How to deal with hurt-feelings in the “Helping hurts” conversation

How many of you have heard of the Norway based aid group SAIH – The Norwegian Students’ and Academics’ International Assistance Fund?

As an organization they help support 40 local organizations in six countries in Latin America and southern Africa.

However, you’re more likely to recognize SAIH as the group behind the Rusty Radiator awards, and many of you are also likely familiar with their spin-off org Radi-Aid’s satirical videos such as “Africa for Norway.” Never seen it? You should check it out.  Then take a minute to scroll through the comment section on YouTube (risky business, as always.) Reactions can generally be categorized in one of two ways:

First, there’s humor.  People recognize the simple truth behind these videos: stereotypes harm dignity.  Plus, the self-ironic, satirical, and overdramatized style of the films makes them funny. So why not laugh? (Really, they are pretty funny.)

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Well, sometime’s it’s hard to laugh when you are the object of satire.  That doesn’t necessarily feel great, especially when you’ve put so much into trying to help.

[It’s easy to not try, and fail – then you just don’t care.  But to work hard, and then be told that your efforts are seriously flawed?  That hurts.]

And so, not surprisingly, this was the second reaction: hurt.  Several viewers angrily responded by throwing their hands up in the air: “Well fine!  I just won’t sponsor those kids any more!” (One of the milder responses.)

I think that anybody involved in aid work who is also a part of the conversation on foreign aid’s shortcomings probably feels a little bit of both, humor and hurt.  Despite all of the effort, it feels like you just can’t win.

Systemically it’s easy to see how, overall, the mechanisms of direct-aid harm communities; how “helping hurts”, and how what began as good intentions cause dependency.

Furthermore, it’s easy to analyze a system to say “this system is broken, and these changes should be made.” With a system we can be logical, calculated, and removed. It’s a lot harder (and arguably inappropriate?) to treat people the same way.

Is there any question then as to why the system is still broken?

The system is a system made up of people.  So why doesn’t the system work?  Because pride gets in the way.  Because greed – yes.  Because ideologies and trust don’t evolve overnight.  Because everything is a pile of spaghetti and by pulling on one noodle, you unintentionally move 10 others; what helps here hurts there.  And finally, because the number of people caught up in the mechanism of foreign aid are too many to leave behind in the name of instantaneous change, and so change on the ground is necessarily delayed from change in philosophical circles.

Unfortunately, when it comes to Radi-Aid’s videos, we can’t just laugh them off; but we also shouldn’t succumb to our hurt-feelings.  We have to pick up the conversation where the videos leave off.

[See Radi-Aid’s list of demands below – I think they’re the kind of changes we can implement right away.]

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Systems are frustrating, there’s no doubt, but we keep going and we change what we can. Changing the way we handle stereotypes is a good start, both individually and in the organizations where we work.

Individually, overcoming stereotypes changes the way we approach the people in the communities where we work; it means that we see them as innately capable, intellectually competitive partners, and we recognize that under-resourced does not mean inept.

As an organization, it means changing the way we portray underprivileged people in our fundraising campaigns and media.  It means that we show our supporters progress and the resources our partners possess, instead of constantly bombarding them with images of dependency, and everything that we perceive to be wrong in an area.

Let’s start there, let’s hold each other accountable, and let’s continue the conversation.

What changes are you ready to make?

Kenbe la zanmi m!

Another funny / maybe not quite so funny / will probably make you laugh video below:

by Erin Nguyen on April 16, 2015

Why Hiring a Translator Isn’t a Free Pass for your Organization

Translator’s serve a critical role in facilitating conversation between people who speak different languages, absolutely. But do we really recognize the full scope of a translator’s responsibilities?

Having a solid command of multiple languages is hard enough, but in order to be truly effective, a translator is also responsible for bridging the gaps between two different cultures:

Translation that leads to meaningful conversation requires the translator to be highly adept at the art of interpretation: listening to what one side has to say and then conveying it in a way that has the highest impact on the person sitting across the table (most likely in a language that is secondary to them, Woah!)

This requires strong cultural fluency as well as linguistic mastery on the part of the translator.

Imagine a Haitian translator trying to explain the following phrase to an American audience:

Rayi chen di dan li blan. = Hate the dog, but say his teeth are white.
[Whether you like someone or not, you have to recognize their good qualities even amidst the bad.]

Or better yet, imagine an American translator trying to translate the following for his English speaking colleagues:

M voye dlo m pa mouye pesònn. = I throw water but I don’t get anybody wet.
[I’m talking generally, I’m not trying to offend anyone.]

Even if he succeeds in translating the words, with the pace of regular conversation, the meaning is probably lost.

And so the common phrase “lost in translation” exists for a reason: many translators are not adequately equipped to handle cultural differences in addition to linguistic ones, and many things are just not that simple to translate.

So what’s the solution to reducing how much is “lost in translation”?

Men anpil, chay pa lou. Many hands make the load lighter.

The more people you have involved in the conversation who have a working knowledge of both languages and both cultures, the better the communication between parties.

So, believe it or not, hiring a translator does not give you a free pass to forego learning a foreign language.

If you’re passionate about working in Haiti, and you plan to stick around, your conversations (even those aided by the presence of a translator) will go much further if you study the language and make the effort to learn more about the culture yourself.

Kreyol pale, kreyol konprann.

by Erin Nguyen on April 9, 2015

Fun Fact:  Do you know the technical difference between a translator and an interpreter?  While many refer to any professional that helps people communicate between languages as a a translator (like we did above), a translator actually only translates written communication, while an interpreter is responsible for helping translate verbal communication. 

Welcome to the Marriott: Your all inclusive Haiti experience

Tourism in Haiti is on the rise once more.  The country has made it to the top of many “Must Visit” lists for 2015 and is once again beginning to attract a number of travelers drawn in by Haiti’s unique art, music, history and landscape.

As part of Haiti’s Tourism push, the Hotel Marriott opened its doors in Port au Prince on February 24, 2015.

The Irish mobile phone company Digicel invested $45 million as part of a partnership between the Clinton Foundation in Haiti and top Marriott executives to make the construction of the hotel possible.

Peter Antinoph, the general manager of the Port au Prince Marriott described the corporation’s vision for the new hotel: “It’s a giant corporate social responsibility project…We’re looking to see how much we can support the society around our hotel.”

Photo Credit: Marriott Port au Prince Hotel

They are starting by sourcing as many of the needed resources for hotel operations locally.  This includes such items as soap from a small local women’s business operative, chicken from a farm just outside of Port au Prince, and tilapia from a local fishery for the onsite restaurant.

The hotel has also opted to feature Haiti’s Rebo Coffee in lieu of the standard Starbucks franchise.

In efforts to support local jobs, the hotel franchise also claims to have given priority to those in need of work over past experience or skill set during the hiring process.  Antinoph has further stated that the luxury hotel recognizes its role as a “teaching hotel”, and that they are ready and willing to embrace the challenges that come with hiring undertrained staff.  You can read more about the hotel’s social initiatives here.

While this all sounds good, only time will tell what this high-end hotel really brings to the area.

Another concern is that while the new Marriott serves a purpose for those visiting Haiti for diplomatic or business related reasons, tourists looking to get the most out of Haiti might not be sold on the idea of staying in a chain hotel.

In her article: Haiti Tourism: Challenging, But Charming to Some, Aid.Works founder Emily Troutman writes:

“It’s a nice idea, but most true tourists… don’t see the Marriott as a good starting place.  True tourists are reticent to stay in big hotels with generic fournishings and windows that wont open.  It runs contrary to the cultural Caribbean experience they were promised.”

Despite efforts to enshrine “the spirit of the country” within the walls of this 4 star hotel, it remains to be seen if guests will be fully satisfied with the Haitian-made artwork lining the corridors and the once a week on-site market inviting Haitian artisans to sell their atizana ayisyen, or if they’re bound to leave wishing for more from their experience in Ayiti.

What do you think?  Would you stay at the Marriott in Port au Prince?

by Erin Nguyen on April 2, 2015

When art replaces charity: What does “doing aid work right” look like?

Haiti: “The NGO Capital of the World”

It seems like the island once known as The Pearl of the Antilles deserves better.  With new organizations popping up over night and others disappearing with the daylight, NGO culture in Haiti can often leave many feeling lost in a sea of goodwill that didn’t quite pan out.

While it is easy to approach Haiti’s NGO culture with a heavy dose of skepticism, there is so much to celebrate when an idea, a mission, and a community come together to create a thing of beauty.

Without further ado, we would like to introduce to you: Port au Prince’s Papillon Boutique


Photo Courtesy of the Apparent Project

The Papillon Boutique is the showcase store for the Apparent Project, an organization that combines the creativity and vibrance of Haiti’s artisan scene with the consumer purchasing power that keeps Haiti’s talented artists employed, using their talents and passion to support their families and work towards a brighter future. (Employed artists mean more income, more income means better opportunities for education, and a higher probability of keeping families together by reducing the number of children surrendered to orphanages.)

If you’re going to be in Port au Prince, this is not a shop you will want to miss!  You can even Schedule a Tour for your group simply by calling ahead!

So, what is it that makes this store unique?  The HaitiHub team made their first visit in March, 2015 to learn more about their mission and work.

Photo by Corrigan & Shelley Clay Photo Courtesy of The Apparent Project

Photo by Corrigan & Shelley Clay
Photo Courtesy of The Apparent Project

Socially Responsible Employment Practices 

The main mission of Papillon is to create jobs so that families can stay together.  Their model is built entirely around this driving vision.

Since it began in 2010, the Apparent Project has grown from 4 women to over 300 people on its payroll, but this job isn’t just a paycheck, it’s an opportunity to advance.

Papillon provides free on-site daycare for children 0-3 years old for all of its employees. Access to this kind of care opens the door for parents of all ages to work and support their families without worrying about the care and safety of their youngest members during the day.

Employees are also offered the option of Computer training and English Language training with Rosetta Stone.  This kind of professional development equips members with necessary skills that open doors to further opportunity.

The Artisans’ Guild

The Artisans’ Guild at Papillon Boutique puts the necessary tools and materials in the hands of artists so that they can create their one-of-a-kind works.  From beadmaking to papermaking, metal working, textile, glass slumping, and ceramic studios, the artisan’s guild has everything needed to continue Papillon’s tradition of offering high quality hand-crafted products available throughout the store.

You can even visit the artisans’ guild on a group tour! Just let them know ahead of time and they’ll show you where they make everything listed above – with advance notice, you might even get to try your hand at rolling one of their popular cereal box beads!

Photo Courtesy of The Apparent Project


Photo Courtesy of the Apparent Project

Photo Courtesy of the Apparent Project

EVERY purchase (no matter if it’s at the Papillon Boutique in Port au Prince, Online, or at Macy’s) helps support the artisans responsible for each piece’s creation.

In addition to their operation in Port au Prince, the Apparent Project ships merchandise all over the world; they exported $1.5 million worth of product last year!

Even with operations growing, the Apparent Project remains a grass roots effort committed to the well being of its employees and largely dependent on word of mouth to spread the word about their talented artists.

Jewelry Parties and group fundraising options are a way that you can get involved in the work that they’re doing and help support local artisans as well.  Each piece comes with a tag with the artist’s name, it’s a reminder that above all, this business is about people, families, and community.

Your support means more families staying together, more kids going to school, and a way out of poverty for many creative, talented, and hard-working Haitian families.

Best of all?  This isn’t charity – it’s a decision to stand behind the high quality work of a talented group of artists producing pieces emblematic of their own personal vision and inspired by the rich imagery of Haitian culture.

This is the very best of all parties involved.

by Erin Nguyen on March 12, 2015

How do you keep giving when you sometimes feel like people are taking from you?

You must not neglect doing a thing immediately good from fear of remote evil; -from fear of its being abused.”

– Samuel Johnson

How do you keep giving when you sometimes feel like people are taking from you?

This is a question that I have struggled with after spending time living in Haiti. Here, it’s not uncommon for someone to spontaneously ask for a “kado,” or gift—I have had friends and coworkers admire a belonging of mine, and then ask if I would give it to them as a “kado.” A child on the beach asked me for my bottle of water. A young woman at Titanyen asked me to give her the shoes off my feet. When you’re not used to this, it can be disconcerting at first—I always found myself thinking, “I have so much; surely I can afford to give this away.” But then I would wonder if that was really the best response. At the time, I needed some of those things—water, shoes—as much as the person who was asking; why did these people feel entitled to ask for my belongings, and why did I feel guilty for saying no? And did all of these people really need the things they were asking me for…or were they simply taking because I let them? How do you discern necessity from manipulation?

What I have come to realize over time is that in Haiti, many people experience a level of need that I don’t and will not ever fully understand. I don’t know what it’s like to grow up in a country where life is difficult and chaotic; I don’t know what it’s like to never have enough and to constantly worry about where I will get more. I can only imagine the anxiety and insecurity that this would instill in me, and the void I might always be struggling to fill.

When you worry you’re being taken advantage of, it’s easy to become fearful and bitter; the natural instinct is to shut down or close off to avoid being exploited or hurt. To me, the challenge is always to attempt to understand the motivations behind others’ actions, and to recognize the histories behind the individuals. In doing so, it’s surprising how often fear seems to transform into compassion, and bitterness into empathy. Yes, there will always be people that are dishonest and insincere. There will also always be people who are grateful and appreciative, and who are generous in kind. In the face of disappointment in the behavior of others, I have been asked, “Why do you keep expecting things to be different?” But I have to ask…how can we not? To feel that you have so much that it’s easy to give is, in itself, a gift.

by Katie Lawler on March 19, 2015

Be sure to check out Katie’s personal blog @ for more regular updates on her life and work at the Saint Damien’s Pediatric Hospital in Tabarre, Haiti.

That’s not what I meant: On goats, peanuts, and exercise regimens in Haiti

Dèyè mon gen mon.

This well-known Haitian proverb is probably not new to you. Behind mountains there are mountains; you move past one trial or obstacle only to find a new one.

In my experience at least, the more Creole I learn, the more mountains appear. It’s easy to feel really good about that first step because the jump from absolutely nothing to even a little something is so significant, and so quick!  But progress from that point on is slower, and advancing is a much more arduous task.

My best advice? Perseverance, humility, patience and a strong sense of humor. Besides the regular challenges of building vocabulary, sharpening your listening comprehension, and working up the courage to speak in a variety of settings, learning a new language also builds some other, less anticipated skills, like the art of mastering awkward situations.

[Mastering might be a stretch, but to be successful, you’ll at least have to learn how to accept them.]

One of the biggest favors you can do yourself is to get comfortable with awkward silences, and get over them. Words slip away, and you can spend what seems like ages searching for the right word while the person across from you waits patiently for you to say something.

If you’re the one doing the listening, be that person, give the speaker a chance to find the word they’re looking for! Jump in to help only after you’re certain you’ve given them a chance to speak, but don’t let your discomfort muddle the situation.

If you’re the speaker, and you think there’s a way you can get your point across, go for it! Language learning is a fantastic adventure and as new learners we have the chance to get creative, and to start building bridges that only come when we let our guard down. You might not ever hear the end of it, but what’s a laugh between friends?

In the spirit of sharing a good laugh, here are just a few examples of language fumbles from personal experience, and the experience of close friends (shared with permission of course):

  1. In an attempt to describe the difference between a peanut with its shell versus one without, I casually referred to the latter as a: “Pistache san kay” [Lit. A homeless nut]
  1. Overcome with the excitement of seeing a free ranging baby goat (because let’s face it, there just aren’t that many stray goats roaming the streets in the Midwest) my friend joyously exclaimed: “Gade, timoun kabrit!” [Lit. Look, goat child!]

Her Haitian friends still affectionately refer to her as goat-child.

  1. Another friend arrived in the country with some language skills already in place, including an understanding of anfòm as a word meaning “in shape”, as in physically in shape. While he wasn’t wrong, anfòm can mean to be physically in shape, it’s used colloquially as a way of asking how someone’s doing:

        Anfòm? [ Everything’s good?]

        Anfòm. [Everything’s good!]

As friends started asking: Anfòm? He repeatedly replied (having not yet set an exercise routine): Non, m pa anfòm. What             he meant was that he was out of shape; what they heard was that no, everything was not okay. We can only imagine that           his Haitian friends were increasingly concerned over the way he was adapting to life in Haiti…

There’s no way to learn a new language without experiencing at least a few blunders, the best thing we can do is laugh and then learn from them. Don’t be afraid to put yourself out there and give something a try; if you wait until you can say something perfectly, chances are your opportunity to say anything at all has probably passed.

Do you have any language bloopers to share?

by Erin Nguyen on March 12, 2015

What would you say if no one else could understand you?

Growing up I had a friend whose parents were non-native English speakers; whenever they wanted to hide the content of their conversation from us (for better or worse) they’d drop the English and switch to their first language. Whenever they did this, little red flags would go up for my friend and me.

The decision to use one language over another for bilingual speakers is known in the world of linguistics as “code-switching”. While many professionals suggest that the decision is often made without any conscious effort, there are also times when code-switching is a purposeful choice that allows you to communicate discretely by changing the language to one that only a few people around you can understand.


All of this brings us to the way we use language in Haiti.

For many of us, English is our first language and we naturally use it to communicate with the members of our group. While this doesn’t really qualify as “code-switching”, it has a similar effect on the non-English speaking people around us: arousing at least curiosity, if not suspicion over what we might be saying.

The same goes for any foreign language.

Just like my friend and I once wondered at his parents’ conversations, people around you are sure to be curious, and when language doesn’t provide any context, body language becomes a major factor in what we (perhaps unknowingly) communicate to those around us.

So, Idea #1:

Your body language is very important, even when you don’t think anyone is watching. People can read your reactions even if they can’t understand a word you’re saying. Speaking from experience (and some residual guilt) please be careful what your face reveals to those around you. Especially when encountering some of the harder aspects of life in Haiti.

Idea #2:

Whenever it is possible to do so, you should try to speak Creole. By doing this you avoid locking your hosts out of the conversation and you make those around you more comfortable.

Besides, this way when there’s laughter to be shared, everyone’s in on the joke and no one is left asking if perhaps they were somehow the cause of it.

Unless your Creole was the cause of it… In which case I’ve been there, and will probably be there again, but we were laughing together.

Please tell me I’m not the only one?

More on that next time zanmi m.

by Erin Nguyen on March 5, 2015