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A Message to Occupy Sandy from New Orleans And Haiti

Hurricane Katrina

As a native New Orleanian and as someone who has lived and worked in Haiti off and on for more than three decades –since the earthquake, mostly on– I offer some recommendations on catastrophe aid and solidarity. The suggestions come from my own experience and observations, as well as critiques from communities in Haiti and New Orleans about their experiences after their epic disasters.

One central principle is really just the Golden Rule: do unto others as you would have them do unto you, or whatever our religion’s variant may be. In crisis situations, some people seem to feel a special dispensation to breeze in to do whatever they want. Yet those wishing to work in disaster-struck areas should operate with the same respect that you would want someone coming into your community to show.

Another principal is: first, do no harm. For those motivated by a zeal of commitment, compassion, or righteous radicalism, this is not as easy as it sounds. Read on for some nitty-gritty on how to do that.

  • Support what community members are doing instead of starting your own initiative. If you really feel you must, test the idea with representatives of the local community whom your intervention is intended to benefit before moving forward. Does it reflect their agenda and meet an expressed need? If not, your instincts or passions may not be aligned with their priorities. f you don’t know an organization to check with or you’re not certain they’re interested, better to hang back. Sometimes doing nothing can be the wiser course of action.
  • At every step, promote mechanisms and opportunities for the community itself – especially those whose voices often go unheard and needs go unmet- to take the lead. Let them be the spokespersons, strategists, representatives. Let them follow their own wisdom and instincts, even if you perceive they are making a mistake. Programs led by outsiders perpetuate the sidelining of those directly impacted. They also usually fail as soon as the outsiders leave.
  • If you do decide to go into a community, question your power, privilege, and outsider status at every opportunity. Remember that just by being in a room you can shift the entire power dynamic within it. I have seen outsiders, including the supposedly progressive, go into the Lower Ninth Ward of New Orleans and displaced peoples camps in Haiti and wreck delicate power balances, overwhelm local voices, impose outsider organizer strategies, and walk over local leaders. Good intentions are not enough. We don’t know what we don’t know, but we can assume it’s a lot. Be humble. Listen instead of speaking. Learn instead of teaching. Be still before moving. Consult before acting. Listen some more.
  • If you’re only going for a brief jaunt, consider staying home. Parachuters can raise expectations and mobilize projects, only to check out when they experience a devastating break-up with their on-site lover, when their (or their parents’) money runs low, when the going gets a little rough, or when someone calls their shit. They often leave chaos, failed initiatives, and unfulfilled dreams in their wake.
  • Make sure that your donation is going to support local goods, services, and employment. Robert Naiman of Just Foreign Policy sent this suggestion: “If your aid dollar is used to purchase supplies produced in the area, it's doing double duty. And if it's being used to directly employ people from the area, it's doing triple duty. Push your aid dollar as close to the ground as you can.” Instead of buying gas to drive across the country to rebuild a community center, say - though you have no idea how to build - consider rerouting that money to a local, unemployed carpenter. Et cetera.
  • Act with deliberation instead of acting as quickly as possible. Haitians have told me that anything that happens fast doesn’t last;
  • Focus on assistance which may improve the life of, and deal fairly with, every individual it touches along the way, instead of trying to help as many people as possible. Bigger is not necessarily better;
  • Cash is critical and, in the hands of a reliable organization with deep roots in its community, can go far in alleviating need. Unfortunately, most of the dollars given by global citizens after the disaster in Haiti and in New Orleans and many other places disappeared into the ether. There are two ways to increase the chances that your money will reach those in need and serve them well. First, before giving anywhere, ask lots of questions. Probe deeply into whether the soliciting group has a record of trustworthiness, how accountable it is to local communities, and just what it will do with the money. Second, make donations to organizations that support grassroots communities. A study by Grantmakers without Borders about the Indian Ocean tsunami of 2004 found what all my colleagues and I also found in Haiti: grassroots organizations are by far the most effective in delivering aid and much-needed services;
  • Avoid material aid unless a group has asked for it. I’ve heard stories of frozen hot dogs being sent to indigenous communities in Chiapas, blankets air freighted to the tropics, high-heeled shoes donated to refugee camps. Cast-off clothes, shoes, and household items sent after the Haitian earthquake were generally not what people needed, and so fed booming sidewalk sales by those desperate for money to buy what they did need. Cash is usually what allows groups to get what is most necessary for them;
  • Go beyond just giving aid to assisting the community in resolving the systemic problems that they have identified. Use your voice to echo theirs as they seek to construct with participatory democracy, equitable power, and a fair distribution of disaster aid resources;
  • To guide your and others’ efforts, learn and share the priorities and analyses of local movements and organized communities.

I don’t want to squelch good intentions and compassionate impulses. On the contrary, I celebrate them, and hope that justice will be served by what gifts are made, and how.

How can we learn as we go to improve the quality of our response? How can we listen carefully and engage in honest dialogue with survivors and community members? Keep in mind the difference between leadership of those directly impacted and those just visiting? Be aware of power dynamics, for those of us with heavy footprints? Those facing disaster will have long-term needs for assistance and solidarity, so we have a wonderful opportunity to keep practicing.

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