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Ask Why

2010 January 17
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by Julie Clawson

I fully admit that people like Pat Robertson, Danny Glover, and Rachel Maddow need to shut up from time to time. Telling us why this disaster came upon Haiti reveals far more of their own issues than any real truth, and they could be doing a lot more good if they would just keep their mouth shut. Finding someone to blame will not make the disaster go away even if it makes us feel slightly better about ourselves. Pointing our finger a the people we hate and saying this is their fault does nothing to help the people of Haiti.

But blaming others and being responsible are not the same thing.

I was a bit unsettled recently when I read mega-pastor Erwin McManus’ tweet – “There are those certain they can tell us “why” this happened in Haiti when we should be asking “what” can we do to help the people of Haiti.” I agree, we must be asking what we can do to help others. And explaining away the whys by pointing fingers is just a futile exercise. But in order to know what really needs to be done, some of those why questions really needs to be asked. No, I’m not talking about those rhetorical “why did God allow this to happen?” questions, but more of the “why is Haiti in such dire straits because of this?” questions.

As a recent New York Times op-ed piece pointed out -

On Oct. 17, 1989, a major earthquake with a magnitude of 7.0 struck the Bay Area in Northern California. Sixty-three people were killed. This week, a major earthquake, also measuring a magnitude of 7.0, struck near Port-au-Prince, Haiti. The Red Cross estimates that between 45,000 and 50,000 people have died. This is not a natural disaster story. This is a poverty story.

This didn’t have to be this bad. If Haiti wasn’t the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere, if Haiti hadn’t been screwed over time after time, if we loved Haiti instead of oppressed it – this earthquake wouldn’t have destroyed the country. There are some hard why questions to be asked here. And if we shrink away from asking them, the what questions will fail to bring about real lasting healing.

Why have Haitian farmers been run out of business? Why is the Haitian soil stripped and the country plagued by mudslides? Why are Haitian girls sold into slavery? Why is 80% of the Haitian budget going to pay other countries? Why are the people there eating mud? Why is their government corrupt? Why are there hardly any jobs in Haiti? Why are there no supplies to build decent buildings? Why is it so hard for kids there to get education? Why are there no roads? And when we discover that the answers to many of those questions are unjust U.S. trade and military policies, it can be hard to swallow. We can brush it aside as just trying to pass blame and point fingers – and continue to give aid and remake the country in our image. Or we can own up to our collective sins and take responsibility for making amends.

If we don’t ask why, we allow ourselves to be ignorant. If we don’t know the history and culture of Haiti, we are doomed to just continue to make things worse. We have to ask why even when we don’t want to know the answer. We have to get over the blame game and just be responsible human beings. Ignorance is deadly. If we really want to know what we can do to help, we need to do more than emotionally donate a few bucks and start looking at what Haiti really needs (like debt relief, and better trade policies). But to do that we first have to face our fears and ask why.

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9 Responses leave one →
  1. January 17, 2010

    first off, I LOVE that quote from above. Tolkien’s Eowyn.

    second, I’ve been thinking along the same lines. Our developmentalism needs more deconstructing, and there’s historic precendent there too, going back to slavery. Nation founded on deep painful roots. Some blame Haiti for their own demise (why can’t they fess up?) but if we’re wise we’ll look inward first.

  2. January 17, 2010

    A must read on Haiti and development is Paul Farmer, Mountains beyond Mountains. Farmer, who approached much of his time in Haiti through the lens of NGOs only, has recently stated that until government and NGOs work together, all that will result is what he calls the “long defeat.”

  3. January 17, 2010

    I’ve read Farmer’s The Uses of Haiti, and want to read more from him. And yes, Haiti is an example of how the big (government) and the small (NGOs) must work together or else nothing will have lasting effect.

  4. michael holm permalink
    January 18, 2010

    Both Tracy Kidder’s Mountains Beyond Moutains and Farmer Uses of Haiti are excellent sources.

    One of the missionaries I met in Haiti in 2005 – Bruce – told me he’d been teaching seminary in Port Au Prince since 1982.

    “You must like it here if you’ve been here this long,” I remarked.

    Bruce snorted a little and said, “Well, let’s say that I’m still here because God’s work isn’t finished yet.”

    Regardless of one’s religious persuasion, I think most would agree that Haiti needs more persons to share Bruce’s level of commitment. Our church had planned to send a team next month (Feb) to work on a clinic in Duplan – but then the earthquake changed everything. We’re still going, but not until it makes sense to do so.

    If I were to name one thing (beyond urgent needs) that can fix Haiti, I’d have to say meaningful and gainful work. I spoke with several young Haitian adults who had good education from sponsored schools and all had dreams for their lives. Paul-Roc wanted to study medicine in Jamaica and practice in Haiti. Sherley wanted to be an embroiderer. Hubert wanted to do service work throughout the world. I taught Yvon, an aspiring musician, how to juggle and Asiline taught me to speak some Creole and asked me later, when I showed her a phone photo of my son, if he was married.

    “No,” I said. She and the other young women with her giggled.

    None of them had work. Currently, no one can get into their neighborhood (Delmas 33) because of the rubble – so there’s no news.

    Only hope.

  5. January 21, 2010

    This is not unlike Diana Butler Bass’ commentary:

    “Pat Robertson blames the earthquake on Haiti’s “pact with the Devil.” How ’bout we blame it on tectonic plates shifting under the earth? Why must natural phenomenon have a spiritual meaning?? Isn’t the greater spiritual meaning found in the fact that rich western countries have exploited and oppressed countries like Haiti for centuries through slavery, colonization, and corporate injustice?”

  6. February 1, 2010

    A million times yes. Best post on Haiti I’ve read. Yes, we need to do more than emotionally donate, particularly because it’s likely some of our donations will only exacerbate the problem!

  7. March 19, 2011

    You sort of undermine your main argument here, Julie. You say “blaming” and “fingerpointing” is pointless but everyone of your why questions seeks to “get to the bottom of it” and that’s about assigning blame. Why did this happen? Who caused it so we can prevent it from happening again? Those are inherently questions that lead to fingerpoint…oh, that’s why this happened, the world community sucked Haiti dry (world community/unhindered capitalism to blame), for example.

    In an effort to sound non-confrontation perhaps or just trying to sound smarter than the pundits you condemn, you actually engage in exactly the same behavior.

    Which is fine because we do need to know who’s responsible. Not for the earthquake, but for the fact that an earthquake that size in Southern California would have minimal damage by comparison. I don’t disagree with your assertion that we need to ask tough questions, but if, at the last minute, we walk away without laying the cards on the table and point those fingers and then work to solve the cause of the problem, then all our blankets and food and money donations were pointless. Because it will just happen again.

    Stop the “shut their mouths”, it’s nobody’s fault rhetoric. It’s terribly illogical and can only lead to major cognitive dissonance since, based on the body of your post, you don’t actually believe it yourself.

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