Lessons on Giving Learned in Haiti

[1] Roy Menninger writes that there are three reasons for giving: narcissistic, demands of conscience and altruistic.1 However, there is also a fourth type of giving which is akin to altruism. It is sacrificial giving which is a blessing to someone but at a real cost to the giver. Narcissistic giving is not worthy giving because it is about the giver — about self-worth, prestige and approbation. It is gaining good will for oneself not for God. When consciences are twinged, gifts that are given may be in-kind — things no longer needed or wanted are sent to the poor. This is selfish giving because it helps us clean out our closets or medicine cabinets and just gives “Junk to Jesus.” A more mature form of giving is altruism which might include advocacy. The highest form of giving is sacrificial, when the giver gives at a cost to himself/herself but reaps no tangible rewards except for the knowledge that the gift is truly needed. To give this way is praising and thanking God for an opportunity to share what God has first given us. All that we are or have or ever will have belongs to God. We are only stewards with responsibilities for the well-being of others.

Lessons on Giving Learned in Haiti by Patricia Hansen

[2] We see all of these kinds of giving in Haiti. The United States Institute of Peace has called Haiti a Republic of Non-Governmental Organizations (NGOs).2 NGOs do much of the work in Haiti that our social systems in the United States would do. Large NGOs, small religious and humanitarian organizations, groups and individuals have been working in Haiti for decades, but contributions from small, single church groups have often been sporadic and relatively inconsequential. There has been no coordination between groups; and assistance from all groups has not been sufficient to guarantee food, shelter, jobs or other necessities to build a nation of healthy people with strong support systems. There are, however, many saints and good Samaritans in the country who have given their entire lives for the well-being Haitians. The Haitian diaspora in the United States and Canada has also carried a heavy economic load by sending remittances to family and friends which have added up to more than a quarter of Haiti’s Gross Domestic Product (GDP).

[3] On an international basis, American, Canadian and European religious and humanitarian groups have sent petitions to the United States Congress, the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund and the Inter-American Development Fund asking for monetary relief for Haiti. In the past these requests were ignored, delayed and/or refused because of contingencies that Haiti could not meet. Payment of long standing debts continually put a strain on the nation.3 At the beginning of 2009, even though Haiti had been trying to pay service on her debt, the amount owed was still over $1.2 billion. However, through the advocacy of Jubilee U.S.A. (the Heavily Indebted Poor Countries Initiative), the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund finally agreed on June 30, 2009 to cancel the debt. Just months later this good news was overshadowed when a 7.0 earthquake hit with an estimated economic price tag of $14 billion. In response the World Bank announced it would provide Haiti with another loan, which in light of the crisis was inappropriate. Jubilee and others again advocated that assistance to Haiti should be in the form of grants and not loans. The World Bank cancelled all Haitian debt on May 28, 2010.

[4] Raising money for Haiti has been a problem and when the earthquake is forgotten will again be difficult. Excuses for not giving have been many and varied but for the most part they have indicated unwillingness to assist programs in a country that doesn’t seem to help itself — a country with drug trafficking and corruption. Refusals come from contributors who have listened to the off-the-wall claims that Haiti has been dedicated to the devil. Further, people have been led to believe that Haitians cannot be trusted to run their own country. We are consumed with the need for accountability for everything. “Give only to the worthy” has seemed to be the mantra.

[5] To know why Haiti has become the poorest nation in the Western Hemisphere one must understand her history and her relationship with the rest of the world. Haiti has suffered from international intervention with unequal trade policies while trying to compete in a global market. She has experienced deep economic problems exacerbated by the United States, catastrophic weather, and poor government. On the other hand many good intentions have unintended traumatic consequences because no thought was given to what could happen in the long run. For example, the United States Agency for International Development has sent thousands of tons of rice to Haiti, putting the Haitian rice farmer out of business since rice from the United States is cheaper because of subsidies.4 When bankrupt rice farmers moved to Port-au-Prince to try to make a living they found themselves more vulnerable because they had to move into crime and disease-ridden slums. Haitian President Preval asks that we no longer ship rice and water to Haiti because it is undermining the Haitian economy.

[6] Financial fragility began in 1803 when Haitian Maroons and soldiers under the leadership of Jean Jacques Dessaline forced the last of Napoleon Bonaparte’s army out of Haiti and ended centuries of ruthless, barbaric treatment of slaves.5 Most of the French and European slave and plantation owners had left the island earlier fearing for their lives and families. They left this once lush Pearl of the Antilles ravaged. Agriculture was totally destroyed after twelve years of war with Napoleon. The United States and European countries refused to recognize Haitian sovereignty and imposed blockades and embargoes. Goods could enter the country but nothing was allowed out. There was great fear that slaves in the Americas would revolt if they realized that the Haitians had gained their freedom.

[7] Sovereignty was finally recognized when the Haitians bent under the threat of another war if Haitians did not agree to fully reimburse all those who had lost property and slaves.6 This was the beginning of generations of poverty, internal dissension, contention with foreign powers and an inability to develop a healthy economy. Haitians suffered through subsequent blockades, embargoes and invasions by the United States as well as devastation by seasonal hurricanes for which they were unable to prepare. When money was loaned or given to the country, it was under terms dictated by the giver, and many of the terms were incompatible with Haitian needs and priorities.

[8] One day after the earthquake on January 13, 2010, when three million Haitians were homeless and 200,000 dead, it was as if the whole world had an epiphany. Millions of dollars were given to groups very quickly. None of the fundraising was coordinated and, except in a few instances, there were no plans or strategies in place to use the money. Many well-intentioned but ill-informed people began to flood the country with in-kind goods. Medical and humanitarian teams raced to Haiti to offer assistance without a clue about how abysmal normal conditions were. Therefore, they were completely unprepared to use their skills or distribute their largesse without causing more chaos and confusion.7 The organizations and groups who had been serving in Haiti for long periods of time were better able to manage assistance while still honoring the dignity and worth of the Haitians. These were not strangers who simply wanted to share their wealth or skills and then fly away feeling pleased with themselves. These were friends who had already established strong, positive, trusting relationships.

[9] The Global Mission Committee and the Haiti Task Force of the Florida-Bahamas Synod began accompanying a group of Haitians thirteen years ago when they brought pigs to replace those that had been slaughtered by the United States Department of Agriculture, who feared an onslaught of swine flu.8 At that time Haitian church leaders expressed a strong desire to become Lutherans and to be accepted by the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA) and the Lutheran World Federation (LWF). For over thirteen years it has been difficult to raise sufficient funds to make it possible for the Haitian church leaders to participate in theological and other training programs. It was impossible to raise funds to build a warehouse or a secure building where supplies could be stored until needed and then be able to respond immediately to the physical needs of the congregations in the aftermath of a natural disaster.9 Even with ELCA disaster funds, it took time before food, water and shelter could be given to the twelve Lutheran congregations and their communities.

[10] Eglise Lutherienne D’Haiti (the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Haiti) now has four educated and ordained pastors and twelve humble, growing congregations. A decision to make it a mission partner with the ELCA had been in process, but immediately after the earthquake they were granted full acceptance. As a Haitian Lutheran Church body it is developing its own culture and its own sense of reality through the will, grace and love of God.10

[11] This young church body needs much help and those in the ELCA to whom much has been given and to whom much has been entrusted now have the joyful opportunity to continue to accompany the Haitians on their journey of rebuilding. While this is happening, we have lessons to learn. There has to be careful consideration with the Haitian church about how we give, support and walk purposefully with them. It is difficult for us to give up what we consider to be our priorities for them and to let them show us the right way to do things. There have been many mistakes made in the past when priorities and plans have been imposed by groups outside of Haiti. We must remember that an unwanted gift becomes a burden rather than a blessing. An inappropriate gift is rarely appreciated. If the Haitians do not have a true sense of ownership in whatever priorities are set or in whatever is built there will be little hope of long-term success.

[12] God has given us all we need to know about how to give. He has given us the ability to be in community and touch lives by developing relationships, by being willing to listen and learn, by trying to understand another culture without being critical, to observe, to comfort and be comforted, to pray and worship together. We know now that to do for others what they can do for themselves is not only demeaning but it declares that we feel more superior, more knowledgeable and therefore somehow better. All of these lessons learned in Haiti can serve us well in any milieu, in any congregation and with any group of people needing assistance. Haiti has taught us that when we move out of our comfort zone and embrace new challenges we can grow exponentially. The Holy Spirit is an active presence that can be felt in Haiti. Just as we accompany Haitians, we are also accompanied by Christ and are practicing his commands.

Michael Deibert Notes from the Last Testament , Seven Stories Press, 2005
Noam Chomsky, Paul Farmer, Amy Goodman Getting Haiti Right This Time, Common Courage Press, 2004
Paul Farmer The Uses of Haiti, Common Courage Press, 2006
Randall Robinson An Unbroken Agony, Basic Civitas Books, 2007


1. Roy Menninger, “Observations on the Psychology of Giving and Receiving Money,” in The Ethics of Giving and Receiving, eds. William May and A. Lewis Soens, Jr. (Southern Methodist University Press, 2000).

2. United States Institute of Peace, April 2010. www.usip.org/resources/haiti-republic-ngos. The diaspora is also encouraging microfinance projects for hometown groups in Haiti. http://huffingtonpost.com,input search: Jim Luce and fonkoze.

3. The Center for Economic and Policy Research acknowledge that the delays in debt and/or debt cancellation were unreasonable. More information can be found at http://cepr.org. Robert B. Zoellick, President of the World Bank Group, spoke at the Conference on Haiti’s Social and Economic Development in Washington, D.C. on April 14, 2009. He acknowledged that changes in development were essential. The first change had to be honoring country ownership. More information can be found at http://web.worldbank.org. In the same vein, the International Monetary Fund Chief, Strauss-Kahn, reiterated that Haiti had to be in charge of its own destiny. See http://imf.org/external/pubs/ft/survey/so/2010/car040110a.htm.

4. See http://www1.american.edu/TED/haiti.htm for the affect that the October 11, 1993 sanctions had on Haiti. Paisley Dodds also reports how our farmers have profited from the earthquake while Haitian farmers do not have the funds to buy seeds for this years planting season. http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/35608836. This has been a problem for many years. http://www.hartford-hwp.com/archives/43a/217.html

5. Maroons were slaves from West Africa who escaped the plantations and hid in the mountains as guerrillas. Thomas Jefferson called them and all Haitians cannibals and his bigotry has persisted for centuries perpetuating the sub rosa myth that skin color is an indication of intelligence, worth and ability to provide leadership.

6. Haiti’s debt to France imposed after the revolution in 1804 was finally paid in 1947.

7. Some medical personnel arrived at the Haiti airport unable to work after the earthquake because they had no medicine, surgical supplies or the ability to sustain themselves with food, water and shelter causing others to try to help them rather than helping the Haitians. Boxes of high-heeled shoes were shipped on top of needed medical supplies that were not discovered for weeks. Travesties of this kind were myriad as well-meaning people tried to help but had no sense of what was really needed.

8. Pigs were introduced into Haiti in the 1500s by the Spanish and became the “bank” for Haitian peasants. Great controversy has surrounded this eradication because it caused such hardship. Although 1.3 million pigs were slaughtered, it is reported that compensation was made for only 38,000. http://newmatilda.com/2010/01/27/haitis-200year-earthquake. Money was raised in the Florida-Bahamas Synod to replace pigs in the Thiotte area in partnership with LWF. However, since these pigs were not able to forage on their own and farmers had to feed pigs as well as their families, alternative small animal husbandry projects were initiated. Another instance of unintended consequences.

9. The Florida-Bahamas Synod Haiti Task Force has been trying for years to raise money and it is surprising how few people know about Haiti. They often confused Haiti with Tahiti.

10. Louis Dorvillier, Director of ELCA International Development and Disaster Response, and his staff have been working with Rev. Livenson Lauvanus, President of Eglise Lutherienne D’Haiti, and the Haitian pastors in establishing community-building priorities for the next few years. The Haitian pastors together with Rev. Lauvanus are also working closely with the Haiti Task Force of the Florida-Bahamas Synod on programmatic matters.

Patricia Hansen

Patricia Hansen is the Co-Chair of the Haiti Task Force for the Florida-Bahamas Synod, ELCA.