Ruth Messinger on Disaster Relief

“Investing in Haiti’s Future Means Listening Humbly to People on the Ground” – Ruth Messinger

The Huffington Post, 2013

“Who is wise? One who learns from all people.” So teaches a passage in Pirkei Avot, an ancient collection of Jewish texts. I’m reminded of this insight’s relevance today when I see how governments and international organizations are responding to disasters—those that strike thousands of miles away and those that hit close to home in New York City.

More often than not, the people we perceive as victims of disasters are the people from whom we have the most to learn about effective solutions. Yet the resourcefulness of these “victims” is frequently dismissed by people in power.

A study by the Inter-American Development Bank estimates that the total cost of the 2010 Haiti earthquake was between $8 billion and $14 billion. Countless humanitarian aid organizations, celebrities, international governments and the Haitian government have invested in Haiti’s future—often with moral certitude and the best of intentions. Nonetheless, aid has been slow to reach people who need it most. And strategies for long-term solutions have not been fully fleshed out.

That’s partly due to these recovery efforts lacking a critical ingredient for success: the knowledge and “know how” of Haitian people themselves. The ingenuity required for long-term recovery lies within Haitian society and depends on the power of grassroots organizations. But sadly, a mix of bureaucracy, corruption and top-down decision-making has crippled lasting progress.

As governments and international organizations continue to invest in Haiti’s future, we must have the humility to admit that we don’t have all the answers. Let’s heed the advice that knowledge lives with people on the ground—not within the bowels of bureaucracies. We must listen to and learn from Haitian people at the grassroots level.

After all, tradition teaches that one who learns from all people is wise.

This work has been excerpted, condensed and edited slightly.

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