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This minor drama in Haiti reveals much

Amidst the carnage of Haiti, a quiet little drama is playing itself out. Baptist missionaries from the USA were arrested trying to take 33 “orphans” out of the wrecked country, ostensibly to a better life in an orphanage in the neighbouring Dominican Republic.

Except that many of the children were not orphans at all, and none of the necessary papers had been filed to allow them to leave the country. The 10 Americans have now been charged with kidnapping and criminal association. The Haiti government suspects them of being involved in child trafficking.

The do-gooders protest their innocence, saying they were doing “God’s work” and “God will free us.” They claim they only came to help a devastated country after its recent earthquake. They thought they were taking poor orphans to a better life.

This little sideshow, on the fringes on the mass tragedy of the Haiti disaster, reveals so much about the state of our world that I scarcely know where to begin. I won’t comment on the case at hand – that is for the courts to decide (there were indications at the time of writing that the Americans would be released). But I do know that this drama reflects badly on the world we live in.

For one thing, what is all this do-gooding in the name of God? People doing the most misguided things on this planet will confidently assert they are agents of divinity. This includes mass murder and needless warfare. There were two reactions from the God-squads after Haiti broke: one, a wringing of hands and loud lamentations about needing to help the wretched. Two, a wrathful instant judgement which decrees that the Haitians brought misfortune on themselves because of their past sins.

Both are lamentable. To place yourself in an imagined divine mission is the height of pretentiousness. To condemn so casually is just as malign. What “sins” are little children paying for, crushed beneath the rubble? And what makes those casting stones so holy? Indeed, US newspapers revealed that the missionaries’ leader has a history of failing to pay debts and employees. She has been the target of eight lawsuits and 14 claims for unpaid wages.

The second thing that annoys me is the do-gooding instinct itself. What is this patronising nonsense that reduces able people to child status? Why is the “advanced” world imagining that it has to uplift, lecture and mentor the misguided minions of poor countries in the first place? Not to put too fine a point in it, why does the white world perpetually think it has to save the black world? Hardly anyone is rushing to spend their own money doing this – there are way too many NGOs ready to cash in on the unintended largesse of anonymous taxpayers.

And the last thing: why are Haitians (and indeed many Africans) so ready to consume this largesse, lap it up, live off it, depend on it, and become even more enfeebled by it? Those Haitian children seemed to think they were going on some sort of outing. Many were apparently sent by their own relatives. Why are so many of us ever-so-willing to be cast in the role of eternal supplicant, whose master lives elsewhere?

I hate to be discussing these issues in the aftermath of an awful disaster in which so many have perished and hundreds of thousands are left bereft and hopeless. But these things are deeply troubling, and they occur even in normal circumstances. So much of the world seems ready to play the role of patronising master and teacher; and so much of it is willing to play the helpless clown who needs handouts and sermons every day.

We are not going to move forward like this. Haiti will not save itself on the back of the other people’s largesse, genuine or otherwise, and neither will Africa. Do-gooders and relief-givers and aid-donors can help during disasters (sometimes) but in the long term they only weaken their targets even more.

If the weak countries of the world are going to be saved, it will only be through their own efforts. Haiti, like many African countries, allows a handful of elite leaders to corner most of the wealth in the land. Haiti was blessed with abundant natural resources but blew them all away, unlike its Dominican Republic neighbour whose economy is seven times larger. Haiti is wallowing in its role as the western hemisphere’s problem child, instead of being insulted by it and rising above it.

There are lessons to be learned from those nations that have developed rapidly. They used external help as the exception, not the norm. They ensured that they installed the correct leadership and governance models. They matured beyond charismatic individuals towards effective institutions. They instilled a relentless work ethic in their people. And most importantly, they took pride in themselves and their own ways of doing things, and they just got on with it. That is the only development model that works. Everything else is eyewash.

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