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Haiti And The Contradiction Of Rich People’s Charity

Photo by Andy Wright | CC BY 2.0

Oxfam, one of the biggest charities in Britain, has been exposed for hiring prostitutes, losing millions of dollars and practicing an overall secrecy that leaves the public with more questions than answers about the good they are doing in less industrialized nations. I am always weary of the nationalist isolationist right, and it is mostly because they aren’t isolationists. Donald Trump spewed the rhetoric of an isolationist but he hasn’t exactly been one. He may not believe in the ultimate goodness of NATO. He is right to have a critique but he almost stumbles on this one accidentally. He doesn’t believe that anyone would want, or should want to help other people. Hence he strips protections, promotes pipelines and lifts taxes for the rich, all in the name of freedom for those the most greedy and heartless. Anyone else, namely the poor, needs to make like the Donald and embrace criminal self-interest. It is the language he speaks and it is the actions he expects from everyone else, including many of the failed American and Western institutions. Liberals on the other hand are increasingly embracing these failed institutions precisely because Trump does not.

Donald in practice is not an isolationist though. He doesn’t believe in friends but he does believe in enemies. An isolationist wouldn’t be flirting with nuking North Korea. An isolationist wouldn’t talk about “stealing the oil” from Iraq. This past week the U.S. said they won’t give any money to Iraq’s reconstruction. His critique of trade deals is not that that they are disastrous for the environment or that they lower working conditions (especially for countries with less protections for their workers). Rather he says that America is getting ripped off. This mirrors his sentiment that the American white working class is being left behind because of liberal diversity at home.

Charities like Oxfam recognize that Donald is wrong and that countries like Haiti are suffering more than ones like the United States or Britain. They though still assume that they (the West) are part of the solution rather than the reason for the problem itself. This is not to say I am against wealth distribution per se. As our financial system collapsed, it was Wall St. who was bailed out. That money should have gone to poor people. The argument against welfare, reparations, and more recently a universal basic income, is that it is a handout that doesn’t allow people to grow on their own. Nonsense. Half the country is living paycheck to paycheck. How on earth is anybody supposed to “grow” or achieve “freedom” in such a state.

The problem though for Oxfam and others is that there is so often no such thing as a free lunch. What the Oxfam scandal shows is that these organizations are about power as much as anything else. Because of the weight of currency in poorer nations a person traveling there is almost always much richer than they were back home. There comes along with this a savior complex that believes that the laws, language and customs of the country you are “saving” are not for you. And a mentality that there are few laws at all for you because of your privileged status. There is also the cruel reality that these nations are so often in so much trouble that they have little power to say no to someone who wishes to help, no matter how many strings are attached.

In my experience in Ghana last year foreigners were always doing more harm than good. Fellow study abroad students hired prostitutes. One filmed and shared online a woman’s birth that he was supposed to be assisting on. One tried to steal a car but failed to get out of the driveway because it was a stick shift. Clubs featured rich old fat white men in the corner with their young black prostitutes.

Foreign aid on its own is not a bad idea. It is necessary. But why is it necessary? It is because the wars fought in the name of democracy are about making money. The threat of war is always present for those poorer countries who don’t cooperate with unfair trade deals between countries. I remember my professor in Ghana talking about Ghana basically giving away oil to the United States right now in exchange for peaceful relations. Who could deny this after the statement Trump openly said about Iraq? Dick Cheney’s organization Halliburton is another recent example. So when rich countries do give aid it is a public gesture that attempts to shield what they are doing with the other hand. And when aid is given, often to countries held hostage, it comes with strings attached.

There is also something inherent in these charity organizations that is anti-democratic. Having outsiders come in who don’t understand the community is a problem, especially when they bring cholera with them. We would be better off giving skilled people from these communities incentives to stay at home. There is a large brain drain from poorer countries that is hardly addressed by sending some foreigners back. On the other hand dying people in war zones like Yemen and Syria surely wouldn’t want to hear an argument about their doctors being too “privileged” to help. The broader issue of course is that the West gives with one hand and takes much more with the other. If charity from the rich worked there would no longer be rich people.

Some people make a profit off of of these misadventures but even for those that don’t there is a lack of faith in the countries we interfere in. We don’t believe that countries like Haiti have the right or the wisdom to figure things out for their own people. Instead we choose to trust our own military-industrial complex who overthrow leaders because they are disobedient to the U.S., with no regard of their popularity among the people they represent.

Until it is evident across the board that richer countries do more good than harm through their presence in poorer countries it may be best not to not interfere at all. As the saying goes, if you don’t have anything nice to say… It is not surprising that organizations like Oxfam, who operate on the assumption that they are above the people they are helping turned out to abuse the people in disadvantaged communities. Let’s not forget that the rationale for most colonialism and imperialist is social reform. In reality colonialism and imperialism operate as for profit ventures that seek to control and exploit poorer people. Should we buy into “reforming” charity work in Haiti and other places? Not with the actors involved.

The best ways to help poorer countries would be to establish fair trade that did not rely on force. It would be to to not have a military presence in these countries. It would mean polluting less, as our mass consumption in the West has led to chaotic environmental conditions elsewhere. It would mean providing financial incentives for doctors and other high-skilled workers from disadvantaged countries to work where they were born. It would mean to stop expanding our global corporations into these countries, as we take away from local means to make a living when we do this. It would mean accepting far more immigrants and refugees. It would mean not to starve people through sanctions. It would mean ridding the world of nuclear weapons. It wouldmean creating partnerships rather than relationships of dependence. And above all, it would mean distancing ourselves from the assumption that the poor can be saved by their oppressors.

Until all of these things happen power seeking charities will continue to have their role for better or worse. Arrogance and abuse by charities are not surprising given the differences in power they depend on. Still, to abandon the poor because of mistakes by the rich is unfair. The question though is what can we do to help besides charity? How can we move beyond relationships of dependence where abuse is inevitable? Are we even interested in this question? For the contradiction behind all charity is that the moment it works it is no longer needed.

Haiti is the most depressing example of this paradox. 9 billion dollars and 10,000 charities headed to Haiti after their earthquake. The relationships between actors are still the same. There are those who suffer and those who save.

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Nick Pemberton writes and works from Saint Paul, Minnesota. He loves to receive feedback at pemberton.nick@gmail.com 

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