The Santa Claus Complex

I got an offer in the mail last week for [something I didn’t need] at the local grocery store. By the time I went to the store the coupon was expired; might as well try anyway, right?

What’s the worse they can say?  No? (They did.)

Imagine if all you had to do was ask, can I have this for free? Americans would be lining up. (Images of Sam’s Club and Costco come to mind…Free samples people, samples! Oh, and don’t forget, you probably don’t actually need any of these products!)

Keep some of these American consumer habits in mind for a moment; now, what about Haiti?  There is real need in Haiti, that is obvious from the moment you arrive, but the discussion on humanitarian aid is making a shift from what they call the “Charity approach” to the “Partnership approach”. It’s a hugely important step moving forward, but trying to put it into practice in the everyday in Haiti is like swimming against the current.

Our involvement in Haiti has built up a culture of dependency and if you are easily identifiable as “not Haitian” (i.e. a “blan”) you will be hard pressed to escape the phrase: “Ban mwen…” (Give me) which seems to follow you wherever you go. Before we go any further, I want to share two thoughts:

  1. A child asking you for a dollar or a woman asking you for food does not lessen their humanity or right to basic dignity. This is a behavioral norm WE have created and will take time to undo; it most certainly is not an excuse to patronize.
  1. Nevertheless, by perpetuating the cycle of dependency (through blind acquiescence to these requests) WE are guilty of robbing them of a little bit of that dignity.

There are grey zones (as always), you might have friends with a particular need you can help fill, there is room for generosity too; this post is not an excuse to turn a cold shoulder to those in need. It’s meant to begin a discussion about the way we respond to need, and how this response is changing.

We have to find a way to serve the community without enabling individuals only, find a way to help the community move forward so THEY can provide care to people who need it, and create sustainable initiatives that equip Haitian leaders to step up and lead their communities so that children grow up with these leaders in mind, not the idea that just blans run the show. Directing your resources towards locally operated initiatives that focus on sustainability, education and empowerment in addition to need, is the best way to go.

What we can’t continue doing is showing up like a big blan Santa Clause; it’s destroying our ability to create real relationships because it never lets us get to a place of equality in our partnership with Haitian friends. What would our involvement in Haiti look like if we took off the big red suit?

by Erin Nguyen on September 11, 2014

3 thoughts on “The Santa Claus Complex

  1. Amen Carlo! When someone in Haiti asks me for money or food I ask them to tell me how they can help me and my organization? What can you help me with today and I’ll pay you at the end of the day. They could help farm, clean, organize, run to the market etc. At the end of the day they’ve earned their pay and protected their dignity.

  2. so true! I am involved in an organization that has been trying to change this general perception for 30 years ( for anyone interested) and they searched for a place in Haiti where the people would be willing and motivated to work together for the good of the whole – the community! It took a lot of searching to find a place where “The Santa Claus Complex” hadn’t infected the community to the point of forgoing the motivation of helping themselves because there may be an easier way through a ‘blan’ charity. But it has been cool to see the community work together for progress … starting with clean water … and now 30 years later with nearly 100% of the children attending school and even making steps toward a future post-secondary education program. They are also working to plan for these young professionals to stay in their communities (vs. fleeing to Port au Prince for hopes of employment) by creating large projects that will required many skilled workers. It CAN happen, but as stated in this post, we ‘blans’ need to have the right approach in HOW we help, and wouldn’t we all rather earn our living and feel self-worth than depending on others?

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