When I was in Haiti last year, we spent a lot of time talking about peanuts. The USAD was planning on sending shipments of free peanuts to Haitian schools, as a tasty and nutritious snack, and, incidentally, a way of getting rid of a US peanut surplus. While on the surface, food aid looks like a great way to make sure kids have access to healthy food, the shipments followed a long tradition of flooding Haitian markets with cheap, foreign food, lessening demand for Haitian products and making farming even more difficult. We heard from farmers about the importance of peanuts as a cash crop and their fear of losing access to yet another market and income generating possibility.
Every time I am in Haiti, I question my own role in this world of do-gooders and world-changers. Last week, we heard that one point, after compiling data from all the foreign run, often faith-based orphanages in the country, statistics seems to suggest that there were actually more orphans than non-orphaned Haitian children in the country. On our way out of the city, we passed empty post-earthquake housing developments and a giant Olympic sports complex, in the middle of nowhere. So much money has been invested in Haiti, with so few results. A year ago, flying out of Port-Au-Prince into Miami, I sat behind a entire row of networking USA missionaries, comparing the “miserable poverty” of the neighbourhoods they were working in and the number of orphanages they were constructing, as they did the Lord’s work. Am I really any different?
Theses issues are not just something that international NGOs wrestle with. I have seen bad development done on a national level as well. Within Colombia, the centralized nature of Bogota encourages paternalistic interventions, done on behalf of the regions, from the centre. With even the best of intentions, patterns continue to repeat that do not allow communities themselves to have a say in their own future.
When I moved to work almost full time with MCC, instead of directly with Justapaz, it was with a guilty sense of relief. I no longer have to attend unending team meetings, my supervisor answers my emails, there are clear expectations, the majority of my work is done in English, and the sense of team is one that is more culturally familiar.
Yet I still catch myself missing being in the know in the office and part of the Justapaz team. Dedicating hours and hours of time to try to grasp organizational culture provided me with a micro-understanding of the impacts of conflict on an organization trying build peace. I was often at a frustrating loss for what to work on, but I came away with an more nuanced understanding of why this work is challenging, based on Colombia’s history and context(s). I am also better able to appreciate the moments of success and momentum, due to persistence and hard work, that I have witnessed, because I understand Justapaz’s background.
History matters. Being invited matters. Accompaniment matters. Power matters. Recognizing agency matters. Allowing yourself to be uncomfortable and out of place matters.
The longer I am here, however, the more I am able to admit that I do this work because it is interesting, not because I am altruistic. There is also comfort to be found after living Bogota for a number of years: in arriving to the El Dorado airport late at night, watching my city slip by the taxi window, drinking a glass of tap water in the kitchen, and finally collapsing on my bed. It is not wrong to want to engage in something that is fulfilling and where I feel at home, but when my personal fulfillment stands in the way of self-awareness of my own capacity to do harm, especially because I feel like a local, that is a problem.
When locals take over, change happens. We travelled to the Artibonite plains to visit with local cooperatives last week. On our last stop, we pulled up in front of a newly built concrete block building in the middle of the countryside. Squatting on the ground outside, women used hand-woven baskets to shift and sort rice. Inside, other members of the cooperative bagged and packaged the cleaned rice, ready for market as a value-added product. A year ago, this building was only a dream. Members of the community, through their local cooperative, gathered together, and without any outside funding, pooled their minimal resources and grew their own organization, from the ground up.
Of course, there are still significant issues in the countryside, but many of those are caused by external interventions. Peanuts,and food aid, for one. Cholera, introduced by UN peacekeepers is another. Our search to do good should never overlook the structural issues that hinder people’s abilities to move forward and to work together.
Speaking of peanuts, one of my favourite local Haitian products is spicy peanut butter. The spread takes both peanut sauce and cookies to a whole new level. I made these simple cookies after I came back last week. The spicy aftertaste is reminder to myself that good intentions, not matter how personally fulfilling are not enough. I have never seen spicy peanut butter outside of Haiti, so I suggest adding some cayenne pepper and perhaps some ground ginger the recipe, as reflected in the ingredient list (adapted from Smitten Kitchen).
Spicy Peanut Butter Cookies
- 1 3/4 cups (335 grams) packed light brown sugar
- 1/2 tsp cayenne pepper (adjust to taste)
- 1 tsp ground ginger
- 2 large eggs, at room temperature
- 1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract
- 1 3/4 cups (450 grams) smooth peanut butter
Preheat the oven to 350°F. Whisk together the sugar and spices. Add eggs, vanilla, and peanut butter, until fully incorporated. Spoon dough into balls and freeze for 15 minutes, then sprinkle with sea salt. Bake cookies for 14 to 15. When finished, cookies should be golden at edges. They’ll need to set on the sheet for a minute or two before they can be lifted intact to a cooling rack.