In Your Neighborhood/Opinion

Calling out the practice of poverty porn

Adopting children from Haiti belies the fact that 70 percent of children living in Haitian orphanages are economic orphans

Photo by Sandrine Kenol Weiner, YWCA Haiti

Girls at YWCA Haiti, whose motto is: “Change starts with me.”

By Toby Simon
Posted 10/26/20
A call to invest in community development in Haiti, instead of the practice of what some have described as poverty porn practiced by church groups.
Why has the Trump administration refused to end its cruel practice of separating children from parents at the U.S. border? How have the threats of climate change and the increasing disruption of global weather patterns contributed to the flow of refugees to the U.S.? Will the next Congress approve statehood for Puerto Rico and for Washington, D.C., changing the fulcrum of power?
Even while the world, the U.S., and Rhode Island struggles to contain the current coronavirus pandemic, the promise is that we will soon need to confront the potential for a new series of pandemics, brought about by rapid climate change threats, with increasing economic disruption and migration caused by larger and larger portions of the world becoming uninhabitable.
One place to look for strategic answers is to engage with Dr. Paul Farmer, chair of Global Health and Social Medicine at Harvard, who has spent much of his professional career working in Haiti and in Africa to develop sustainable health and economic strategies to address the pandemic of poverty. The goal would be to draw upon Farmer’s expertise to build a new, strategic approach to economic development based upon the precepts of public health.

PROVIDENCE – There are many reasons to be outraged about Trump’s SCOTUS nominee, Amy Coney Barrett. The process itself is enough of an outrage, but as we’ve gotten to know just who Amy is, there’s even more anger.

Briefly put, Amy Coney Barrett will make it much harder to marry who you love, pay your medical bills, vote, and make reproductive choices on your own. She’ll make it much easier to pollute, use the “N” word, and open fire on an elementary school.

I’ve been struggling to figure out how such a squeaky clean, family values kind of gal could want to be nominated by this President, someone who once called Haiti a “shithole country.”

Barrett adopted two children from Haiti. She refers to having adopted children from an orphanage in Haiti. Anyone who knows Haiti, and who, as I have, spent time there, knows that the majority of orphans in Haiti – most estimates are at 70 percent – have parents. The correct term is “economic orphan” – that is, their families cannot afford to take care of them.

This may be the case of the two children who the Barretts have adopted. The orphanage they worked with has stated that most of the “orphans” have parents. Most likely the parents of the two Barrett children are alive, continuing their struggles in Haiti.

So many children in need
Judge Barrett claims she was inspired to adopt because “there are so many children in need.” She and her husband chose Haiti because of its poverty and proximity to the U.S.

Barrett claimed: “We could go as a family and be involved in Haiti as the children got older.” I’m wondering how many, if any, times they’ve traveled to Haiti with their brood.

Barrett and her husband did travel to Haiti in 2004. I don’t know the circumstances surrounding their visit there, but my guess is that they went with their church. Perhaps they worked at an orphanage for a week. And most likely they passed out toothbrushes or other toiletries to families in the area – families without running water, toilets, electricity, access to dentists, and generally deplorable living conditions.

The Barretts may have participated in the building of a church or new orphanage for the neighborhood. Perhaps they delivered Bibles in Creole to families living up in the mountains.

Although some may think what’s the harm – and isn’t this better than watching children suffer from the effects of poverty, none of these efforts are sustainable. I’ll concede that there are some children in orphanages that are lifted out of poverty through adoption. I’ll admit that some church groups are much more knowledgeable about international development issues than others, seeking to do work that has the appearance of sustainability.

What’s needed: a community development model
But if Haiti needs anything, it’s a community development model in which Haitians are the driving force, through which members of the community are employed, and the economic benefits are shared among community members.

I’ve had numerous conversations with people sporting “Jesus Loves Haiti” t-shirts. They have told me they had just done “God’s work” at an orphanage in Haiti. Often they didn’t know where in Haiti the orphanage was located and, when asked what kind of work was done, they would proudly say: “We visited orphans in the hospital and we prayed with them.”

News flash! To Amy Coney Barrett and friends: Orphanages in Haiti represent colossal failures in our society, failures of epic proportions. The orphanages are full of children whose parents are still alive, representing much of what’s wrong in Haiti.

Yet, there are numerous programs in Haiti aimed at eliminating “economic orphans.” Judge Barrett, how about figuring out a way to support these organizations?

Investing in Fonkoze, Papillon, and Second Mile Haiti
One of the most effective and impressive programs in Haiti is Fonkoze. It’s the largest micro-finance institution serving poor and ultra-poor rural women. They have 44 branches throughout the country with a mission to empower Haitian women with financial and development services to help lift them out of poverty. Fonkoze has a great track record.

Papillon is another program that supports mainly women, teaching artisan skills and offering jobs to the women. Their mission is to prevent orphanages and to preserve families through job creation. The employees receive a living wage that is three times higher than the minimum wage in Haiti – and the program offers day care onsite.

Second Mile Haiti is based in northern Haiti. Started by two women, their goal is to combat malnutrition in babies by providing short-term residential centers where the moms and their babies live for 6-8 weeks.

While living in the center, the moms learn about parenting issues and take literacy classes. They also receive job training in the agriculture sector, and when they leave the facility with a healthy baby, they have a skill set that helps them become self-sufficient.

These are just a few of the many programs in Haiti that have been effective. This is the approach Haiti needs, rather than hundreds of church groups, each coming for a week, living on a gated compound, avoiding any real community engagement – and taking pictures for Facebook of them holding smiling “orphans.” This is “White Savior-ism” at its finest, another example of “poverty porn.”

As a physician friend told me: “For many church folks, working in Haiti is the closest and cheapest place to find salvation.”

Primary prevention of orphanages
Haiti has plenty of problems. Just getting through the day can be a challenge. In recent years, prior to COVID-19, there’s been an increase in violence and instability. Due to the lack of infrastructure, the lack of transparency in government, a brutal history, unhealthy attitudes towards women and a failing educational system, Haiti Is hurting.

If the Amy Coney Barretts of the world really want to help, they should consider engaging in the primary prevention of orphanages. Haitian kids would be much better served if they could remain with their families, in their own country, and grow up appreciating the beauty of the Haitian landscape, culture and, most importantly, the people.

Toby Simon is a frequent contributor to ConvergenceRI.

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