With Haiti in Mind, Thoughts on Giving Back

Monday, January 25, 2010 | Baltimore, MD, USA (map)

Roadside scene (Kigali, Rwanda)
Last Tuesday, Jacqueline and I were in the thick of our planning for our upcoming trip to East Africa, when the earth beneath Haiti trembled, swallowing up much of what little hope existed there.

In the days since the earthquake, I have been closely reading the accounts emerging from Port-au-Prince and the surrounding countryside, plus the development blog chatter about the quake's aftermath and its implications for Haiti's future.

Soon after the earthquake, Jacqueline and I began to wonder if we were doing the right thing. Shouldn't we scrap our East Africa trip plans to go volunteer in the rebuilding effort? As I read more, however, I realized that assisting on the ground wasn't even a realistic possibility, and might not be for some time, due to the almost complete collapse of Haiti's already minimal infrastructure.

"Stay put", "Don't go to Haiti", and "You'll just add to the confusion" was the advice I read. The message was unambiguous: Haiti can't even sustain its own people right now, much less an army of volunteers.

Then I read a post by Chris Blattman, a Yale professor who writes one of my favorite development blogs, in which he described grappling with some of the same feelings:
... But where to channel that energy and angst? Unless you have a very specific set of skills and experience, you would be more harm than help in Haiti right now. Even a year down the road I can promise you there's a better use of energy and resources than flying to Haiti to build houses for a week.

I say seize that instinct. There are a hundred Haitis out there. They are called Benin or Bolivia or Bhutan. Parts of Boston, for that matter. There is ample room for smart, dedicated people to devote themselves to emergencies, development, and aid. ...
So we're moving forward with our East Africa plans, while also looking into giving a bit more: first by donating to the Haiti efforts (for others considering doing the same, great advice is available here and here), then by finding an opportunity to help out somewhere where assistance is both more feasible and just as needed. To start, we're considering WWOOFing—volunteering with World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms—or other organizations we hear of along the way.

But I want to ask anyone who's reading this: How can we give back while traveling? Does travel contribute in and of itself? What can short-term travelers do that can actually make any tangible difference? Opinions on those questions, or suggestions and ideas for our time in Ethiopia, Kenya, Tanzania, etc. are welcome.

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