I haven't gone out of my way to make a big announcement about this, because it was on and then off and then on again. But it looks like it's for real now, so I should say: I'm taking a leave of absence from my research assistantship to go to Haiti for six weeks to volunteer with Hands On Disaster Response
(HODR). Specifically, I'll be in the city of Léogâne, about 11 miles from Port-au-Prince, from July 5-August 15 (except for a required 3-day mental health break, during which I'll be visiting the fabulous wealhtheow
in San Juan).
I heard about HODR through wordweaverlynn
, one of whose partners went to volunteer with HODR back in January. I filled out their volunteer application immediately after that, but I didn't think I would be accepted, since I have no relevant skills (except for Web programming and IT, which, yes, they asked about). To my surprise, several weeks later, they replied saying that they had volunteer space available. The answer to "what are you going to be doing there?" (the first question everyone seems to ask me) is "whatever they tell me to do". Mostly, I'm guessing, clearing rubble.
I have asked myself whether I'm a disaster tourist, whether I could be doing more good by donating the money I'm spending on my airfare to Haiti and on related accoutrements to a relevant organization instead. I have no answer to that, but writing checks wouldn't lead anywhere for me, except for possibly writing more checks later on. As a person who is still struggling on whether to follow the career path for which I've been training for most of my life, whose utility is real but often seems rather divorced from the task of remedying injustice, or whether to do something (and what?) to address other people's needs directly, I'm hoping that doing this work might bring a bit of moral clarity. I'm also pretty sure I'll be doing an amount of good that's greater than zero, so I hope that justifies not having figured out what the optimal strategy is for me to put the resources I have to use.
I've also asked myself why I should go to a (somewhat) distant country to volunteer when there's plenty of useful work I could do as a volunteer much closer to home. I don't have a great answer to that either, but I do think that globalization counters the imperative to act locally. For many years, the US has maintained foreign policies towards Haiti (and not just towards Haiti) that have advanced its own economic interests at the price of supporting repressive dictatorships. Because the US economy has benefited as a result, so have I; a rising tide lifts all boats. Spending six weeks clearing rubble is not going to make amends for the ill-gotten gains that I and all other affluent Americans have enjoyed, but maybe it's a start. I, for one, am tired of hearing news coverage about Haiti (not that we're hearing much news anymore) that takes the "How'd that
happen?" approach to its poverty. The high standard of living that I enjoy and the low standard of living that most people in Haiti endure are linked. I enjoy what I enjoy at the expense of others. This isn't liberal paranoia or zero-sum cynicism; it's just historical and economic fact. Reading _The Uses of Haiti_ by Paul Farmer drove that point home for me.
So I'm hoping that even if I go ahead and become a computer science professor and spend the rest of my life sipping wine in Corte Madera, having been to Haiti will make me feel just a little bit more uncomfortable about believing in a certain set of technical problems to be the most compelling matter demanding my attention, or about believing that social progress is occurring at a faster rate than the one at which it actually is. I don't know what difference that would really make, but I figure that anything that decreases the amount of denial in the world is a good thing.
Finally, if you think that what I'm doing is a good thing, please express that by making a donation of whatever size you can afford, either to HODR
or to Partners in Health
, rather than by telling me so. Some people walk or bike or blog to fundraise for a cause -- I'm not doing any of those things, but if it helps, you could think of this as my equivalent of the Blogathon or AIDS Ride or whatever else.