Saturday, October 30, 2010

Distributing Laptops to Children in Need? Prioritizing Need on a Global Scale

As Project Esperanza has been attempting to begin a few internet centers here in Puerto Plata in order to generate funds to support our ongoing programs, two people have directed me toward two different organizations that have the mission of supplying a laptop computer to every child in the world. I won’t state the names of these organizations or provide the websites since this post is a critique that does not support this mission.

If one were to prioritize the needs of every child in the world, a laptop is not on the top ten list to say the least. One theory of developmental psychology that I think makes sense is Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. Actually, this is more than just a theory as there is hard evidence to back up this theory, or at least the basic concept of the theory. Abraham Maslow presented that one cannot function on higher levels until more basic needs are met. He demonstrates the order or hierarchy of needs human beings have in the shape of a pyramid with the bottom layer being the most primary needs. If these most basic needs are not met then one cannot function. The category of needs go in this order: physiological (eat, drink, sleep), safety (of self, of resources, of family), love/belonging (friendship, family, sexual intimacy), esteem (confidence, achievement, respect), and self-actualization (creativity, problem solving, morality). I think it is safe to say that a laptop does not fall in these first three categories. I also think it is safe to say that a laptop does not truly meet a need but should be considered a want. It could perhaps be used as a tool to help some of these higher needs to be met but only in certain situations with well prepared recipients.

If an item such as a laptop is supplied to someone in need, they will likely use it as a resource to get basic needs met by selling it. A laptop can be an educational tool but it is a responsibility many adults wouldn’t know how to use, let alone children. I believe that the most necessary resource in any effort is the human resources to execute the effort. It is not necessarily a lack of money or lack of food or lack of any such tangible resources that cause such a large percentage of the world to live in poverty and to lack education. The problem lies in a lack of capable and loving individuals willing to patiently and persistently work with others toward a genuine solution.

The idea of supplying every child with a laptop is terribly impractical and completely oversimplifies the situation. An organization such as that collects unwanted computer equipment and distributes them to non-profits and charities may be quite productive. However, an organization whose mission is to distribute a laptop to every child in the world may need to rethink some things. After living and working in a developing country for a total of three and a half of the past five years, I have put forth lots of effort only to reach a benchmark that appears pitiful compared to those set by developed countries. However, I think the improvements we have made is impressive when the starting point is considered. The most impressive success to be celebrated in this line of work is perhaps building a trustworthy and competent team. Nonetheless, even a trustworthy team needs oversight and protection from temptation. For example, when food is distributed by the Dominican government, there is not a Santa Claus figure that delivers food to each house. No one waits outside of houses for people to come home and receive their package. Living arrangements are normally tight and people don’t normally have mailboxes or even secure porches to leave items on. When the government does distribute food out of the back of a truck every so often, some people walk away with a few bags and others with nothing. Those driving the trucks distributing the bags of food likely go home with several.

Let’s imagine that enough laptops were collected to supply every child in the world. To successfully distribute the laptops where there is no reliable postal service and a large percentage of houses without addresses, one would have to go through some sort of community organization or school that accounts for every child. Many children are undocumented and therefore not even accounted for by the government. Project Esperanza works together with schools and grassroots community organizations, giving financial, material, and administrative aid so that, among other things, every child in the communities we work in is accounted for. From what we have seen and experienced here in Puerto Plata, Dominican Republic there is an abundance of work to be done before even responsibly distributing one pencil to every child in this area becomes a securely executable task, let alone a laptop. The Dominican Republic is just one of many developing countries so I can imagine this situation is similar around the globe.

Project Esperanza’s method of “saving the world” is the opposite of these organizations who seek to supply every child with a laptop computer. We focus on a small geographic area with the intention of digging deep – creating genuine and lasting change in one community. Through digging deep and through seeking genuine and lasting change, we discover and create methods and systems to deal with situations that come up. These methods and systems can be shared with others and perhaps replicated in different geographic areas. We also believe that the change created in one community will serve as a catalyst for change in neighboring communities. Attempting to supply every child in the world with a laptop computer is an effort that does not dig deep and does not, I don’t believe, create genuine and lasting change. If partnered with the right situations and the right organizations on the ground this effort could be quite a blessing. However, I believe that more than there is a need for laptops, there is a need for more genuine organizations on the ground!

Sunday, October 17, 2010

Morality of Profit: Diamonds in the Rough

I recently entered an essay competition hosted by the SEVEN Fund on the topic of Morality of Profit. My essay was not chosen as a winner so I am posting it here on my blog. Enjoy!

I have been working with the Haitian refugee population in Puerto Plata, Dominican Republic since 2006. We began our work by first conducting a street census in the area, collecting information specifically on the hundreds of boys and young men that work on the streets either shining shoes or street vending of some sort. We were already aware that Haitians were the part of the Puerto Plata population in the most need, but our street census clearly confirmed that, gave us a better idea of the situation we hoped to be a light in, and provided a way to begin building relationships with those we hoped to serve.

In the months and years that followed the street census, we went on a roller coaster ride as we worked together with community members to set up programs in order to meet the needs of the most vulnerable. In the United States, our Virginia Tech student organization grew into a registered non-profit organization and our fundraising efforts remained in full throttle in order to support our programs in Puerto Plata.

The heart of our efforts in Puerto Plata is a home and school for Haitian boys that have come to the Dominian Republic under a number of different circumstances in order to “search for life”. The fact that these boys are walking the streets of a foreign land day after day, learning a new language often by ear without written materials or the skills to use them, usually without their family, serves as a natural screening process. The boys in our program are strong, perseverent, brave, intelligent risk takers. They are diamonds in the rough. Strict and clear house principles provide further screening so that those our program focuses its efforts on are also honest, humble team players. Our goal is to provide a pathway of transformation and empowerment so that these diamonds in the rough can successfully lead their lives, their families, their businesses, and their mother country. I am now married to one of these diamonds. I gave birth to our first child, a baby boy, in August 2009. We are thankful for and delighted with our forming family.

One thing I absolutely love about this group and about Haiti in general is the rawness and transparency that comes from living in true need. Life is more real and vibrant for me now than it ever was before. I feel as though I am continually undergoing training by living my everyday life which sharpens me physically, mentally, emotionally, and spiritually.

I will give further explanation as to what I mean by rawness and transparency. For example, someone who lives in the land of plenty is, for the most part, free to be a glutton. One may internally struggle with this and make efforts to rid oneself of gluttony but direct and immediate negative consequences of gluttony are not normally seen and every day life is often, for the most part, unaffected. In Haiti, the gluttony of one family member may cause direct and immediate suffering for other family members, exposing the situation very clearly. In the land of plenty, slander and gossip often continues unchallenged in the privacy of one’s home. Among Haitian boys living on the streets, this behavior is often erradicated by forms of discipline such as being beat in the face with a 2x4. This is life. This is the human race.

While pondering the issue of the morality of profit, I realized that I had made clarifying discoveries to this ambiguous question through working with the boys’ home and school. In order for those living in extreme poverty to work their way out of poverty, they have to be extremely frugal. Our boys’ home and school always attempts to use all resources available as wisely and efficiently as possible. We encourage household members to do the same. This skill and mindset does not come naturally to all, even if one is used to living in extreme poverty.

In order to rise out of their situation, the boys have to remain active. When they don’t have work, they should search for work or make attempts with personal business efforts. I have seen first hand the difficulty of this and am understanding when people get discouraged but the only solution is to learn from experience and continue making an effort. When they have work, they should value that and work dilligently. The same ambition is necessary for seeking and utilizing educational opportunities.

Lastly, in order to move forward, the boys must work together rather than against each other. The reality and seriousness of this situation has provided a foreground which identifies and exposes any actions or ideals that are contradictory to the practices that our program encourages and requires. There are times when the group of boys as a whole is on top of things, acting very efficiently with resources and dilligently with work and school. Then someone new enters the group. I have come to learn that entering someone new into the group must be done with lots of attention. In the past, neighbors or friends have slowly snuck into the group and caused large shifts. Other times we have intentionally introduced a new member or allowed someone to enter and also saw shifts as a result.

Sometimes the influence of new members is harmless. Their biggest influence may be the addition of a new phrase. It is always entertaining to observe the speed at which such things catch on. Other than that, they conform to the group and the morale stays the same. Sometimes the influence of a new member is primariy positive, causing the rest of the group to make more of an effort in a certain area or to enjoy themselves more in some way but not distracting the group from the goals of efficiency, dilligence, and teamwork.

However, there have been a few occasions where the presence of new members has negatively influenced the group. In these cases, division is often created, trust seems to slip away, and people become lazy and wasteful. It is through observing this paradigm that I have formulated thoughts and drawn conclusions in regards to the morality of profit.

I have come to see that often times when Haitians are receiving something, even if it is something very small, there are other Haitians that want to work their way in to receive. If they find that they are not welcome, they’ll try to take others down with them. Perhaps this is true anywhere with people in need or even at times when there is no real need. My observations here are based on what I have seen with Haitians.

In such cases, the person attempting to enter the program is not seeking the life that the program has to offer. They have no real interest in attending school, learning self control, money management skills, or in acquiring the fruits of the Spirit as listed in Galatians 5. They will try to trick you into thinking that they want whatever the program offers. What they really want is to do whatever they have to do to enter in. Upon entering in, they continue using such lies and tricks to gain control. Then, if you’re not careful, they start to shift the focus of the program and it’s no longer about discipline, education, and the fruits of the Spirit, it’s about acquiring immediate wealth and comfort. Boys that were on a pathway to empowerment and freedom from poverty are distracted from their path with ideas of clothes, MP3 players, expensive cell phones, and money itself. These items are not necessarily bad but they serve a bad purpose in this case.

An easy way to acquire immediate wealth and comfort is to steal or to convince and send others to steal. Anyone with an inside position in the program, such as a paid employee, is succeptible to being lured into such activity. They need support and supervision. We are sensitive to theft temptations and make attempts to remove temptations from program members but for those in need, items such as cooking oil are sometimes stolen in small quantities and sold. When a shift is created in the group, division is created, everything becomes a little cloudy, and it can be difficult to see who is to blame for this shift. Once the one guilty is recognized and removed from the group, things begin to shift back on track. However, damage has often already been done and household members affected need some recovery time and assistance in getting back on track. I see this as Satan’s plan in hindering God’s work. It is very real and I have regretfully seen it occur a few times. However, we know that in all things, God works for the good of those that love him (Romans 8:28). Overcoming each of these attacks leaves us stronger and wiser.

Therefore, the difference between the mindset of these destructive intruders and the mindset our program maintains, along with, therefore, those involved in it, is their end goal. Destructive intruders have a goal of gaining whereas our program encourages a goal of giving. If gaining is your goal, then profit is your end. You will be satisfied when you gain wealth. The acquisition of more wealth will keep you satisfied. If giving is your goal, profit is the means to your end. It will be necessary that you earn a profit, yes, but you will be satisfied when you have wisely invested and distributed the profit in a way that will benefit yourself as well as others and yield fruit.

Jesus Christ exemplifies someone with the goal of giving and provides an explanation of his intentions when his disciples offered him food in John 4. “My food is to do the will of him who sent me and to finish his work. Do you not say, 'Four months more and then the harvest'? I tell you, open your eyes and look at the fields! They are ripe for Harvest.”

It appears that in reality, people fall onto different points along a spectrum where “gain” is one extreme and “giving” is the other extreme. Someone who falls closer to the “gain” end of the spectrum is filled with selfishness and greed. Someone who falls on the “giving” end of the spectrum is filled with selflessness and sacrificial love. This paradigm is present in most every fairy tale.

Profit is not tied to either end of the spectrum but is an independent factor. Whether or not an individual seeks a profit and the extent to which he or she seeks it varies based on the situation. Therefore, we cannot conclude that those seeking and earning large profits fall in any one position along this spectrum. A wealthy parent who abandons his or her parenting responsibilities in order to seek a profit would likely fall onto the “gain” end of the spectrum. On the other hand, a family member that flees his or her impoverished country in order to seek and earn a profit which is then sent to the family would likely fall onto the “giving” end of the spectrum. Therefore, there is not direct correlation between the presence or absence of greed and the presence or absence of profit.

The way profit is earned and the way it is spent must be examined in order to determine the presence of greed and selfishness. Ways of earning profit that are harmful to others is more positively correlated to the presence of greed whereas ways of earning profit that is mutually beneficial to all parties is more negatively correlated to greed. However, other factors related to the specific situation should still be considered. For example, there are situations where those earning a profit in a harmful manner are doing so in ignorance or have little choice for other methods of earning a profit. In this case, it is wrong to place this person on the “gain” end of the spectrum based on the way profit is earned. However, it is safe to assume that greed and selfishness had a hand in creating this situation where harmful profit generating practices are so widespread.

Haiti as well as the Haitian diaspora in the Dominican Republic can be examined as an example. I have met and worked with many poor Haitians who have found or created work opportunities and earned profit to support their families in ways that appear to cause no harm to anyone. I have also met and worked with many poor Haitians that have earned profit, at least in part, through prostitution and dishonest business transactions of some sort. Through living in solidarity, I understand at least a part of the difficulty of their situations and would be very wrong to conclude that everyone earning their profit in such harmful ways is full of greed. I can, however, see that greed has had a large part in creating this difficult situation as well as causing the situation to continue. In order to understand how this situation was created in Haiti, one should look at history.

Haiti was a French colony before it gained its independence in 1804. The French enslaved West Africans in order to work on plantations in Haiti. In comparison with the United States, the system of slavery in Haiti was more extreme. Slaves died under harsher conditions at a faster rate. The slave to slave holder ratio was higher. Violence used by slave holders was more brutal. It is safe to conclude, therefore, that French colonists earned their profit in a way that was harmful to others and that France as a whole earned a profit in a way that harmed other nations. Here I see no reason not to blame this entire situation on the greed of France and its colonists.

Haitian slaves fought for and gained independence in 1804. In his book Uses of Haiti, Paul Farmer explores a series of Haitian historical events, specifically in reference to Haiti’s relationship with the international community after independence was earned. The book provides evidence of the continued abuse Haiti received from the international community while attempting to engage in international trade after gaining independence. Each event described in Farmer’s book would have to be examined to draw further conclusions, but we can assume that greed had a presence in the situations of abuse as well, along with racism and essentially hatred. The result of so much abuse for which greed is highly responsible is the present state of Haiti and its large presence of harmful profit generating practices.

How, then, can the human race avoid greed? Greed is represented clearly in my mind by a situation that used to occur with my family’s flock of sheep. I remember two occasions where someone stored a bag of corn in an irresponsible manner and a ewe got into the sack during the night. In both instances, a dying ewe was found lying on the ground the next day, poisoned by overeating the corn. This ocurred because of poor shepherding by those responsible for the flock and lack of self-control by the ewes. Jesus calls himself the good shepherd and refers to people as sheep (John 10:11). The history of the world has proven that human beings are at risk of overindulging on anything that gives them pleasure. I have seen and experienced that the solution to falling into such greed is to obey the teachings that Jesus, the good sheperd, taught.

What exactly did the good shepherd teach? He taught many things, some of which are recorded in the Bible. When asked which is the greatest commandment in Matthew 22 he replied, “'Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.' This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: 'Love your neighbor as yourself.' All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.”

If this teaching is followed, profit should not be earned in ways that are harmful to others in any way, anywhere. Someone seeking a profit may try to fool themselves and others into stretching the truth about certain practices, saying they are not truly harmful, those receiving the harm deserve it or have less value, they should be thankful for the work opportunity, or a number of excuses along those lines. Anyone trying to justify harmful profit seeking practices using such excuses is not taking these commandments seriously. If this teaching is seriously followed, poverty will eventually be erradicated, along with misery in general. No one on the earth should be opposed to loving others by refraining from harming others with greed driven, harmful profit seeking practices.

However, problems always arise with the first commandment: love God. But this comandment must be obeyed in order to be able to love others. The world is too full of differences and we are too imperfect to successfully love others without God’s example, guidance, power, and protection. People are caught up with questions of God’s existence and for those that believe in his existence, his character, his will, and ways to carry out his will. Those who quarrel over such issues rather than focuing on simple answers and solutions that most, if not all, human beings agree to are failing to love God. In working together, discoveries to such questions will be made, but the search for answers should never halt the work.

As I stated previously, I enjoy living and working with Haitians because of the rawness and transparency of life. I have yet to meet anyone on this island, Haitian or Dominican, who questions God’s existence. Everyone seems to understand things clearly and simply. God exists. Satan exists. God is good. Satan is bad. Which do you choose to serve? Especially in Haiti, there are groups actively and cognitively practicing both sides.

Through working in the area of international development, I have found some specific practices that I think put love into action in any international situation. Communication should be a top priority. Everyone working in international development should be honest with self and others about the level of their language skills. If necessary, they should have a translator handy to make sure everything is understood by both sides. All parties should have patience, being sure to take the time to completely understand the other party and effectively communicate the thoughts, questions, and concerns from your party.

Cultural understanding and sensitivity should be a top priority. One should be very careful not to make any assumptions or judgments based on actions or practices because those assumptions and judgments will have a cultural basis that cannot be transferred between cultures. If you try to do this, you will make mistakes and your mistakes will have repercussions. Humbly and patiently attempt to understand and use the “gain” and “giving” spectrum to discern, working together with and trusting those who truly want to give.

The end goal of international development should be empowerment of citizens of the country being developed. The diverse world with a grand array of rich cultures is priceless. Extinct cultures should be viewed as just as devastating, if not more devastating, than extinct species. Foreign aid groups should responsibly provide aid but leave the country’s decisions and leadership in the hands of the locals. When providing aid, the fewest amount of foreigners as possible should be sent to the country. Resources should be diverted toward methods of allowing the locals to do the work themselves. Communication and cultural understanding are an absolute need in order to execute this.

If large amounts of foreigners are unnecessarily sent to aid, the work is inefficient and the local community understands that foreign aid agencies see locals as incapable of leading themselves. They understand that the agencies have large amounts of money they are eager to spend which they choose to spend as they please. To locals, this is understood as dominance and a declaration of war rather than aid. While setting up the Haitian led relief efforts our organization is making in order to provide shelther and organization to a Port-au-Prince tent city, I gained insight as to the way Haitians understand foreign aid that is being brought to earthquake victims. There are rumors that the United States has declared Haiti, the damaged government buildings are filled with American soldiers, and, I believe somewhat as a joke, that the earthquake was a missile sent underground from the United States.

Lastly, money should not be the focus of international development. Sums of money granted to governments and agencies should not be announced and celebrated as though the act of granting money is a success in itself. Instead, the focus should be on the need that exists, the plan of action toward meeting the need, and the progress that is being made. Money is as unattached to international development as profit is to morality. It is a tool and not a solution. Just as a builder focuses on the house being built more than a hammer, those working in the area of international development should focus on the work to be done rather than money. A hammer is necessary to build but it is ultimately the builder and his or her team that builds the house.


  1. Girard, Philippe. Paradise Lost. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2005.

2. Farmer, Paul. Uses of Haiti. Common Courage Press, April 2005.