Friday, February 26, 2010

When Good Intentions Meet the Law.

In the wake of the devastating earthquake in Haiti this January - with an estimated 200,000 dead, 300,000 injured, millions made homeless, and a country's infrastructure in rubbles - one particular story has gripped the international media's attention.

Recently, a group of 10 U.S. missionaries were jailed in Haiti on child abduction charges after the group was caught attempting to remove 33 children from the country without government authorization or papers. The missionaries have denied any wrongdoing and insist they were acting with noble intentions trying to rescue children from the devastating earthquake. They believed that the children were orphans and came from a reputable orphanage. However, it's been since reported that nearly half of the Haitian children are believed to have at least one living parent.

When I first came across the story I had a visceral reaction that told me something was fundamentally wrong. It's not the just the actions of the 10 missionaries that were troubling to me, but the underlying assumptions that motivated this group of well-intentioned Americans to jump on a plane, swoop into a country in chaos, and attempt to rescue children in desperate need. These assumptions are not unique to this group from Idaho; they are shared to varying degrees by most of the development community.

Here are 5 assumptions to be wary of - most times they manifest themselves in subtle and complex ways:

1) Good intentions are good enough.

2) Tragedies like the earthquake in Haiti can be addressed with quick-fixes.

3) Children in desperate conditions need rescuing from the West.

4) A warm bed, food and a decent education are preferable to one's family, community, and cultural heritage

5) Local customs and local laws can be easily ignored.

This story is a sobering reminder for those of working in international community development that good intentions are not enough, that naive idealism can be dangerous, and that the real victims in this story are not the well-intentioned missionaries and volunteers that have been imprisoned, but the 33 Haitian children (and hundreds of thousands more) who still remain homeless and parentless.

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