Earlier this week I was visiting my father in New Jersey and he took me to lunch with his friends Ann and Tom, who are activists who work for peace and justice in the developing world. Tom works to improve conditions for the people of Haiti and Ann does her main work for the people of Colombia. They are elders, in their late 70s or early 80s (couldn’t tell exactly). Tom spoke about the need for a paradigm shift in the way Americans approach Haitians in their efforts to help. American aid organizations are inclined to send food to Haiti to the exclusion of exploring ways to reestablish the means for Haitians to produce enough food to feed themselves. Tom says we need to think about how to partner with the Haitians, to collaborate with them to provide assistance that will make a lasting difference and not just address an immediate need. At one time the people of Haiti were able to grow enough rice and beans to feed themselves. Tom says that helping Haitians restore their rice paddies would be the most significant step toward ending hunger in Haiti. We talked about the fact that Americans are often patronizing when providing aid to the developing world, assuming that we know what people need; when in fact they know what they need better than we do.
Tom’s wife Ann founded the Colombia Accompaniment Program and she says she started the organization after she asked Colombians what was needed. They told her they needed American witnesses to come and stand beside them in solidarity to stop the violence in their country. So Ann went home and created a program (like Witness for Peace) that sends witnesses. Their presence reduces the violence experienced by Colombians. I didn’t know before reading some of Ann’s materials about Colombia that it has produced the world’s fourth-largest uprooted population, with over 2.6 million Colombians now refugees or internally displaced. The country remains trapped in a civil war waged between guerrillas, the Colombian military, and paramilitary forces (many formerly military). The war there has raged for more than 40 years, with deep roots in political exclusion and economic injustice. Just over 1% of the landowners own 55% of the land, the top 10% of the population receives 44% of the income, and 55% of the population lives below the poverty line. (By-the-way, Ann encourages people to buy Equal Exchange coffee from Colombia because your purchase benefits the indigenous Colombian coffee farmers.)
I could learn so much from Tom and Ann given more time to spend with them, but we only had an hour at lunch, so I absorbed as much as I could in the short time allowed. One of the things that stands out for me from our conversation was the discussion about partnership, about asking what is needed instead of assuming or dictating. To truly offer help as one person to another or one nation to another, the one offering must be willing to base the assistance on what the recipient really needs. What the recipient really needs may turn out to be quite different from what was anticipated, much more difficult to provide, and something with which the donor does not feel quite so comfortable. I admire Ann for asking the Colombians what she could do and then going home and finding a way to do it. In the end, we need to be prepared to learn from one another and to be changed in the process.