Two years ago, Port au Prince, Haiti, shook from an earthquake that would kill nearly a quarter of a million people, leave a million more homeless, and set the country's development back decades. When World Vision and a host of other relief agencies and governments initially responded, we sensed an opportunity to not only supply immediate care but to assist Haiti onto a permanent path to prosperity.
Helping people lift themselves out of poverty is a complex task, involving technical issues in agriculture, infrastructure, and health; social issues like the treatment of women and education for children; as well as spiritual, moral, and political concerns. NGOs and governments understand well these complexities, and yet, in Haiti, even our best practices have been put to the test. The work has been daunting, often with modest accomplishments. Even the most stalwart among us have sometimes wondered whether we could show the kind of success in Haiti that we hoped for.
To be sure, the problems in Haiti are tremendous. Even before the earthquake, the country had the poorest economy in the Western hemisphere, with 4 of every 10 household unable to access basic nutritional needs. Only one in every 50 Haitians has a steady, wage-earning job. Today, a half-million people are still living in tents. A cholera epidemic has infected nearly 500,000 people, and in an ironic twist the disease's presence in the country is being blamed on UN peacekeepers.
Many also blame development organizations for creating dependency among Haitians. It takes a deep understanding of the culture and the people's needs, as well as a long-term presence to help without creating problems. Yet even after 30 years in the country, World Vision has experienced its own challenges following the quake. We struggled to build shelters for the homeless as we had difficulty finding staff with the necessary language and skill qualifications. And the lack of clarity about land ownership made it further difficult to identify sites for transitional shelters.
Meanwhile, Haiti has almost no functioning and trustworthy civil institutions. The government has a corruption rating of 175 out of 183 countries. It takes almost two years to obtain the permits necessary just to build a warehouse. Aid workers face an uphill battle as they care for immediate physical needs, engage culturally, and work within government systems that are foundationally broken.
Looking strictly through the lens of effectiveness and bang for the 'humanitarian dollar', Haiti has not been the best investment. But the lens of the Gospel compels us to see the world through eyes that look beyond measures of effectiveness and efficiency. Certainly, we must strive for efficacy as stewards of God's own possessions. As in the parable of the talents, we will be held responsible for how we have used the resources God has given us. Coming to work at World Vision, I brought business practices of accountability and rigor that I think are essential to running an effective organization. I believe that God doesn't value ineffectiveness and waste any more than we do.
Yet God does not coolly calculate returns on his investments without regard to human suffering either. World Vision has a formula for where we direct money and what we seek to raise money for. That formula tries to balance efficiency and cost effectiveness with our belief that some activities are worth doing simply because they a demonstrate God's love. After all, sometimes hurting people just need someone to walk alongside them—even when it may be inefficient to do so based on a strict assessment of "ROI."
We can be sure that the work God considers to be valuable will be very different than our own limited measures of financial ratios or the number of wells dug or people lifted out of poverty. In God's economy, the price tags are stamped differently. We have been promised, whatever the visible fruit, "your labor in the Lord is not in vain." (1 Cor. 15:58)
Many of our AIDS caregivers in countries like Zambia have sensed this truth in their work with patients on their deathbeds. There's no more caregiving to do as these people suffer the final consequences of that terrible disease. Sitting with the dying is not efficient health care. But it can be the best kind of people care—that is, giving comfort and spiritual peace to those whose bodies and lives have been ravaged by the disease.
This is not to say we don't count. For instance, thanks to the generosity of our donors we've provided food assistance to 2.5 million people, provided over 20,000 jobs to Haitians, and provided temporary and medium-term shelters for 35,000 families. There's more I can say about clean water, latrines, health clinics, and the reunification of children with their families. While these numbers aren't small, in the grand scope of Haiti's challenges, they won't, by themselves, put Haiti on a sustainable development track.
As the months and years wind on, we must continue this work of love and care, work that often seems—earthly-speaking—to accomplish too little. Perhaps now more than ever, we must remain faithful to our work there; now that the news cameras have left and the initial wave of relief teams has gone home. We must continue working hard to bring effective and efficient solutions to the problems Haitians face—designing effective programs, monitoring them well, and holding ourselves accountable to bringing results that are in our power to bring, and praying fervently for this troubled country. And we must also be willing to be reckless in offering the eternal things of love, gratitude, and kindness.
We don't fully understand how our work today will have eternal significance. But, as N. T. Wright assures us in Surprised by Hope, "Every act of love, gratitude, and kindness … will find its way, through the resurrecting power of God, into the new creation."
Richard Stearns is president of World Vision, US, and author of The Hole in Our Gospel.
Copyright © 2012 Christianity Today. Click for reprint information.
Christianity Today has a special section on Haiti. More coverage is available on our blogs.
Earlier articles by and about Richard Stearns include:
Suffering and Rejoicing in a Haitian Tent Camp | What I learned in this church surpasses anything I've seen at a stunning cathedral. (January 12, 2011)
'We Are Not Commanded To Be a Docent in the Art Museum. We Are Commanded To Love the Poor.' | World Vision president Richard Stearns says the greatest sin of our generation is apathy. (June 12, 2009)
Leaps of Faith | What business execs are learning as they lead Christian nonprofits. (Mar. 7, 2007)
Q&A: Richard Stearns | The president of World Vision U.S. on the Global Fund, free condoms, and church-based relief and development work. (Oct. 17, 2006)
Mercy Impaired | Let's shock the world by reversing our apathy toward African sufferers (Sept. 3, 2001)
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