By Sean Penn
As an accident of life, I found myself in 2010 becoming CEO of first, an emergency relief organization, and ultimately one whose focus is development in Haiti. Now, nearly six years later, that organization, J/P HRO, employs roughly three hundred full-time Haitian staff (a number that vacillates relative to funding). We are involved in many sectors including health, engineering, education, housing, and relocation. To varying degrees, we have worked in psycho-social assistance, prevention and education on violence against women, and an assortment of other needs expressed to us by thousands of Haitian men and women from all walks of life and leadership. And yes, foreign consultants as well.
The very concept of aid is, and I believe should be, a constant exploration of societies and self. For foreigners working to supply aid outside of their own countries, not to mention outside of their own homes, or in the mirror itself, it is a constant struggle. It is not the purpose of this piece to supply statistical debate, defense, or criticism. More, it is one practitioner’s most current sense of the above mentioned exploration.
I am provoked by the recent criticism from ProPublica’s Justin Elliot and NPR’s Laura Sullivan of the American Red Cross’ activities and expenditures related to their response to Haiti’s 2010 earthquake through this day, in a June 3rd, 2015 article headlined “How the Red Cross Raised Half a Billion Dollars for Haiti and Built Six Homes.” Full disclosure: My own organization J/P HRO has been formally supported with Red Cross funds totaling $2,987,000. This number is in no way reflective of the greater and more sustained support The American Red Cross has provided J/P HRO beginning with the supply of thousands of tarps simply to provide dry shelter from storms in the immediate aftermath of the earthquake for families so tragically displaced, and in countless ways since then that are also reflective of resources, financial and otherwise. The American Red Cross has offered numerous organizations largely unrecognized support as they did with the tens of millions of dollars financing the World Food Program’s distribution of food goods to displaced Haitians that immediately followed the earthquake. That list could go on and brings us full circle to where we are factually today, and where we might be in spirit were it our choice to engage in international aid.
Haiti is, in so many ways, like anywhere else in the world. Where it is poorer, it is more resilient, and perhaps, more imaginative. Where it is corrupt, its anti-corruption is heroic. Where it is bitter, it is a judgment only to be cast upon itself. And where it is hopeful, it is deserving of care, brotherhood, sisterhood, compassion and respect. Like other places, it is ultimately rewarded and denied. Outside of my own personal and familial relationships, it is Haiti and Haitians who have touched and taught me most. Yet still, life and aid remain an exploration. Like in all aspects of life, transparency itself becomes a balance of perception and survival. Identity and agenda. Strategy and will. Yet whenever those things are reliant on dollars and cents, media embrace or oversight, the checks and balances are in the hands of such a varied assortment of personal, institutional, and societal narrow-mindedness, that we rely more than with our own hearts and minds on what has become, on what is, the perception most trending. How can we defy that? How can we rise up? First, with self-reflection and gratitude.
I’ve been working on the ground in Haiti with people who are heroic to me. It has bred this reflection. What my eyes have seen make me grateful to them. What my eyes have seen make me grateful to the American Red Cross. By its detractors, I will certainly be accused of things I will not speculate upon here. By its beneficiaries, I stand in solidarity. My hope in writing this is that those who choose to invest outside their own homes, whether of their hearts, their minds, their bodies, or their wallets, that this may serve more importantly than the targeting of its writer, or a defense of any other person or organization, rather as a simple encouragement to look very deeply into what remains more of a question than an answer.
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