© 2024 Western New York Public Broadcasting Association

140 Lower Terrace
Buffalo, NY 14202

Mailing Address:
Horizons Plaza P.O. Box 1263
Buffalo, NY 14240-1263

Buffalo Toronto Public Media | Phone 716-845-7000
WBFO Newsroom | Phone: 716-845-7040
Your NPR Station
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Haiti Aid Worker Reflects On The Limits Of Help


Aid workers often win applause for their courage and selflessness, for leaving often comfortable lives to help out in wars, famines and catastrophes. But in a recent post on his blog, Quinn Zimmerman, an aid worker in Haiti, gives us a different understanding of the experience. He vented his frustrations, including resentment from some Haitians' incessant begging, and the unwillingness or inability of people to help themselves. Of course, he adds, the need is real, the cause important. Much remains to be done.

If you've been an aid worker, what challenges did you not expect? What surprised you? 800-989-8255. Email us: talk@npr.org. You can also join the conversation on our website. That's at npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION. Quinn Zimmerman is an aid worker in Leogane, Haiti. His blog is called "These New Boots." And he joins us from his home. Quinn, nice to have you with us today.

QUINN ZIMMERMAN: Thank you. Nice to be here.

CONAN: And you wrote in your blog post: Your empathy is there, but it's something different than it was before. So what's it become?

ZIMMERMAN: That's a good question. I think what's it become is more realistic. I think that's going to be one of the things that you're going to take away committing yourself to a place that inherently is going to show you, once you have the time to take a look at it, what it's really like to work in a place that has consistently shown to be very difficult for people, both the people who live here and the people working here. I came down here with kind of rose-colored glasses and this belief that intention was enough, that my desire to want to help people was enough.

And looking back on that now, I've realized that that wall, I think, is very normal for most people when they take a leap of faith into this kind of work, is also something that eventually will be really challenged, if not altogether abandoned. So you can take a look at things more realistically and hopefully, should you decide to commit yourself, be able to be more effective.

CONAN: What was it that opened your eyes?

ZIMMERMAN: I think the combination for me was the realization that no matter how much I tried to help here or I've tried to help here and continue to try to help here, there's no way that I can fix this place. I never would have assumed going in that I could fix it. So I think that's actually quite an egotistically statement. I sometimes talk to people that tell me they're here to save Haiti, and I can't help but kind of, you know, laugh from on inside when I hear that because I think it's incredibly shortsighted and, again, egotistical.

But at the same time, I did feel like I could really make some sort of a tangible difference. And I've learned that the only real way to keep yourself focused and going forward on this is to celebrate the smaller victories because if you really look at Haiti or any very, very impoverished and difficult country, you can never hope to come in and somehow have the magic bullet to fix it. So that was largely - a very large wakeup call for me, when you realize your own limitations. It's quite humbling, actually.

CONAN: And there were specific experiences, though, that caused you to maybe start thinking again. You described walking past a group of young Haitian men who were just hanging around and the insults that they would throw at you.

ZIMMERMAN: Yeah. That was frustrating. It's something I've gotten used to. But after a while, it just starts to bubble up. It's not - I don't think it's uncalled for necessarily. I do have to call out ignorance where I see it. And I've definitely felt in situations that people were being quite ignorant and been very aggressive. But at the same time, I can try to understand, one, that's not necessarily anything I've done. And I try not to take it personally, although that can be difficult.

But Haiti historically is a country that's been under the thumb of other, more powerful countries since it, you know, since it declared its independence. It was the first free black republic. It was the first successful slave rebellion. And as a result, they've had to deal with a lot of that. That doesn't justify, you know, 17-year-old, 18-year-old guys telling me to go, you know, F myself. But I can understand the frustration, and more recently I also think it has to do with the fact that change is slow here. I remember listening to a THIS AMERICAN LIFE episode after the earthquake happened, and they were talking about how Haiti's kind of a conundrum because more and more aid is coming in, more money is being poured in, there's more NGOs in the ground, and yet the country is getting worse.

It's easy for me to say, well, surely, there's some progress being made, but, you know, I have to take myself out of the equation and imagine what that must be like for people living here. They must get incredibly frustrated. They see all this money, all these NGO workers going around, you know, saying that they're helping, and yet they don't really see much tangible results. So, again, it's a mixed bag. I try to be understanding, but there's moments where I really have a hard time with it, and that's what I was writing about.

CONAN: And some of that anger in their seeming inability or unwillingness to help themselves.

ZIMMERMAN: Yeah. That's incredibly frustrating. One of the things that I think is actually quite challenging here is there's a strange kind of one-two punch here of dependence and expectance at the same time. The amount of aid that's been poured in and the amount of time that it's been here has resulted largely in people just kind of assuming that their needs will be taken care. That's not everybody. I can't speak in generalities. I have quite a lot of Haitian friends and co-workers and the majority my staff is Haitian, and I have a massive amount of respect for a lot of people here.

But I also meet a lot of people that just kind of, ist of on the street, hey blanc, bum me a dollar. Hey, blanc, (speaking in foreign language). That means, hey, white person, give me a dollar. Hey, white person, give me this, give me that. And then when I asked them why, they tell me because that's what you're supposed to do. That's what you're obligated to do. If you're not going to do that, then leave because there's no reason for you to be here. That, I think, is incredibly short-sighted and also very frustrating because, again, it's this strange combination of being dependent, but also expecting it. And that can be very disheartening because the reality is no aid project is going to work if you don't have people that you're trying to help bought into it in wanting to help themselves.

CONAN: You also tell a story about a girl named Jerry(ph) - Jenny(ph), excuse me, 18, whip smart. You describe her as who knows you pretty well, who's been on the receiving end and who can't stop asking.

ZIMMERMAN: Yeah. She eventually...


ZIMMERMAN: It comes up every now and again. Jenny and I - she's really a good friend of mine, so we've gotten to the point now where we could tease each other, and she knows every now and again when she's overstepping my boundaries. I can give her a look and she'll laugh and back off. But, yeah, you know, with Jenny, it was also a difficult situation because I'd really gotten to really appreciate her and her family. And I've learned more about what it's like. I think, for me, again, one of the more humbling experiences is - for frustrated as I get and my venting online, it's like, at the end of the day, I really have to, you know, check myself - what you're talking about. You can buy an airplane ticket whenever you want and leave, like you have absolutely no right to really feel just like this is something that you're allowed to bitch out. Again, it's humbling.

But with Jenny, when I go out and I spend time with her family and I look at the realities of what it means to be really poor in this country, it's very difficult. And, yeah, with Jenny, I'm lucky in the sense that we've established a relationship now where I am helping her actually. I also wrote in the article that, again, little victories must be celebrated, and one of my little victories is I've decided to try to help Jenny on a very personal level, just get her through school because her mother can't afford to do that and that keeps me grounded. It keeps me focused on the fact that even when I sometimes question the larger picture at play here, there is somebody that I'm helping and I've formed a really sweet relationship with, so that's helpful and certainly something makes me - keeps me moving forward.

CONAN: Quinn Zimmerman writes the blog "These New Boots." He's an aid worker in Leogane, Haiti. We'd like to hear from other aid workers about the frustrations they've experienced in the job. 800-989-8255. Email us: talk@npr.org. We'll start with Tracy(ph) who is on the line with Newark, Delaware.



TRACY: I'm doing a relief work both in Guatemala and in Bolivia with a group with the Methodist church. And I - while it was a good - it was a medical mission trip, but at one time, one of our translators was asked by some of the people we were helping where they found this person or the alien from outer space.

CONAN: Alien from outer space?

TRACY: That's what they said about us, like just because we were just so different, you know, all - yeah, I don't know that we were so different. But at that time, I just laughed it off, but after awhile, it did hurt, but I understand. I feel that it's so complex with people from the U.S. doing to some of these countries where our government has been so involved either, you know, overtly or covertly and may be responsible for the predicament that some of this people live in. And I didn't know if they were bringing out their frustration in that way, or if it was just the real, simple, these women really look different. Where are they from, you know?

TRACY: But I mean, I enjoyed doing the work very much. I don't know my life has changed quite a bit. I don't know if I had an opportunity if I'd do it again, but that was, you know, just one of - and one of - also in Guatemala, they wanted - one woman wanted to make sure, very sure that we knew, being from North America, that they were poor, and they were suffering. That it wasn't, like, some people, like, live here. While they're poor, but they're very happy. You know, they have their family. They have their community that they're very happy. Well, this one woman that was, you know, in her 20s, wanted us to make sure that we're poor. We know it and we are suffering. It's not like we're the happy, poverty-stricken, you know. And so those are just two things that I took from it that maybe are a little bit different than I had anticipated I would.

CONAN: Tracy, thanks very much for the call. Appreciate it.

ZIMMERMAN: If I could...

TRACY: Sure.

ZIMMERMAN: If I could make a comment on that, I think it's actually a very good point that she brings up?

CONAN: Go ahead.

ZIMMERMAN: I, actually, would think that one of the things that we in the - I guess you want to call it the first world or the West or whatever you want to call it. When we come down here, we assume that people in poverty must be suffering. And surely, there's a lot of suffering, and I've seen it firsthand, but I also would have to say that the vast majority of the town, it looks like people kind of go about their daily lives. And, you know, it's not as horrific as the scenes that you see sometimes in articles about Haiti from people that have only been here for, maybe, a week in a post-disaster situation type of a thing.

I think that - actually, one of the things that might get the - most specifically the Haiti - the Haitians very frustrated is this stigma that they get, like these poor, poor, desperate people. They - there's no way that that can help themselves. We have to go in and do something. That's so demeaning, and they're people just like anybody else. Just because you're poor doesn't mean you don't pick up on what other people perceive you to be. And I know a lot of Haitians who are very proud of being Haitian. They're very proud of where they come from and, yeah, they might not have a lot, but that doesn't necessarily mean that they're miserable and suffering constantly.

I think it's unfair to pigeonhole them into that. Not that I'm saying that the caller did, but I also think that that is, certainly, something that can start to build resentment over time. It's like, you know, you guys are just assuming I'm this thing that you need to come here and fix. That's - goes back to my early point of coming in to try and save anything is, I think, incredibly demeaning to whoever the people that you're trying to, quote, unquote, "save" are.

CONAN: Aid worker and blogger, Quinn Zimmerman. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. And let's talk with Alex(ph). Alex with us from Las Vegas.

ALEX: Hi. I worked with an NGO in Cote d'Ivoire in West Africa for almost a year, and I can really relate with your caller in how he himself changed and his outlook towards the work that he's doing changed. I noticed for me, it was - I really became kind of hardened. You see so much poverty and so much - so many bad things going on around you all the time that people's real problems or real struggles just become another sob story And ou become hardened, and I really hated that about myself that it almost felt like a racism that I felt like every Ivoirian was like this, and that just wasn't true. So I guess the most surprising thing that happened to me was that my own personal change how I - I changed and then had to kind of change back.

CONAN: Has that happened to you, Quinn Zimmerman?

ZIMMERMAN: I understood part of that. The connection is a little hard to understand, but I think he was talking about the perceptions on what he saw and what he had to change back. I have to say I have left Haiti for a period of two months, three months at the beginning of January 2011, and that was incredibly eye-opening too, have to readjust and go from a place like this where, yeah, your skin gets hardened, and you, you know, you kind of put up these ways of navigating.

One of the things that goes back to the first caller's point of - the aliens, as they referred to her. One of the things that you have to get used to is you stick out like a sore thumb when you're doing aid work. You know, when I walk on the streets, there's no way that I'm not going to attract attention, even though there's quite a lot of aid workers here. Leogane has tons of NGOs. It's just part of being a foreigner here or a blanc, as they would call you. And, yeah, it took awhile to shed that and then put that back on once I came back. So, yeah, I can totally understand the feeling of having to kind of try on new identities almost, if you want to call it that, or certainly new skins to try to deal with whatever given situation you find yourself in. And it's really apparent in an aid capacity.

CONAN: Thanks, Alex.

ALEX: Thank you.

CONAN: Let's see if we get - this is Jean-Claude(ph), I think. Jean-Claude from Jacksonville.

JEAN-CLAUDE: Yes, sir. Thank you for having me. How are you doing?

CONAN: I'm well. Thank you.

Yeah. I am a native from Haiti, and I can identify with a lot of the things that your guest is talking about. I've actually been to several medical missions to Haiti. And I find it to be consistent all across the country, that a lot of my fellow Haitians, they are more interested in asking for a dollar instead of working for that dollar. I'm a psychotherapist by training, and I took the time to kind of talk to them about the idea of working for yourself and do things for yourself as well. And your guest also talked about their resentment, and I think that the resentment is twofold because of the historical context, our history with the French and issue with the Americans as well.

JEAN-CLAUDE: And also, after the earthquake, as you might know, the - Haiti has become a big business for a lot of NGOs, so there's a lot of Haitians who's looking at the blanc, like people who are exploiting them. And I do understand that it's not all the NGOs that's doing it, but because of the large numbers of NGOs that are doing it, that lead to that type of resentment.

CONAN: I think, in your blog, Quinn Zimmerman, you refer to that as the white savior industrial complex.


ZIMMERMAN: Yes, indeed. Something I really didn't know too much about until I got here and then realized that I kind of played right into, which is something I think about a lot when I'm here. But, yeah, what he was saying is very true. It's this idea again of - I read that first in an article by Teju Cole, who's a writer. And following the Kony video, he posted up stuff on Twitter and said that, you know, the white savior supports brutal policies in the morning, founds charities in the afternoon and, you know, receives awards in the evening. I think that might be a little bit too harsh. I certainly don't intend to try to support any brutal policies, but I certainly think that there is a level of, like, yeah, we're just going to come in here and we're going to fix this. And don't worry, we know what's up, and we're going to do things.

And the reality is, if you don't take the time to really learn about the people and let them take the lead on helping themselves - maybe you can provide some resources that are hard to get in developing countries, and some expertise that might be hard to find, but you really can't come in on your high horse and tell them, this is how it's going to be done. It just doesn't work, and it's going to breed an incredible amount of resentment.

CONAN: And, Quinn...

ZIMMERMAN: So I completely understand what he's talking about.

CONAN: Quinn Zimmerman, thanks very much for your time today. Quinn Zimmerman with us from Leogane, Haiti. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.