Point Student Development Work Hurts Those in Need
by Brad Detjen
Counterpoint Thoughtful Service for the Common Good
by Rebecca R. Cheezum
Every Spring Break, while some let loose in South Beach and others catch up on schoolwork in the library, a small but growing number of students choose to do international volunteer work. The programs they take part in vary from mission trips teaching English at orphanages in the Dominican Republic to Engineers Without Borders, through which students install sanitation systems in rural villages in Thailand. Having taken part in and organized these trips myself, I can say without hesitation that they are powerful, often life-changing experiences for student participants. However, these projects fail to help the communities that they target and often do harm.
I have recently heard that a few organizations at U of M are planning to bring students to Haiti to do volunteer work, either in relief or development. Relief projects would place students temporarily with a relief agency (such as the Red Cross) to address the immediate needs of earthquake victims. In development work, students would design a long-term project that attempts to install sustainable infrastructures for Haiti’s future. In the near future, I believe that any student project in Haiti is massively irresponsible. Long-term, I fear that any volunteer program based at U of M will attempt to graft a flawed model – a model of change brought about by temporary volunteer work – onto a failed state, and it may end disastrously.
First, let’s try to imagine a group of Michigan students traveling to Haiti in the next month. If they are able to get past the border, they will be entering an apocalyptic world. Massive shortages of food, water, and shelter persist everywhere. The sanitation system is in ruins, and cholera and dysentery are spreading wildly. The collapse of the state government has led to looting and mayhem. As the U.S. military attempts to gain control over the country, travel slows to a crawl. Whatever plans the students have to help people will have to be adaptable; donated items may attract the attention of those fighting for survival. Any relief agency that chooses to host these students will be taking on massive liability due to the dangers listed above. Simply feeding and housing volunteers will tear invaluable resources away from dying Haitians.
In the past, most projects like these have failed to do much concrete good and have often caused harm. Why do volunteer projects miss the mark when their intentions are so pure? There are many reasons.
First, students lack the language skills and cultural sensitivity needed to carry themselves appropriately and to gain the trust of the communities where they work. From a logistical point of view, the only people who have any business entering the country now are doctors who are fluent in French and/or Haitian Creole and who have experience in disaster relief. Beyond language are local customs and attitudes that will make or break any attempted project. Young students tend to believe in simple fixes and do not appreciate the knowledge and skills that are at hand in to project communities. This makes American students seem arrogant and becomes a cultural barrier. Often, a lot of promises are made and forgotten, giving developing communities a false hope that someone else will solve their problems for them.
Additionally, most programs – even those that claim to promote “sustainability” – do unsustainable work. They focus on short-term returns and do not establish a lasting presence that will see the project through to completion. At U of M, students cannot be involved with a project for more than 4 years, but many development projects like these have 10-year planning cycles – meaning that a project will have complete turnover at least twice between its inception and its conclusion. In Haiti, even the most sustainably-planned project may not be prepared for the instability that is characteristic to the area, from political coups to natural disasters and migratory populations.
In Haiti, in particular, a sustainable development project will be nearly impossible to coordinate. Political instability and lack of infrastructure present enormous obstacles. This is not to say that no U of M project could ever be successful in Haiti, but it would require a continuous, year-round presence and coordination with a well-established Haitian organization. Students will need preparation in Haitian Creole, cultural training, and study in sustainable development principles.
In general, the problems of developing world poverty are far more complex, deeply-rooted, and difficult to reverse than most young people assume. In their arrogance, students can cause more problems than they set out to solve, and I am deeply concerned that any U of M-led project in Haiti will be unproductive, inappropriate, and unsafe.
In the wake of the recent earthquake in Haiti, many students, seeing the images of the devastation and suffering, have looked for opportunities to provide assistance to the residents of Haiti. Several student groups have been successful in raising funds for organizations that are providing immediate relief such as The American Red Cross and Partners in Health. Other students have wanted to do more, and several began to speak of going to Haiti to help. In response, a new initiative, Tèt Ansanm Ak Ayiti (TAAA), which means “United with Haiti,” aims to channel students’ altruistic energy by taking the time to build an institutionalized, long-term partnership with organizations or communities in Haiti in order to provide sustainable relief through capacity-building and long-term collaboration. TAAA will incorporate a service learning strategy as a mechanism for responding to this crisis in a manner that will benefit Haiti while also working towards the University of Michigan’s purpose of providing education and training to its students.
Service learning is a pedagogical method for integrating community service, classroom learning, and personal reflection. This method helps students learn class material and develop skills while also providing them valuable work experience and the opportunity to partner with diverse groups of people. More than simply padding a résumé, service learning projects serve as a structured way for students to face the challenges of applying theoretical concepts to real world situations.
Communities can also benefit from service learning projects.
Students can help community-based organizations by contributing labor necessary to provide services that the organization may not otherwise have the staffing to do.
Students often have access to resources that community-based organizations may not, such as peer-reviewed literature, technology, faculty advisors with related expertise, and knowledge about cutting edge developments in the field. By connecting communities with these resources, the quality of services delivered can increase.
However, not all student endeavors in communities have positive outcomes. Poorly planned service learning projects run the risk of exploiting communities, expending energy on useless work, or sending ill-prepared students into communities where they may act offensively or paternalistically.
In order to increase the likelihood that the project is beneficial – and not detrimental – to communities, there are several key components to a service learning project that are necessary. First, the service learning project should be developed through a collaborative partnership with the community. Second, the purpose, goals, and expectations of the project should be clearly defined and agreed upon by students, faculty, and community partners. Finally, there should be systems to provide feedback where students present results or reports to the community, and the community is given the opportunity to comment on the quality of the student’s work and interactions.
In an effort to use a service learning approach that will benefit both University of Michigan students and, most importantly, the residents of Haiti, TAAA will use a strategic service learning approach. Recognizing the complexity of the needs of Haiti during a redevelopment process, the effort will be multi-disciplinary, engaging students and faculty from across campus. The initiative will use two separate, but connected participatory processes in order to identify the interests and expertise of students and also to prioritize projects based on the most pressing needs in Haiti, as identified by Haitian community members. TAAA will take its time in planning a response and building relationships, in order to prevent a premature, poorly planned response.
Currently, there is not enough water, food, or shelter for those who live in Haiti, let alone to support visiting students. The roads and infrastructure have been destroyed. Security concerns that have been present for some time may be heightened due to the desperation and lack of resources. If student service learning projects were to take place as a relief effort, they are likely to have negative consequences to the country’s residents by using limited resources and by not being sufficiently planned or appropriately directed.
TAAA recognizes that the rebuilding process of Haiti will take place over a long period of time. Over the course of the process, the resources and skills necessary are likely to change, and the work of TAAA will adapt with these changes. As part of the rebuilding process, it is essential for the initiative to build upon the assets of Haiti and to focus on capacity building and sustainable change. The purpose of each service learning project will be to educate students and to build skills and increase resources among Haitians communities and organizations.
TAAA serves as an example of a budding initiative that, through thoughtful planning and genuine partnership, hopes to leave a positive legacy within the University of Michigan and communities in Haiti.
About the Issue
Point author: Brad Detjen is a Senior in Chemical Engineering and an Executive Board member of Health In Action. HIA is an interdisciplinary student society that promotes sustainable development and service learning at volunteer sites in rural Guatemala and urban Detroit.
Counterpoint author: Rebecca R. Cheezum, MPH, is a doctoral candidate in the department of Health Behavior and Health Education at University of Michigan School of Public Health. She is Co-Founder of Tet Ansanm Ak Ayiti (TAAA).
Edited by: Daniel Strauss
Cover by: Meirav Gebler