Thursday, September 06, 2012

Principles for really helping

Today I sat in on part of a training on responding to emergencies for people from three villages where Caritas Santa Rosa has a project.

The two facilitators work on responses to disasters and emergency through a local coalition of non-governmental organizations, ASONOG.

As Carlos spoke, I was struck by five basic principles he noted for responding to emergencies and disasters:
            Don’t prolong conflicts or cause harm
            Respect the culture and customs
            Promote the local capacities
            Coordinate efforts to maximize the benefits
            Take into account gender differences

I have been very concerned in the last few years in the appropriateness of aid here as well as some “missions” that come here. Some of these principles speak directly to my concerns.

The first one, “don’t prolong conflicts or cause harm,” is basic. In our situation here, any aid that plays on political or religious differences has disastrous effects. Here many politicians try to utilize aid for partisan purposes, showing up when aid come or when the foreigners come to help. This doesn’t help build reconciliation in a very divided society.

The second, “Respect the culture and customs,” is critical. One of the problems as the world gets more globalized is the importation of US-style consumerism. When groups come with their first world props it’s important to be culturally sensitive and not set up expectation. Can we respect the people’s culture? Put more emphasis here on personal relations more than efficiency. That can be frustrating. (I know) Also, I wonder how many of the fundamentalist groups that come and hope to “save” Hondurans ever considered that they might already be disciples of Christ – Catholic Christians. (Excuse my peevishness.)

when he spoke of this principle the speaker talked about sending trash from the US (used clothes), or shoes sizes 12 and 13, or winter clothes for people who live in places like Choluteca which are extremely hot. I clapped in appreciation.

The third principle is central: “Promote the local capabilities.” Some people come and act as if these people and stupid. They are not. They often don’t have a lot of what come people consider necessary. But there is a lot of wisdom among illiterate campesinos as I have often experienced. In addition, there are great capabilities among the people. The three communities represented in the workshop have done some amazing projects – with help – but with their input. And the people participating in this workshop and in yesterday’s workshop on financial administration are capable. I spoke to one group that included a man in his early fifties who had 6 months of school but the others (including a high school graduate and a young guy in first year of high school) told me that he was a genius in math! I was moved, partly because my dad never went to high school but he got an office job because he was a math genius. I proudly shared that with them.

The fourth is easy to violate: Coordinate efforts to maximize the benefits. This is often the case with non-governmental organizations (NGOs) who multiply projects in areas and compete for participants with other NGOs. But I read a while ago about a case where  about ten years ago several medical brigades went to an area and vaccinated kids – several times over. They probably did not think about coordinating with the local health clinics.

The fifth is probably not as relevant to the groups I’m thinking about but it is important not to neglect women.

One of the ways I saw this happen – without planning – was with the first immersion group from St. Thomas Aquinas Church in Ames that came in March 2008. We went one morning to the rural village of Plan Grande which was building a new church. (Note: it was their project which they were financing; we were accompanying their work.)

Our group – four women, one guy, and myself – arrived with Padre Efraín. Men and boys were working digging the church foundations, bringing large rocks for the foundation, and mixing and pouring cement. Our group arrive and all except one woman who was sick started to help. Padre Efraín, Mitch, and three young women (Nora, Katie, and Marla) started carrying rocks for the foundation. Within thirty minutes the little girls of Plan Grande were grabbing rocks and carrying them for the foundations. The young women interacted with the women. .  Nora who spoke Spanish spent time talking with a few girls. The men were amazed at Marla’s strength; she grew up on a farm. I say that this was a small step for the little girls of Plan Grande which was above all respectful but which didn’t let macho attitude get in the way of respect for all. I return often to Plan Grande and they remember that day well.

Katie and some young girls carrying rocks

Nora talking with some older girls

Marla at work

There are other principles for bringing aid that could be added but I found these five very helpful. And so I’ll continue reflecting on how we outsiders can be here and accompany the people in their struggles for a more just world.

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