Letter From Haiti: Why “Charity” Isn’t Charitable

Letter From Haiti: Why “Charity” Isn’t Charitable

For the last six months, I have been living in a small clinic in Haiti, called Thomassique. After spending several years living in fast-paced, extravagant New York City, I moved to the most impoverished nation in the Western hemisphere.

One of the biggest challenges has been learning to use the funds that we have in ways that make the largest impact. The other day, a child from town, Benson, came to us with his brother. They were both in tears. They asked us for food, saying that they hadn’t eaten in two days. We don’t normally give out food, but we know these kids. They have never come to us before, so we made them sandwiches. We explained to them that this had to be the only time; we can’t feed everyone in Thomassique, where so many people are hungry.

Benson has about nine brothers and sisters. He said that they hadn’t had anything to eat, either. Teary-eyed, he and his brother asked us for food for all of them. We wanted to give it to them. But, we can’t. It’s not our food to give: The food is for the staff, and we buy it with money from Medical Missionaries. Our purpose here is to provide medical care—we don’t have the capacity to be a food program. It’s not sustainable for us to just give out food when people need it (because they always need it). So, we had to send them away with only the sandwiches.

I never thought in my life that the right thing to do would be to deny a hungry child food for his family, but I know that we made the right decision. If we had given in and handed out the food, it would have only damaged our purpose in being here. We have limited resources and we are mandated to use them wisely. Handing out food is an unsustainable and unjust way to address food insecurity. Our job is to create lasting programs, rather than Band-Aid solutions.

Although the clinic’s purpose is medical care, we have started two programs to address food insecurity like Benson’s. First, we started a school lunch program to provide meals every day to about 1,600 children (including Benson, who is now enrolled in a school through our help!). The second program provides high-calorie, high-nutrient food for severely malnourished children.

Still, it haunts me. I never thought I could have a cupboard full of food and yet turn hungry people away. It’s not fair that a ten-year-old kid doesn’t know where his next meal will come from! But we’re dealing with chronic poverty. Development work isn’t about giving to the poor when they ask. It’s not “charity”—because that only provides a solution for a day. We’re about being fair to everyone—not just the ones who come begging. We don’t want to create a relationship of dependency.

People who don’t realize this are likely to do more harm than good in a place like Thomassique. And yes, sometimes, that means that the right thing to do is to turn away hungry children.

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Kathleen O'Neill, a friend of LearnVest, is living in Thomassique, Haiti, for the year-long Medical Missionaries Post-Baccalaureate Fellowship in Global Health, where she works to create and manage community programs such as a childhood malnutrition project, a school lunch initiative, and a microfinance project to bring fortified salt to the mainstream market. Additionally, they are working to begin an HIV/AIDS treatment program in Thomassique.

How You Can Help: Donate to specific programs run out of Medical Missionaries' St. Joseph's Clinic in Thomassique, Haiti. Alternatively, demonstrate your gratitude for your own credit line by lending to entrepreneurs in Haiti via non-profit Fonkoze.

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