The unremarkable sour taste for an aid worker in Haiti
Yesterday, NPR interviewed Quinn Zimmerman, an “aid worker leav[ing] Haiti with a sour taste,” as the radio outlet put it. Zimmerman had recently written a blog post in which he outlined many of the frustrations—locals seeing his white skin as little more than dollar signs, locals giving him shit merely for being a foreigner in Haiti, locals expecting him to dole out cadeux all the time—that he’s felt while working for an NGO in Leogane over the past couple of years.
“I came down here with kind of rose-colored glasses,” Zimmerman told NPR, “and this belief that intention was enough, that my desire to want to help people was enough.” In the blog post, he noted, “I knew a bit about the idea of the white savior industrial complex, but didn’t know enough to realize I was playing right into it.”
The interview and post are a glimpse into what it’s like for someone to have his or her idealism chastened. Most Peace Corps Volunteers can probably relate, as I’m sure many aid workers can. While serving in Peace Corps Senegal I went through many of the things Zimmerman describes —similar frustrations, the gradual hardening—even if I limited my outlet to venting with fellow PCV friends when I was out of my village, rather than doing it online or in a national interview with NPR.
Historian Laurent Dubois commented on the Zimmerman interview yesterday on Twitter. Dubois’ Avengers of the New World is a fantastic if a little dense account of the Haitian Revolution, and his Haiti: The Aftershocks of History garnered oodles of praise when it came out in January and is possibly now recognized as the best broad overview of Haitian history, for a layman and English-speaking audience, at least.
A string of four tweets by Dubois about the Zimmerman interview read like this:
Post/interview is good in a way for honestly and openly saying what many aid workers in #Haiti feel and say privately. At the same time, there’s a great deal of confusion between the self-criticism and deeply patronizing vision of #Haiti. The lesson should be, I think, that that matrix of #Haiti volunteer/NGO structures clearly provides too little preparation for people. One wonders how different the experience would have been if he arrived with language/knowledge of #Haiti rather than just good intentions.
Zimmerman’s story isn’t remarkable; the remarkable thing is that so many people who ship off to Haiti or Senegal or wherever on do-good missions in the world of internet and Twitter and instantaneous communication have such warped expectations about the people they will find at their destinations, about the work they will be doing, and about the work of “saving” or “fixing” a place or people that they’ll never be able to do.
Even though he says he never thought he was here to “fix” Haiti, Zimmerman admits that his expectations before coming were out of line with reality. You can tell how much that’s changed by the way he talks now:
When we [westerners] come down here, we assume that people in poverty must be suffering. And surely, there’s a lot of suffering, and I’ve seen it firsthand, but I also would have to say that the vast majority of the town, it looks like people kind of go about their daily lives. And, you know, it’s not as horrific as the scenes that you see sometimes in articles about Haiti from people that have only been here for, maybe, a week in a post-disaster situation type of a thing.
I think that actually, one of the things that might get … the Haitians very frustrated is this stigma that they get, like these poor, poor, desperate people. … We have to go in and do something. That’s so demeaning, and they’re people just like anybody else. Just because you’re poor doesn’t mean you don’t pick up on what other people perceive you to be. And I know a lot of Haitians who are very proud of being Haitian. They’re very proud of where they come from and, yeah, they might not have a lot, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that they’re miserable and suffering constantly.
Kramer says that she’s sensed tremendous frustration among international employees working with large NGOs who feel disconnected from the people they’re here trying to help.
“I also think it results in huge staff turnover,” she says, “because people are really unhappy here. …
Read the entire piece here.