Ceramics in Haiti: The Dynamics of Giving

I have a confession to make. Over the years I have donated my time, money, and artwork to a variety of organizations. From supporting arts programming to preventing domestic violence, repairing houses in Appalachia to feeding children in Africa, I have given freely — and often indiscriminately. I almost never looked into the actual impact of an organization before making a donation, nor did I follow through afterward to learn how my particular contributions were being used. By my own actions, I have proven myself far less concerned about making a genuine difference in the world, and more focused on being the kind of person who regularly donates to the AVOL auction. That’s a pretty damning statement — and, I suspect, one that applies to many Americans.

One of the most valuable things that I took away from Haiti was a clearer understanding of how indiscriminate generosity doesn’t merely waste of resources — it can substantially hurt the people it was intended to help. It’s likely that I have participated in hurtful charity in the past; in the future I want to do better. In order to do so, I need to better understand they dynamics of giving.

Through their work at the Apparent Project, Corrigan and Shelley Clay have made plenty of connections with other aid projects in Haiti, and have witnessed firsthand the effects (both positive and negative) of various forms of giving. They have seen individuals and communities crippled by aid projects that replace self-sufficiency with helpless dependence on ongoing aid. They have witnessed fledgling local economies and means of production shattered by a sudden influx of free goods or services from overseas.

This giving is certainly well-intentioned, and in many cases it does serve to meet people’s immediate needs for food, shelter, or medical services. But in the long-term it creates an ever-increasing need and dependency on foreign aid to meet the needs of individuals and communities who are no longer able to provide for themselves.

By contrast, aid projects that empower individuals and communities can help to foster long-term self-sufficiency and independence from ongoing aid. There are lots of different ways to do that, from supporting education to creating jobs to strengthening local economies and furthering sustainable agriculture.

I think, as with all things, that it’s much easier to give out poorly-planned handouts than it is to invest the time and energy to learn the particular needs and challenges faced by a community. It’s easier to make a big one-time donation and hope for the best than it is to invest wisely over a period of years and decades. It’s easier to recognize and respond to the immediate and urgent needs of a community than it is to become a part of that community and share in the creation of a long-term vision and plan for how that community might be able to grow.

What was easy for me, though, may well have been absolutely crippling for the people I believed I was helping. I owe it to myself, to my world, and to my Creator to do better than that.

Here are my other posts about Haiti.


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About Sarah Jane

Working artist, university professor, community educator. Currently living in community at the Grunewald Guild, Leavenworth, WA.

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