Responsively Yours: The Law of Unintended Consequences
I remember very clearly learning about the impact of the participant-observer in a college anthropology course. The instructor, who had worked for many years in literacy with a remote people, helped us to see that her contact with this people who had no written language would affect their history. The culture at the time of the development of writing would affect the script that the people developed, and the script would affect how the culture itself evolved from that point. As she explained her concerns, I was surprised that the introduction of something as valuable to me as written language could have negative unpredictable consequences.
The engagement of nations, churches and nongovernmental organizations in relief, recovery and development efforts after a natural or man-made disaster is always tinged with similar concerns. We know that people need food, water, shelter and security in the immediate aftermath of such crises, but we also know that importing large quantities of resources and supplies can undermine local production and make recovery and redevelopment a much longer and more painful process. Developing an appropriate response is always a sensitive matter of timing — what’s needed now may not be what’s needed next week — partnerships and capacity building.
Organizations like United Methodist Committee on Relief and Church World Service have decades of experience in navigating these complex variables. While United Methodist Women is not primarily an organization of “first responders” to tragedy, we do have sisters and relationships all over the world that give us insights into aspects of what is needed for long-term recovery from place to place.
Our relationships with partners allows us to offer those connections and those insights in times of disaster response. United Methodist Women is drawn into crisis recovery and redevelopment because of our networks of caring. This also means that we engage in that work with an eye on the needs of women, children and youth, and that we are often in a position to remind our colleagues that these very same women, children and youth have wisdom and skills that must be part of developing a long-term recovery plan.
The Haiti study carries this same complexity. The rich culture and the strengths of the people of Haiti — particularly the women, children and youth — are at the fore. It includes materials on betrayals by some of Haiti’s own leaders and actions by the United States and other foreign powers that have repeatedly undermined Haiti’s ability to thrive.
U.S. participants are likely to bring to the study a renewed desire to be useful to the people of Haiti in the aftermath of the earthquake and to be part of changing the history of Haiti for the better. However, my linguist professor might caution us from her experience that we cannot know the consequences of our intervention. Proceeding slowly, led by people of Haiti, is required for an organic and effective recovery to take root and grow.
United Methodist Women tries to place relationships of mutuality at the heart of all our work. This means seeing the needs in Haiti and what we can offer without viewing the people of Haiti solely as victims and ourselves as the rescuers. The people of Haiti have wisdom, skill and experience that are essential to developing any successful long-term action. We pray together for the humility, the passion and the resolve that will continue to “turn faith, hope and love into action by working with people in Haiti with mutuality and respect.”
Harriett Jane Olson
Women’s Division, Deputy General Secretary