Can We Change Perceptions? “The Obscenity of NGOs”

Port-au-Prince, Haiti. “I hate the international community who came to my country to ”˜save us!’   I despise their portrayal of Haiti as one of abject poverty and flooding!   They make 100 times the salary of ordinary Haitians, drive enormous vehicles, and buy the services of our boys and girls!   It is obscene!”

So began my conversation on the flight from JFK to Port-au-Prince with my seat companion Mario Benjamin, the most internationally prominent Haitian artist, returning from the Biennial in South Korea.

“So, what do you do?” he asked. I head a non-governmental organization associated with the United Nations, I explained. His disgust for me was palpable and I knew I had only the short flight to explain to him that my organization, Orphans International, was no ordinary NGO.

Mario Benjamin 1

I begin with the caveat that not only do I not get paid, but having left Wall Street to help Haitian and other children, I actually gave away my savings, my pension, and even my mother’s estate. This begins to capture his imagination.

I talk about how my staff and I are paid room, board, and allowance – and that we have hundreds of volunteers who receive nothing and even pay their own expenses (i.e. long-distance phone calls, airfare).

I mention my own contemplations of taking a Vow of Poverty, and that fellow Episcopalian Anne Hastings, director of the Haitian micro-finance institution Fonkoze, has agreed to join me if I take such a vow. He knows her and this impresses him.

I mention how my staff are “down with our mission,” and that those who aren’t leave quickly. Of course, I have attracted staff that could not handle it – it is enormously stressful to be responsible for others and yet not have the means to meet that responsibility – and I am still struggling to learn how to read people, to make sure they can handle it. Most cannot.

One Peruvian staffer robbed us blind. Our Togolese director cracked when he left his upper middle-class comfort in Lomé for cross training in Haiti. Indonesian and Haitian staff have jumped ship for ten-fold increases in salary with the United Nations. Australian, American, and Canadian staff have left for graduate school, which I actually applaud. I wish I could!

So what I am left with is a committed cadre of global staffers dedicated to helping us “Raise Global Citizens” in the developing world. My team consists of Indonesian Ford Scholars, a Haitian who has been with me since the Tsunami in Aceh, Sumatra, and a Malaysian gemologist who put his career with Cartier on hold to help children who have never even heard of Paris.

We are NOT the typical NGO. Although some JP Morgan bankers are describing us as “the next Doctors without Borders or Habitat for Humanity,” I have built a tradition of service-above-self that I will not relinquish even when we have adequate funding – which we so desperately need.

My dedicated team takes public transportation, eats with our kids, sleeps without air conditioning, and communicates through FaceBook and Yahoo IM. We are the NGO equivalent of the barefoot Cuban doctors who operate in the mountains of Haiti so effectively. Yet even some of them defect.

I have traveled in the field on the backs of trucks and motorcycles, in tap-taps (Haiti)and tuk-tuks (Sri Lanka), by boat across flooded rivers where bridges have collapsed. My own accidents in the field, one humorous and one nearly tragic, illustrate exactly why the large NGOs have cars and drivers.

The funny memory is of flooded roads, impassible by jeeps, traversed only by motorcycles. I now know first-hand the challenge of retaining one’s dignity after emerging from a mud bath, covered head-to-toe in mud, after one’s motorcycle driver spins out of control.

The most frightening moment was not funny at all: riding in the cab of a truck and hitting the windshield when we collided at 40 mph. I lay on the road with a self-diagnosed minor concussion, too far away from any hospital to do anything but rest.

Why do I refuse to travel first class? Why do I not want a salary? Why do I not eat in the best restaurants? Because such trappings of wealth divorce us from our mission of working with the poorest of the poor, the weakest of the weak – orphaned children from abject poverty.

As an organization, obviously we need laptops and Internet connectivity. Health insurance would be grand. But we do not need the ubiquitous cars and drivers of disaster relief, nor U.N. rules against discount airlines, and the multiple three-way radios the big boys carry. Rather, we are entrenched in our communities, and our communities support us. Our protection stems from these local communities.

The short plane trip to Haiti ended all to quickly. Port-au-Prince is forever away in the minds of New Yorkers, but Haiti is literally on our doorsteps. The immense flooding of Haiti could be seen from the air.

Mario Benjamin, my new friend and rabid anti-NGO Haitian artist, embraced me as we landed – promising to build an installation in New York to benefit Orphans International. And the proud Haitian band played with great gusto – as always – as we walked arm-in-arm into the arrivals terminal. My sixteenth trip to Haiti begins!

The Editors
The Stewardship Report on Connecting Goodness is the communications platform of The James Jay Dudley Luce Foundation ( There are now more than 100 contributors around the world to this publication.

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