by Margarita Mooney Suarez on January 20, 2010

Op-Ed Submitted to the Wall Street Journal by Margarita A. Mooney. Although disorder, looting, and sometimes even mobs threaten the earthquake relief efforts in Haiti, I suggest that we need more than force to establish order in Haiti—we need the active cooperation of the Haitian people. As I argue in my book, Faith Makes Us Live: Surviving and Thriving in the Haitian Diaspora (University of California Press, 2009), Haitians are often to be so poor that they are incorrectly assumed to be helpless. As a sociologist of international development, a veteran working in development projects in Latin America, and having spent extensive time in Haiti and among Haitian immigrants to the United States, Canada and France, I saw time and again that too many social projects reflect a paternalistic attitude by which “we” come to “their” aid. An email I received on Monday from Mario Serrano Marte, a Jesuit priest who works in the Dominican Republic and Haiti, illustrates how even people in the most desperate circumstances can be transformed from passive recipients into agents. After the earthquake, Father Mario quickly mobilized resources and drove in a caravan with relief supplies from the Dominican Republic to Haiti. The military accompanied them on the journey and they arrived safely at nighttime. The next day, however, residents of the neighborhood threatened to disrupt their relief efforts. Father Mario, a priest who has worked in the poorest areas of New York City, India, the Dominican Republic and Haiti, has never told me he felt scared in his work, but when a mob began to pound on the door yelling and demanding help, he felt terrified. Even after they called the police to help them, the people refused to leave and kept angrily demanding help. The crowd finally dispersed when Father Mario gave everyone in the crowd a bottle of water and when he promised to meet with them to discuss how the aid would be distributed. That afternoon, he met with neighborhood residents, and humbly confessed he was scared by their angry behavior. If he was able to organize his distribution center first, he explained he would then be in a better position to help them and many others. Most importantly, he pleaded for their cooperation in carrying out his mission. Once the group understood both that they would receive emergency relief and that their cooperation was indispensable to the operation’s success, they helped Father Mario unload the trucks full of supplies and they now provide security as he runs the distribution. Elated at this turn of events, Father Mario wrote in his email, “Now we have stronger security and protection than what the army can give us. We have the active participation of the same people we came here to help.” The more than 1 million residents of Port-au-Prince who survived the earthquake are understandably hungry, thirsty, and fearful for their survival. In this emergency situation, we must certainly be concerned for order and security. However, let us not forget that a basic rule of sustainable development also applies to emergency relief: we need to turn the beneficiaries of our assistance into cooperative actors in our programs. In these desperate circumstances, let us not only heed Haitians’ call for humanitarian aid, let us also remember that inviting their active cooperation both affirms their dignity and furthers our work.