Mission groups debate how to help Haiti

Mike Riggs Contributor
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Steve Corbett, author of “When Helping Hurts: How to Alleviate Poverty Without Hurting the Poor … and Yourself,” has some advice for churches looking to get involved with earthquake-ravaged Haiti: “Don’t start something new right now.”

Along with fellow Covenant College professor Brian Fikkert, Corbett will host an online seminar for missions groups and American churches that would like to send teams to Port-au-Prince in the wake of last month’s destabilizing earthquake. At the top of their list of recommendations is avoiding the mistakes that have stifled church efforts at alleviating poverty in a lasting way.

The goal is not that Haiti look like Atlanta,” Fikkert said in a phone interview. “The goal is for people to have dignity, to make decisions on their own about how to steward their communities.”

Corbett and Fikkert are proponents of “asset-based” aid. Instead of funneling money into impoverished communities as many aid agencies have done for decades, the two advocate developing a community’s ability to help itself. “Many western churches adopt a western worldview as to what is the nature of poverty and poverty alleviation,” Fikkert said. “The western worldview has said that poverty is rooted in a lack of material things. So the solutions that the west has tired to provide are material in nature: Pumping in more capitol, pumping in more technology.”

The problem with focusing on poverty solely as a “material deficit,” Corbett said, is that “it creates a giver-receiver relationship” that it difficult to unwind.

“Lo and behold, a lot of good things haven’t happened” in developing nations receiving financial donations, Fikkert said.

While world leaders have begun plotting long-term strategies for rehabilitating Haiti, skeptics doubt government-funded efforts will be enough. “There is no reason to believe from the past track record” that the international community will fund rebuilding efforts in Haiti 10 years from now, Bruce Bagley, chairman of the University of Miami Department of International Studies told the Miami Herald.

But what large entities like the World Bank and the United Nations can’t easily do at the hyperlocal level churches quite possibly can, argue Fikkert and Corbett. “The earthquake hits, and 1,000 people go back to their local church,” Fikkert said. “That church can host leadership development and assist refugees with re-entry into society.”

The goal for mission groups is not “going down to Haiti for a week and building 14 houses,” Fikkert said, while acknowledging that “material poverty is a real thing. People really are dying because they don’t have clean water and housing.” Instead, churches who would like to get involved with Haiti should “identify groups that already have a track record of doing really good work.”

Corbett points to the U.N.’s cash-for-work program as a system that churches would be wise to incorporate into their efforts. “A bunch of outsiders say we’ll come in and do it for you … but the U.N. says, ‘Here’s some money and a chance to be working.'” Corbett also points to larger rebuilding efforts as a chance to involve Haitians in the rebuilding of Port-au-Prince. “We could come in with outside construction people, but why not pay Haitians?”

Through his contacts in the missions field, Corbett says he learned the saying, “Every Haitian needs a white cow,” and that the expression sums up everything that’s wrong with aid in the third world. “If you ask people around the world what it means to be poor, the response is, ‘We feel shame,'” he said.

After relief transitions rehabilitation, Corbett and Fikkert think there’s a chance to alter the cycle. “We have to give them opportunities to work for themselves.”