Haiti up close
Voluntourism in Haiti
Two schoolgirls laughing in Corail
Photo Franck Fontain
Want to have a hand in making change happen? Read this first.
If you are tuned in to any kind of international news outlet, you probably already have a clear image of Haiti in mind. You are most likely familiar with the picture of hunger and misery, and you have more often than not had your heartstrings tugged at by calls to action like this:
“Don’t wait another second: donate now!”
“The people of Haiti need our support.”
“With just one dollar, you can change someone’s life today.”
That might not be enough for you, though.
Countries like Haiti, where large swaths of the population struggle to make a living for themselves on a daily basis, are seeing more and more people flying in to get their hands dirty. It is no longer enough to mail a check, pack up old t-shirts, or round up a total at a supermarket to donate to a cause.
People want to have a hand in making change happen.
If that sounds like you, you will want to keep reading for our best tips and suggestions for actively volunteering in Haiti.
There are two things you must absolutely do before you leave your home country and come to Haiti: read up and listen.
A mountain pass in Seguin
Photo: Tyler Welsh
Set and re-set your intentions
One the one hand, it is important for you as a visitor to prepare yourself before you come to Haiti looking to lend a helping hand. It’s very easy to assume that those in need will find use for just about anything. A very common occurrence in times of crisis in Haiti is that well-meaning folks in more fortunate countries pack up whatever it is they have on hand and no longer need and send it all over. This should go without saying, but a need can only be addressed if it is heard, which is why it is important to listen.
Do as much research as you can. Are there people on the grounds that you can establish direct contact with? Have you been to Haiti before, and know of places you can trust because you have worked with them? What are the trustworthy organizations that people can reach out to if they would like to lend a helping hand, and what is their track record?
It is essential to come to Haiti prepared with this knowledge, because it will help you navigate the terrain much more easily once you’re here.
If you are coming from a foreign, “first world” country, it’s easy to assume that any work, donation, or support that you bring during your stay in Haiti will better the lives of the Haitians around you; this is the first thing you need to un-learn before you even board a plane.
Students at the Lycée National de Pétion-Ville
Photo: Franck Fontain
Volunteering cannot come from a place of "saving"
If you have been following news about Haiti and relief efforts from various non-governmental organizations over the years, you must be well aware of the scandal involving the Red Cross after the 2010 earthquake. If you are not, then here is a quick summary: in the time following the 2010 earthquake in Haiti, the Red Cross raised over $500 million dollars for relief efforts — but the work that was claimed to be done could never be accounted for. Claims of houses built, communities supported, and lives set back afoot, could not successfully be verified.
Volunteering in a foreign country cannot come from a place of “saving;” it needs to come from a place of listening, understanding, and helping. Focusing on how you can best support the people you are planning to help to improve their quality of life instead of just how you can “do good and feel good” is a good place to keep your head at during your stay in Haiti.
Once you are in Haiti, locals are the best source of information when it comes to where and how your efforts will be most useful.
It all begins with a conversation with a local.
Boys hanging out at Gelée Beach
Photo: Mikkel Ulriksen
Haitians need sustainable change
What is it that you have a skill in and that you want to share, or that you are passionate about? Is it the education and development of young Haitian children? Are you more involved in environmental causes and would like to see greener places in Haiti? Does your interest lie in healthcare and how accessible it is to people?
From there, your host (if you choose to stay with one) can point you in a few directions; while there is no shortage of NGOs, someone who is living in Haiti and who has either heard of or had some contact with opportunities to directly support disenfranchised Haitians will be a better indication of how you can help than any infomercial you may see from the comfort of your home abroad.
In general, though, make sure you keep the following in mind: Haitians need sustainable change, at any level where change is possible. What are some skills you can teach that will improve their daily lives? What is it that they’re already trying to do, but are lacking in hands or knowledge? What are the realities Haitians are dealing with on a day-to-day basis that will inform the ways in which you can help? There is no better way to start helping than to listen.
At the end of the day, voluntourism is more than just the work you do while you are in Haiti; it’s the relationships that you will build with the people you connect with, too—and even more so if you are working with children. Be mindful of the amount of time you intend to spend in Haiti, and take care of those relationships. This goes for the organization(s) you will work with as well; those based in and working with communities tend to be the most impactful; a good place to start when choosing who to work with is finding out where they put the most funding. Initiative-first organizations are choice partners—this can guide your decisions about returning in the future!
Above all else, though, you’ll want to be honest with yourself about your reasons for coming to volunteer in Haiti. Consider whether or not you have something of value to offer, that cannot already be done by a local worker who could earn a living for themselves doing it. After all, the best volunteer experiences are the ones that are entirely selfless.
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