Thursday, July 7, 2011

Good intentions aren’t enough

On our last evening in Haiti, a young man joined us at our table on the hotel patio. His eyes were wide, full of fear; his voice shaky and unsettled. Clearly relieved to have found someone that spoke English, he asked “is it safe for me to walk outside these walls alone?” We answered honestly with a simple “no” and inquired about his work in Port-au-Prince.

To keep what could be a long and complex story short, he came from the northwest coast of the United States. After some consideration he “decided to come to Haiti to help”. A plane ticket was purchased, a room booked and he was on his way to Haiti to work for four days.

Upon reaching the PAP airport, he found himself without cell service (many US carriers don’t provide coverage in Haiti). Speaking no French or Kréyol, he was unable to communicate with anyone. A good samaritan helped him purchase a pre-paid cell phone and gave the cab driver instructions to take him to the hotel where we met. During the 30-minute drive, he experienced extreme culture shock as he was clearly unprepared for the Haitian way of life in and around the capital city.

Adding to his stress, his credit card company put a freeze on his account since he had last used the card in California and now it was being used in Haiti—they assumed it to be stolen. To complicate things further, the cell phone that he purchased only made local calls so he could not reach his credit card company to unfreeze his account. The cherry on top of this twisted ice cream sundae was the fact that he had little cash on hand and was unable to pay for a cab or new plane ticket if his plans changed.

After less than an hour of conversation, he decided that it was in his best interest to leave immediately. We offered that he share our cab in the morning so he could at least get back to the airport and attempt to get home.

While his intentions were laudable, he stayed in the country for less than 24 hours and never lifted a finger to help anyone. Both time and money were wasted and he put himself in an extremely uncomfortable and potentially dangerous situation. The most unfortunate part is that he will most likely never set foot in Haiti again.

This brief but important encounter inspired us to share our thoughts on international volunteerism.
  • Research the country where you intend to work. Find out basics about the culture, currency, political environment and overall stability of the country. Decide if this is an area in which you will feel comfortable working.
  • Consider how your passion and skills may translate into the work you are interested in doing. Talk to or research people currently participating in this type of work in your country of interest to learn from their experiences and make sure it is a good fit for you.
  • Have a clear plan. Know where you are going, with whom you will be working and what you will be doing before entering the country.
  • Learn some common phrases in the native tongue. When locals hear that you are learning their language, cultural barriers begin to come down. Don’t assume that everyone speaks or understands your language.
  • Ensure that you have sufficient resources while traveling. Bank accessibility and cell phone service may be limited or non-existent in some areas.
  • Travel with at least one person who has been to your destination in the past. Someone with experience is worth their weight in gold.
  • Prepare for emergency situations. Register with the embassy of your home country so they are aware of your presence. Purchase sufficient travel insurance to facilitate medical or political evacuation if necessary.
  • Come with an open mind and equally open heart. Embrace the differences that you will experience. Build relationships that may last a lifetime.
By taking these steps you will greatly increase your chances of really making a difference in the lives of others and meeting your own philanthropic goals.

Desiring to help is a wonderful thing. But without proper planning, you may not have the fruitful experience you had hoped for.

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