The Aid Bitchslap

Every now and then, I read something that hits me smack in the stomach. This cross-post is one of those. Originally on Quinn Zimmerman’s blog “These New Boots”, the post came over with an email commenting on “that moment where you get the aid bitchslap… when you cross from idealism to realism… [a] strange and ugly and enlightening process.”


Day 326: Questions and (No) Answers by Quinn Zimmerman

(cross-posted with his permission)

“It’s going to take a while before I can even make sense of all of this.” I’m talking to Paddy as we make our way down a dark street in Leogane, dodging motos and trying to avoid the mud. “It won’t happen here. It won’t happen until I’ve left.” He nods. He feels the same. Our time in Haiti isn’t over yet, we’ve both got a few months left, but we’re feeling the end now, and we’re feeling what it took to get here. We’re tired, and confused, and frustrated. We’re excited. We’re proud. We’re trying not to pass quick judgements, and we realize how hard that is to do.

Project Leogane is nearly over. Tomorrow marks the final week. April 27th work ends. April 28th we have the farewell party. April 30th the lease on our house is up, and people make their way to whatever is next. In my case, making my way isn’t too tricky, as I’ll be moving in to the base of my friend Jason, along with Paddy and Billy, where we’ll work for the next two months finishing up our obligations to GOAL and the partnership we have with them. We’ll also be mentoring our handover partner, the Haitian-American organization FHED (Foundation for Humanitarian Education & Development), who will be continuing our biosand filter program once we leave. Billy stays until the end of May. Paddy leaves the end of June. Alejandro and Diana will stay until May 15th to support our transition. I will stay until the end of July. I wasn’t the first to arrive here with All Hands, but I’ll be the last to go.

I know Haiti isn’t yet done for me, but the nature of how I’ve lived and worked here since July 2010 has changed many times, and this perhaps marks the most distinct change. Project Leogane, and All Hands Volunteers, my organization and identity in Haiti, is nearly over. The skeleton crew staying is very much that. We’ll no longer be part of the group. We’ll be the entirety of it. I’ve no problems with that. If I’m honest, I’m excited to see how it will play out, but it does get me thinking. Of what, I’m not so sure, or more accurately, I’m not so sure I can yet explain it in any coherent way. Too many things. So many things. Only through a total disconnect will I have the distance and time needed to sift through all of this, and I’ll have that before too long, but I still feel the urge to try and write about it, to mark it down in some way, although all recent attempts at doing so result in deleted entries, rambling and uncertain sentences that frustrated me but accurately reflect where my head is at these days. I honestly don’t know what to make of this place and this experience.

I do know this. I’m ready to go. Haiti, while still powerful in her effect on me, is beginning to leave a sour taste in my mouth. Going out into the monotonous, seemingly unchanging landscape of Leogane, which some of us have now taken to jokingly referring to as “post-apocalyptic”, is something I try and avoid unless in a state of mind sufficient enough to match whatever absurdity is going to come at me. My patience is near gone. I still feel for people. The empathy is there, but it’s become something different than it was before.

“Fuck you!” The shouts come pretty regularly these days, sometimes from kids, sometimes from adults, always directed at us for no other reason than the fact we are foreigners, that we are blans. I don’t know the people shouting. Sometimes we shout back, other times we shake our heads at the stupidity, sometimes we laugh, other times we stop the car, get out, and watch the guilty children run away, or the guilty adults eye us up. A few days ago it’s a group of guys playing football in the middle of the street. “Fuck you!” We pull over, not because of the comment, but because we’re at the chicken stand we were headed toward to buy some food. My patience is worn thin. We get out of the car a few paces from where the guys are. “Masisi! Masisi!” They’re calling us faggots. Really? Really? I don’t even know you. Fuck this. I hammer back at them. “You think we’re faggots? Is that what you think? I think you’re a bunch of uneducated, ignorant idiots. Instead of playing football in the street and telling blans you don’t know to go fuck themselves, why don’t you go to school? You’re young men. You’re not kids. Do something with your lives.” I want to keep going. I want to tell them they are pathetic. I want to tell them that you shouldn’t tell someone to go fuck themselves one day then come groveling to them the next asking for a job or money or food or a house. I want to tell them they are the problem with this fucked up country. I want to, but I don’t, because I know, despite the anger, that while they are ignorant, and they do deserve to get called on their shit, they don’t deserve to be shamed for their condition. Most people just play the hand they’re dealt. Few opt to really try and change their hand, let alone the deck. That’s not Haitian. That’s human. Haiti just happens to deal a pretty shit hand to most. I’d be a fool to place the entirety of the blame on them. They’re not the cause. They’re part of the effect.

We get the chicken and drive away. One of the guys mimics punching us. I enjoy the five second fantasy of laying them all out in the street, although I know that will never come to pass. I’m not a fighter. We laugh it off, but not really. “This fucking place…” Every day. We allow ourselves some ignorance of our own, mocking the wannabe gangster culture the men in the street all had on display. “Oh you’re a gangster are you? You’re hardcore? You can’t even get food. So hardcore. So gangster.” We laugh, hard. I know the comment is off-color, but I also know I’m doing it to release. I’m aware when I’m allowing myself to mock a situation that shouldn’t be mocked, when I’m engaging something I’m actually against. I’m aware that I’m doing it more and more these days. I’m aware that, at the end of the day, I do it because it helps mask the underlying frustration and sense of overwhelm and guilt that comes with being a foreigner in Haiti.

We come home, tell some housemates about it. They tell us how people started throwing rocks at one of our roommates as he was getting a dance lesson on the roof from a local Haitian girl. They had to come inside and continue the lesson out of reach of the rocks. I get a phone call. My friend Jenny, a Haitian girl I’m close to and care for a lot, tells me her grandmother has died. Paddy and I go to visit her and her mother and sisters to offer our condolences. While I’m sitting with Jenny and her older sister Katia, Paddy is talking to their mother, Madam Michelle. It was her mother that has just passed away. We stay for twenty minutes then say goodbye.

“Fucking hell…” We’re in the car, Paddy looks tired. “What’s up man?” I ask him. “Madam Michelle was asking me for everything – my bed, my table, my mattress, anything I can give her once All Hands leaves.” I can see the frustration in his face. “Your mother just died. For fuck’s sake can you stop for just one minute and grieve?” It is endless. Today, here in my room, I hear a knock. Ornela, Madam Michelle’s youngest daughter, Jenny’s little sister, is at the door. “Qwen? Qwen?” “Hold on a sec sweetie.” I open the door and she’s there. We talk for a bit. She asks me a question. “Qwen, can you buy a painting from my mom? We need money to go to Jeremie.” Jeremie is where their grandmother lived. She’s talking about the funeral. My heart melts, but I’ve learned a long time ago that I have to draw a line. “I’m sorry sweetie, I don’t have money for that right now.” I hate myself for even saying it, but I know I’ve done a lot to help her family. Jenny is back in school because of me and some of my friends and family I reached out to. Seeing her finish high school is a personal goal of mine. I have to keep that in my sights and put blinders on for everything else. A week ago Jenny called me, she tells me Katia is really sick, that she has to go to the hospital. She asks me if I can pay for it. My heart hurts again, but I repeat the line I’ve learned to live by. “Sorry Jenny, I don’t have money for that right now.” “OK Qwen. It’s OK.” Jenny, eighteen and whip smart, knows me pretty well. She’s been on the receiving end of my anger when she tries to push the boundaries of my charity. She’s heard my rants on Haiti and the culture of dependence and expectance. She also knows I really care for her and her family. Still, the requests don’t stop. They won’t stop until I leave. Even then they won’t stop. Facebook chat post-Haiti often involves requests for money from people I know here.

Some things I have become clear on as a result of Haiti:

1. Good intentions aren’t enough.
2. Rose-colored glasses are bullshit.
3. The white savior industrial complex is real, demonstrated daily by feel good aid programs that probably don’t work, or feel good causes like Kony 2012 that generate plenty of buzz but don’t add up to much when people are actually supposed to do something.
4. You can’t help people who don’t want to help themselves.
5. True altruism is an incredibly rare thing. (See #3)
6. Little victories must be celebrated if you want to protect yourself from the crippling effects of the larger failure.

I came to Haiti very much guilty of believing good intentions were enough, and I certainly had the rose-colored glasses. I knew a bit about the idea of the white savior industrial complex, but didn’t know enough to realize I was playing right into it. I believed people inherently do want to improve their lot, and will work hard to see that happen. I also believed myself to be a fairly altruistic person. I’m not so sure about that any more. And while I never came here thinking I could “save Haiti” (an incredibly egotistical idea to begin with), I also didn’t realize the importance of allowing yourself to truly appreciate the small things before the big things break you down.

I still believe in helping people. I still believe my heart is in the right place. But I question myself more these days, and question what I’m doing and how I’m doing it. I question whether the work I’ve done here will really even make any difference. Is it even working? We’ll know that as we conduct final follow-ups over the next two months, now that production and installations are nearly finished. I’m wary though. Every biosand filter I’ve ever seen in Haiti that was not one of ours was broken and unused. Just today I went to get a sandwich and found four or five of them in front of the sandwich shop, all in various stages of malrepair, waiting to be turned to rubble and probably used to patch holes in the street. The problem is we’re giving people a “solution”. They tell us they want it, but it’s not of their own design. And yes, while I have spoken to families we’ve given filters to and heard from them they are getting sick less, and they no longer fear cholera, I also know of families that never used the filter to begin with, and only wanted to be in the program because their 100 gourdes contribution got them both the filter and a new Culligan bottle, which is worth 250 gourdes. Is that our mistake? Probably. Is there an easy work around to it? Not that I can think of. Asking for a contribution of more than 250 gourdes will guarantee that truly poor families will not be able to get a filter, and not providing a Culligan bottle (or any other safe water storage container) will result in families using open buckets instead, which we’ve tested and know 95% of the time result in re-contaminated water. It’s a small problem in the grand scheme of things, but it demonstrates the complexity of trying to “help” people.

If I were to do it all again, I wouldn’t design a solution. It isn’t my place to do that. What I’d do is try and be a useful resource for a group of people or a community that have a much better understanding of their problems than I do, and want to work together toward finding solutions. I wouldn’t come in as the guy with the answer. I’d come in as the guy willing to try and help them in any way possible as they find their own answer, and act as the bridge between that answer, and the money and resources needed to make it happen.

Or, perhaps if I really wanted to help, I wouldn’t ever come to Haiti to begin with. I’d keep my fight at home in the United States, rallying people to try and build awareness that places like Haiti suffer because of policies benefitting our government, our corporations, and ultimately, ourselves. Policies created by our politicians, sometimes with our consent (the Iraq War) and sometimes as a result of special interests (the Supreme Court’s campaign finance reform ruling), result in massive problems for other people in the world. Sometimes I wonder if that truly ever can be remedied.

Nature has a distinct element to it that is both brutal and undeniable: to be alive means to take care of you and yours before all else. There are rare exceptions to that rule, but they are just that – rare exceptions. The lioness doesn’t feel guilt when she brings down the days-old gazelle, despite knowing the gazelle could never hope to challenge her. Is it the same for us? We may all be part of the same species, but we’ve always cordoned ourselves off in distinct groups, be it religious, racial, or geopolitical, and time and again worked to improve our groups at the expense of other groups. We are not a peaceful species. We are not enlightened beings. And history has shown time and again that, like the lioness, we show no remorse or mercy when faced with a weaker opponent. I sometimes wonder what the Taino people, Haiti’s original inhabitants, were like. I’ll never be able to know. They were raped, murdered and enslaved to extinction at the hands of the Spanish. There are no more Tainos in the world.

Is it naive to believe we can ever change this part of being human? I’ve often wondered this. If we ever had a chance at change, now would be the beginning of it. The internet and advancements in communication and transportation have made the world a much smaller place. I’d like to think that will lead to a greater mutual understanding of the fact that we are all, indeed, human. It might, or it might not. I often think we will have to evolve to the point that the idea of religion is cast aside, that the idea of nation is cast aside, that the way we define ourselves (white, black, Christian, Muslim, American, Haitian) have to be abandoned. Without first accomplishing that, we will always have a way to cordon ourselves off from others, to group up, and to grow to believe that our group is the most important group. Those groups must be broken for us to advance.

It makes me think of something a friend of mine who works in Rwanda told me recently. She told me that the majority of Rwandan children today do not know if they are Tutsi or Hutu. Their parents do not tell them. She told me that it is illegal to ask someone if they are Tutsi or Hutu. She told me that all forms of personal identification no longer have the words “Tutsi” or “Hutu” on them. She also told me Rwanda is one of the more progressive and advanced countries she’s visited in Africa. That came at an incredibly high cost, but maybe that’s what it takes. The EU, flawed though it is, and in and of itself a group, was born out of the desire for integration that was the result of two devastating wars that killed entire generations of Europe’s people. I’d like to think we can learn enough from our history to be able to continue that process of integration without the prerequisite of mass suffering, but maybe that is indeed a prerequisite. If so, there’s certainly suffering enough to go around. The world’s groups are still devouring each other. The question is, if we do not feel we are affected by it, do we care enough to try and stop it? And, the skeptic in me asks, if we do care enough to try and stop it, why? What do we stand to gain? #5 – true altruism is an incredibly rare thing.

Indeed, a lot of questions, not a lot of answers, and a fair amount of pondering. If nothing else, Haiti has given me that, and that, ultimately, is a good thing. An engaged thinker is a humbled thinker. I do not yet claim to be either, but I aspire to be both.

See Quinn’s blog “These New Boots” for more.


About Shotgun Shack

INGO worker hailing from the crossroads of America, and so far from home in so many ways. I blog about life and the depths and ironies of INGO work. View all posts by Shotgun Shack

27 responses to “The Aid Bitchslap

  • namerequired

    Why would you stay in a country that doesn’t want you to do a thing that nobody is thankful for… Your aim is noble but there’s no value in forcing it. Just like a psychologically troubled person or an addict, they have to want to help themselves before anyone else will have an impact. But should we be persuaded by the non participating youth of a country? Hard to say.

  • Robert Morris

    The world is a much better place than this guy thinks, and its getting better every day. Is he sad because the Wal-Mart and Nokia executives of the world have a heck of a lot more to do with making the world a better place than he does? He might be better served by reading some Stephen Pinker and getting an MBA rather calling on the US government to coddle him better whilst humming John Lennon.

    • Bob Scroggins

      Where, in anything this man has written, did he ask anyone to coddle him? Your presumptions make me think you didn’t actually read the article. Did you just see “aid worker” and automatically assume he was asking for government hand outs? This is a very thoughtful piece about the personal effects of volunteering in Haiti. If you don’t agree with some of his political stances, fine, but to dismiss him as a hippie out of hand is ignorant. How can we have any kind of conversation if this kind of thoughtless politicking and pigeon holing is the norm when discussing any topic, whether it is relevant or not?

      • Robert Morris

        Bob- You are right. I think I was dissappointed when such a perceptive, interesting article veered off down such well trod routes. The Citizens United reference ( I would love to know how he got there), the unthinking Europhilia, and the Imagine re-hash got me seeing red. Mea Culpa.

  • MPMHaiti

    What an honest outpouring of emotion and thought. We’ve been there. We live it too.

    MPMHaiti isn’t as large an organization as All Hands, but we’ve been working in the Les Cayes area since 2005 to help Haitians help themselves.

    You make an excellent observation in the ironies of being an alien “solution.”

    MPMHaiti is increasingly becoming more of a resource than a solution – educating the populous about the best way to manage a small business, how to improve hygiene and avoid cholera, how your education will improve your chances of excelling in business to support your family in the future. The students ask for school supplies, they ask for after-school tutoring; and we respond. The women ask for help starting a business to feed their family; we respond.

    We encourage you to learn more about our programs of academic scholarship, microcredit lending and health and hygiene education in southwest Haiti at

    Though natives may not have the strength to thank you for all that you do, MPMHaiti sends our gratitude and support for your resolve despite the doubt.

    Best wishes for a stronger tomorrow.

  • Expat Insights

    Hi, thanks for your post and for sharing your insights on what I am sure must be a place full of contradictions and hardship. Though it also seems that Haiti is a party town for the foreign aid worker…

  • Quinn

    Thanks for the comments MPMHaiti, Bob & first poster. Appreciate the perspectives. It isn’t so much that nobody appreciates it, it’s that it’s hard to know if it is actually doing anything real in any sort of lasting sense. The immediate impact is being felt, at least for the program I help run (an in-home clean water solution) given how scared people are (and rightly so) about the cholera situation. But again, is anything really lasting happening? I don’t see how a lot of small, potentially effective (but maybe not) little programs nibbling away at tiny pieces of a massive problem can realistically hope to change the greater situation. Still, not giving up hope quite yet. Far too much more learning to do before I throw in the towel.

    As to good Mr. Morris, I’ll repeat to you what I repeat to the people who throw personal attacks at me in the streets here (and anywhere): you don’t know me. I don’t know you. But I do now know, based on the content of your comment, that you’re probably an ass. And a good day to you as well!

    Expat Insights – it has it’s moments. If you think that looked like fun, you should have seen the Base Lockdown Olympics / Prom we put on when political unrest due to the 2010 election kept everyone stuck inside for four days. A couple of Scandinavian volunteers introduced us to the wonderful world of wife carrying. Pretty epic sport. Pretty epic bruises too.

    Right then, back to my imaginary, extensive John Lennon collection and finding new ways to suck the government’s endless teet.

    • Robert Morris

      Quinn- If you read my comment again youll note that it contains no personal attack, merely a challenge to the assumptions and the ideology. Just trying to be helpful. I urge you to be a little more open minded. Civility I should know better than to expect on the internet.

  • Rebecca

    Thank you so much for the candid, vulnerable and honest story of your time.

    I want you to know that your work is appreciated and inherently valuable — even if not a single filter ever works. We need more human beings willing to be vulnerable and compassionate.

    Best wishes for you.

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    […] I just read this great piece from the perspective of an aid worker in Haiti who provides a realistic picture of what it’s like to work as a foreign aid worker in a very poor country. He faces the challenges inherent in dealing with people who have become dependant on and hateful toward outsiders, and struggles with his own feelings of “white saviour industrial complex.” […]

  • Tim Curtin

    Peace Corps Volunteer in Indonesia here. What a post!

    While I’ve encountered similar frustrations to yours and have arrived at my own version of those six principles you listed, I can definitely say that the experience you describe is the one I’d want to avoid at all costs. For all the cultural isolation and institutional backwardness that I (and other PCVs in Indonesia) deal with, I’m eternally thankful that the culture is not hostile to foreigners. Java, where I live, is extraordinarily receptive to foreign influences, and the paramount social principle is harmony. I get plenty of attention and people call out at the foreigner, but taunts are extremely rare.

    I really cannot imagine dealing with the antagonism that you describe in your piece. I doubt I would have the patience to stay put if the locals constantly jeered at me. It’d move pretty quickly to: “Okay, well FUCK YOU if you don’t want me here. Enjoy your goddamned squalor. I’ll be doing my best to help some of the millions of people who might appreciate it.” I feel blessed that this is not the case, and I am seriously impressed that you have stuck it out for two years.

    Maybe you’re not putting a dent in the system, but you are having an effect on individuals. Congrats on making it two years! I don’t doubt you’ve built up a near superhuman level of endurance. I’ll be passing your post along to other PCVs.

  • Anonymous

    Hi Quinn, Thank you so much for your post. I worked in international development for a number of years and while I did not experience anything to the extent that you did, I have been questioning the system for awhile now. I decided to leave the industry because I witnessed how little input we got from our local ‘beneficiaries’, how we treated our local staff, and how results did not always seem to be at the top of our priorities. I say this after living in developing countries over 18 years, working for a number of groups. The intention is good but we need to be realistic and admit that the system is not working. If we truly want to make a difference, we should educate people in the West (like you said) about our government and private sector policies that keep people in poverty, through agricultural tariffs, our support of corrupt government’s for access to raw resources, look at any country in Africa for example….pretty naive to assume that problems in the developing world are not affected by our neocolonial policies. Thanks again, we need more people like you to stand your ground.

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  • J.

    From the despair to the anger to the disillusionment to the berating of beneficiaries while under the influence of extreme frustration, sleep deprivation and culture shock, believe me – we’ve almost all been there. (pw – visitor)

    Quinn, my advice: Get out of there (it sounds like you’re going to). Put some distance between yourself and Haiti. I’m not saying never go back to Haiti or never work in aid/development again. The aid cause is one worth fighting for, even if only internally. But take a break.

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    […] Via Like this:LikeBe the first to like this post. […]

  • Joe Crowley

    You’re not alone. I have 14 years on and off in Haiti, 2 years this time. I have a wonderful Haitian wife ahd have traveled Haiti extensively. I can’t write to save my life, but I don’t have to because you can! The way you write it is exactly the way that it is. I Thank You!!!

  • Haiti Memory Project (@HaitiMemory)

    Thank you for your candid and heartfelt exploration of your experiences is Haiti. Some of your words echo my own feelings, and I am moved to see them so eloquently expressed here.

  • Jack Vaughn

    Quinn, I can feel your pain and can empathize. I’ve been traveling to Leogane regularly (3-4x per yr.) for almost 10 yrs. now and have seen many of your All Hands colleaugues working hard during the day – and playing hard at night – I’ve enjoyed their company on several occasions, both day……and night!

    From my perspective, I see more progress than you, but here’s probably why: As a frequent visitor, I have the luxory of leaving after a week or so of “toiling in the vineyard”. So I have not had the experience of “living” Haiti day in and day out, months on end. Certainly living there full time and regularly visiting and two seperate and different experiences. My view of Haiti’s “progress” is sort of like that of a distant relative who can notice a child growing, whereas his parents to do not readily see it for they are there with him…day in….and day out.

    I do see positive change in Leogane and often remark on it each visit, when it is apparent to me that the streets are cleaner and construction is progressing – positives that may be hard for you to see. On the other hand, I, too, am particularly concerned about the deteriorating attitude of the people. I, too, regularly hear the F.U. epithet for more now than the cute endearment from the kids “blan….blan”! Although, fortunately, the younger ti moun still do!

    I’ll be back in three weeks, so I’ll have another look at it. But, you are right, it is frustrating and thank God I get to leave after a short visit. This allows me time to assimilate the experience and to step back and discern Haiti and its sometime destructive culture from “afar”.

    In my opinion, nothing is going to change in Haiti, really, until the hearts and minds of the people (particularly those in charge) do. The country’s church leaders need to really ramp up their message of Hope and the Good News. I know….they do, but it needs to go beyond the retuals of the Liturgy and really towards encouraging a more personal relationship with one’s Saviour.

    All in God’s time, I guess. For we are told in the Gospels that the poor will always be with us……and to never grow tired of doing what is right and good. So hang in there,my brother! And come home and get some REST. The world needs soldiers like you and othes back on field soon, so that we can continue……”to toil in the vineyard. jv

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  • fairwaterafrica

    Such good intentions deserve better. But strange that they use the outdated Biosand filter. Everybody should know that they are not sustainable and too much of a problem to use.

    Tiva filters from Uganda are considered the best water purification solution at the moment.

    Wishing you more luck next time!


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