Cynicism is among our most punctual instincts. Within days of the earthquake in Haiti, there came warnings of impending compassion fatigue, wagers of how long it would be before we turned away to the Super Bowl, the Olympics and the Oscars, leaving Haiti to misery.
But I don’t believe people get tired of helping–only that they get tired of feeling helpless.
The challenge arises when we witness what health crusader Paul Farmer calls “stupid deaths”: death in childbirth, death by mosquito, death, in the case of Haiti, from infections that spread when crushed limbs aren’t amputated fast enough. Help never arrives fast enough because no two disasters are alike and chaos is an agile enemy.
So I wondered how we would feel, after texting our $10 donations to the Red Cross and writing checks to Save the Children, still coming home night after night to the growing mass grave on our flat-screens.
Epic disasters inspire dreams of glory. “Everyone wants to be a hero. Everyone wants to help,” Dr. Thomas Kirsch, a co-director of the Johns Hopkins Center for Refugee and Disaster Response, told MSNBC. “It’s not the way to do it.” A team from his school arrived in Haiti so unprepared, its members needed rescue themselves. “They had no bedding, supplies or food,” he said, and they had to rely on other relief agencies for support.
Desperation deforms judgment, and not just among victims.
Thus we meet missionary Laura Silsby and her flock, who in the face of so much suffering set out from Boise, Idaho, with a trailer full of children’s clothes and a vow to help Haiti’s orphans “find healing, hope, joy and new life in Christ.” “Our hearts were in the right place,” she insisted, but her head was somewhere else entirely, and they all wound up in jail. We know a bit more now about her regard for the niceties of law and protocol: unpaid debts, civil lawsuits, a house in foreclosure and an improvised mission to scoop up a load of children and head to the border without so much as a license or even confirmation that they were all orphans.
We also know that the families she encountered were desperate to survive. Parents were told their children would be cared for and schooled in the Dominican Republic; the families could even visit. “If someone offers to take my children to a paradise,” a mother told the New York Times, “am I supposed to say no?” Silsby was warned by local officials about obtaining proper papers, and by that mark alone, her behavior was criminal. But it was also criminally naive.
One’s duty in the face of disaster is not just to be kind but to be sensible.
When a soldier, however brave, runs into enemy fire without a plan or shield, his death isn’t just a loss; it’s a waste. The same is true of all those who want to help but wind up getting in the way, a distraction neither the victims nor the professionals can afford.
Chances are that if the 82nd Airborne can’t get food to the tent city fast enough, your food bank can’t either.
On its website, Samaritan’s Purse asks aspiring volunteers to “please be patient and we will get back to you.” Then there is the help that is no help at all. After the 2004 tsunami, aid poured in from all over the world. But it included tons of outdated or unneeded medicines that Indonesian officials had to throw out. People sent Viagra and Santa suits, high-heeled shoes and evening gowns.
A year later, after an earthquake in Pakistan, so much unusable clothing arrived that people burned it to stay warm. It may make us feel good to put together children’s care packages with cards and teddy bears–but whose needs are we trying to meet?
Money is fleet and nimble. The very thing that makes it unsatisfying to give makes it powerful to deploy. It can turn into anything–a water bottle, a prefab house, a tetanus shot, a biscuit. It lets relief agencies buy locally whenever possible, supporting local markets for products that are culturally and environmentally right. In the past decade, accountability has become a watchword of relief agencies around the world, with new guidelines to help donors know that their aid won’t be wasted. Give money, Presidents Bush and Clinton implore, and by implication, leave the rest to professionals.
If you can’t feed a hundred people, Mother Teresa used to say, then feed just one. There are slow-motion disasters everywhere.
The Red Cross is doing heroic work in Haiti, but it is also doing it around the corner, when a house burns down. It may not feel glorious, but often the greatest good is accomplished quietly, invisibly. The choice is not either-or. We can give globally and help locally. Either way, the same principle holds in helping as in healing: First, do no harm.