When you think you want to help

The impulse to “help” people you see as needing your “help” can be strong

stephen matlock
6 min readApr 28, 2023
“Mythical Haiti,” an image generated by Bing AI

Haiti has fascinated people for more than 200 years. As the first Black republic-and as the first Black nation to throw off the chains of European enslavement-it has represented self-achievement and self-dignity to the nations of the world who have groaned under the boot of colonialism. It’s a fact of history that nations in the Caribbean as well as Central and South America have been influenced by Haiti and its thirst for freedom and independence-several flags for these nations were designed by or inspired by Haitians as these nations worked together with Haiti to achieve freedom. It’s not a well-known fact, but in the early days of America’s struggle for independence, Haiti sent its soldiers to America to fight with Americans against the British.

Unfortunately, the United States was more deeply committed to creating an independent nation that used enslaved people as its greatest source of income and treated them as their greatest source of exploitable wealth, and the threat of an independent Black republic caused the new American government to respond to Haiti’s independence by tightening the screws far more harshly upon its own people, slave or free, to keep enslaved people in their place, and keep white Americans from trying to eliminate enslavement. The Slave Codes that started in the 1600s were greatly strengthened as a response to Haiti’s independence as the fear was that enslaved people in America might see what enslaved people in Haiti did-they beat the French in warfare!-and so we see laws in states and in Congress forbid freedom, forbid the distribution of literature that encouraged freedom, forbid free states from protecting escaped enslaved people who had absconded with valuable property-their own bodies!-and laws that tried to keep America as a perpetual slave state.

After Haiti declared independence in 1804, America did not recognize it as a sovereign nation until the presidency of Abraham Lincoln. Yep. About 60 years of stubbornness and fear because of the threat of Black independence.

And ever since Haiti’s independence, the powerful nations in Europe, as well as the United States, have treated Haiti as a trouble-making country that is fit only to be a source of resources and wealth. France has continued to meddle with Haiti, starting from its demand for reparations to pay back its enslavers for the loss of their property-the bodies of the enslaved Haitians as well as the land that those Haitians worked upon-and the U.S. has tried to make Haiti one of its agricultural colonies to the point of invading Haiti in the early 1900s to set up a colonial government that pushed free Black Haitians back into enslavement at the point of a gun held by the Marines that enforced American “law.”

For twenty years the U.S. was a foreign invader trying to “fix” Haiti to make it more amenable to American political objectives. When the U.S. left, it left the nation in political shambles, having decimated the ranks of Haitians who might have risen up naturally as leaders, and the U.S. has continued to meddle, doing things to “help” Haiti by attempting to make Haiti a market for American-made goods and American-grown agricultural products. Haiti, which once had a thriving rice export industry, saw its industry collapse when cheap, federally subsidized American rice was forced upon it. Same with sugar and clothing-Haiti was and still is treated as a dumping ground for used clothing, a policy that started “with good intentions” in the 1960s to the point that used clothing is called kennedys.

Haiti has been treated as a pariah by powerful European nations as well as the U.S., and that treatment has continued to wreak the natural self-governance of Haiti. Even now the Haitian capital is wracked by gangs as the government was decapitated by foreign mercenaries who assassinated their president and by foreign interests that flood the capital with foreign-supplied guns and ammunition.

It seems that Haiti should be allowed to achieve self-governance without foreign powers trying to control it and with positive help from foreign interests who truly do want to establish a free and self-governing nation.

So what is it that should be done? Many people have ideas. I have ideas.

But Haiti is an independent nation with its own complex politics and national culture, so I try to stay out of suggesting what Haiti should do because-well, a lot of nations and people outside Haiti have been doing that for over 200 years and those actions have caused great pain to Haiti and Haitians. I don’t want to inadvertently push policies that the U.S. wants upon Haiti, and I similarly do not want to be pushing policies that other nations want.

For example, I see the lack of education as a primary deficit in Haiti. Educating people well will directly cause improvements because smart people with education can do great things. So I like the ideas that I see of improving literacy and setting up schools. BUT Haitians are doing this already, involving very smart, motivated Haitians who are doing things for themselves. If someone feels a need to “help” Haiti, then I’m of the opinion that the best way to do this is to perform due diligence to find those people and organizations that are indigenous to Haiti, supported by Haitians, and owned or operated by Haitians, and support them with money so that those organizations and the Haitians who run them can do the right thing for themselves.

I was watching a video last year about a non-profit organization in America that sent doctors to rural Haiti to set up temporary clinics and also work in existing medical clinics “out in the fields,” as it were. What I heard from the Haitians in the video was “Stop just sending us help when you feel the urge to be ‘nice’- teach us to do this for ourselves.” (And the video was also honest enough to let the helpers express themselves as they started to become aware of what Haitians wanted.)

That resonated with me quite a bit. The way to “help” Haiti is to enable Haitians to do for themselves. It’s way messier than just going in and doing it the “right” way according to our standards, but enabling Haitians to do for themselves allows them the dignity of self-effort and self-achievement.

I fund (through donations) a few of these efforts for education and improvement. I try to find those groups that either arise directly in Haiti to self-organize or that are run by Haitians that might be funded by outside donations. The groups that I fund are doing things that those Haitians who run them want to do. Some of them are doing general work to improve farming methods or running land restoration projects. Some of them do work to push for adult literacy. Some push for childhood education. When I see Haitians doing this, I support them.

Haiti is more than crowded with NGOs (non-governmental organizations) and “well-meaning” foreigners who treat Haiti like a nursery full of helpless children. And even well-meaning foreigners with good ideas that accomplish good work for Haiti are treated with suspicion because of their association with meddlers. What I learn from that is that it is abusive and demeaning to come in and tell Haitians what to do as if foreigners just know better-it’s way healthier and more helpful to support Haitians where they are.

If you see Haiti and you have the urge to “help,” I would suggest that Haitians don’t really need you to come help them. Haitians, like all humans, have great intelligence, drive, creativity, and their own sense of self-worth. If you want to help, find and support Haitians who are doing that work. It doesn’t give you a place to be centered and it won’t provide photo opportunities of you “helping” Haitians.

But it will help Haitians by letting them do for themselves.

“Mythical Haiti,” a photo generated by Bing AI.

Originally published at https://stephenmatlock.com on April 28, 2023.



stephen matlock

Writer; observer; sometimes doer. Fiat justitia ruat cælum. More at stephenmatlock.com Mostly off Medium now & writing elsewhere