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Don't Be Fooled in Haiti: How to Be Charitable When Everyone is in Need

Where: Haiti
April 21, 2011 at 12:28 PM | by | Comments (0)


Being chased by children asking for help

In the wake of Japan's tragic events, the world has been quick to forget Haiti's 7.0 earthquake, which ruled the headlines through 2010. As the country continues to rebuild, the tourists slowly trickle back. Jaunted special correspondent Soo Ah M. Lee recently returned from a medical volunteering mission in Port-Au-Prince, and will share her Haiti travel stories and voluntourism tips all this week. This is her story:

Before I begin this fourth article in the series, I just want to clarify that I am not a doctor. My main role in my team was providing medical services in the role of assistant. Basically I helped with passing out medicine and giving gifts to all the patients seen by the actual doctors. In this role, I accompanied volunteers to two churches, three orphanages, several home visits and some communal areas to provide services. Most of the visits were in Cité Soleil—one of the biggest and poorest slums in this side of the world, with a known population of about 300,000 people. Other times were spent in Canaan—also known as "Tent City," because some 200,000 here are still living in tents.

I felt mentally, emotionally, and spiritually drained after visiting such heart breaking locations. I felt even worse upon seeing children suffering from malnutrition, diseases and bacterial issues. As a volunteer and a foreigner here, you feel compelled to do something, anything to help. Charity is a delicate issue, however, and visitors quickly learn the right and wrong ways to provide help.

A doctor, who is very passionate about her work, noticed a trend among the patients. If one patient received medicine for any issues—stomach pain, for example—the next few patients would say that they all have pain in their stomach to receive the same medicine, regardless of whatever else they actually suffered from. This doctor got curious and asked one bluffing patient to show her where the pain is. After a few moments of hesitant thinking, the patient pointed to her appendix.


At right: a little girl plays with a pull toy.

So why would patients repeat the previous patient’s symptoms? Because those waiting have seen others in front of them receive medicine. Drugs can easily be resold on the streets if they are in their original packaging. For example, you give a person a box with medicine tablets; they can either keep the medicine in the box or get rid of the box and sell the medicine still in its air-sealed tablet packaging. Although I don’t a have a picture of this, just image a person carrying a large upside down cone with medicine tablets tied around the cone and also at the end of the opening.

Don't get me wrong; I am not stating that you should not help people in need. Many Haitians in the slums are absolutely in need of medical attention and everything from drinking water to shoes. JUST BE SMART about it! The doctor that I mentioned before wised up and saw that every patient walked out with vitamins and/or ibuprofen or creams in little baggies so that they could not be resold. This way there was a greater chance that the patient would actually take the medicine distributed to them.

Some tips on charitable giving in Haiti

· Try not to give anything in brand-new containers or risk that the person to whom you're being charitable will turn around and resell it.
· When giving anything away, have the recipient repeat back to you or a translator what they will do with the item. If it's medicine, have them repeat your instructions for use. If it's clothing, have them repeat who it is for and where it shall go (like to their house or for a friend or named family member). You may be surprised how little attention is being paid to you until you ask this.
· Do not donate money directly to an orphanage without being completely, 100% sure about where and to whom it's going. There is much talk of corruption. If possible, provide food directly. I was in situations even doing this where orphanage directors were angry that we weren't bringing cash for them. There was talk of reselling the food, too.
· Don’t let your emotions take over your conscious. Because I look different, locals assume that I am rich. They will ask over and over again, in English, "give me money” or "give me food." Naked babies were pushed at me.
· Know that if you do give to one person, there will be a stream of people coming up to beg as well, and more insistently. It is another heartwrenching sight to have your vehicle followed by those you don't have enough to give to.
· Be careful of what you carry. Haitians are not afraid to touch you and tug your hand. Children will reach in your pockets and I've had medicine almost stolen off of me in this way.
· Don’t be afraid to say no. Those asking for things can quickly get aggressive because it has worked for them before to attain free goods and/or money.

Tomorrow, for the final installment of this series, Soo Ah will share some observations on the state of tourism. Don't forget to read Part 1, Part 2 and Part 3!

[Photos: Soo Ah M. Lee]

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