In the last few years, since misuse of earthquake relief funds has become more common knowledge, I’m getting a different question. One that keeps me awake at night.

People have now begun to ask me whether they should entirely stop donating to development or charitable works.

Absolutely not! 

With nearly 800 million people on this earth lacking sufficient food to lead a healthy, active life, we can’t stop. Instead, we have to do more. But we have to change what we’re doing. Turn the old model upside down and work from the inside out. I’ll be sharing more about that in future posts here.

Meanwhile, if you haven’t already done so, check out The Blue Sweater by Jacqueline Novogratz, founder of Acumen. She first went to Rawanda a couple of years before I first went to Haiti. She learned from the inside out. And she is turning the world of philanthropic works upside down. You can check out her Ted Talk here.

Are you involved in development or charitable work abroad? Is it working like you want it to? I’d love to hear.

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