While covering the Dalai Lama's recent appearances in New York City, I heard the Nobel Peace laureate twice praise the international response to the horrific January earthquake in Haiti as an example of humanity's progress.
Such a massive show of global assistance and solidarity -- one sign of the world's increased interdependence -- would not have been possible 100 years ago, the Tibetan leader said.
I agree with the Dalai Lama -- it is a sign of progress that the world acted rapidly and with care to the crisis in Haiti. Such a response would have been unthinkable a century ago in a slower, and certainly more racist, era.
But as I often tell my friends and colleagues, my sense of "Christian realism" -- an awareness of limits, paradox, and what Reinhold Niebuhr called "the ambiguity of all human virtue" -- has only grown during my years as a humanitarian journalist working in challenging places like Haiti.
Humanitarian situations are difficult (often because there are often intractable problems in countries hit by disasters); those in the midst of crisis -- responders, governments and even survivors -- do not always act well; acts of mercy are rarely free of ambiguities and tensions.
So, as Haiti continues its long walk toward recovery, and as it prepares for the unwelcome 2010 hurricane season (which begins today, June 1), perhaps this is a moment to ask how the response has gone so far.
I spoke recently to a colleague who works for Christian Aid, a UK-based NGO that works in Haiti alongside the agency I write for in the United States, Church World Service.
Both agencies -- Christian but non-proselytizing, committed to ending poverty and hunger -- provided initial assistance during the first days and weeks after the earthquake and are now engaged in long-term work. Such work -- like helping assure that Haitians have enough to eat without depending on outside assistance -- is often overlooked after the journalists and camera crews leave a disaster zone.
Prospery Raymond, Christian Aid's Haiti country manager, gave the response a grade of "B" so far -- not bad, though also not without pressures and challenges.
When I first met Raymond in Port-au-Prince after the earthquake, he and other Haitians were facing almost unimaginable pressures. Raymond had not only to coordinate a response to the disaster but do so while finding new quarters. His agency's offices collapsed during the quake, and he was among those trapped for a time under the rubble.
Raymond, like thousands of other Haitians, was having a tough time keeping mind and body together because of trauma. "I do not have words to describe what I have seen in the street, I have never seen so many dead bodies," he told colleagues at the time.
Only now, Raymond told me recently, has he been able to overcome his fear about sleeping in his home (out of concern the house could collapse if another quake hit). At last, he can sleep a bit easier. For now, the recurring nightmares about what Raymond saw and experienced in the days after the Jan. 12 quake have stopped. "I'm sleeping well now," he said.
But there is now much to be done and hurdles to overcome. Raymond said many Haitians perceived that their government did not show sufficient leadership initially, and recent protests in Haiti over the government's response show that popular anger is not going away soon. "People are demonstrating; many of them are not happy," he said.
Still, Raymond believes that the task of re-building Haiti has to come with the needed support of international players but also from within Haiti and by Haitians -- a fact borne not only because of the day-to-day realities within Haiti ("people are trying to get back to business," he said) but by the issue of dignity, something that under-girds everything in Haiti right now.
I heard a wide range of theological perspectives when I was in Haiti, ranging from Pentecostal to progressive. A few Haitians saw God's punishment at play in the quake; far more spoke of God's love amid survival.
But regardless of perspective there seemed to be an underlying theme of liberation theology at work -- the idea that God is found in acts of solidarity, justice, and dignity. Haitians, with their history of colonial and neo-colonial rulers and overseers, have had enough bad experiences with outsiders. It is time, they said, that Haitians take the lead, with international support, in rebuilding their country.
"If Haitians themselves are not involved in reconstruction efforts, it could be a waste of time and money," Raymond told me. "It would not be wise."
Nor would it be practical -- with the initial wave of international attention about Haiti now well over, it is Haitians who must deal with the day-to-day challenges of needed jobs and good shelter, even temporary shelter, during the coming hurricane months. "This could be catastrophic," Raymond said of the urgent need for housing in Haiti given the threats posed by the hurricane season.
So far Haiti has not witnessed large-scale hunger as a result of a disaster that uprooted hundreds of thousands and caused many people to leave Port-au-Prince -- though that migration has had the effect of putting pressures on already-food-strapped rural areas.
And while crime has not yet spiraled out of control, some of those living in the so-called "tent cities" in Port-au-Prince are being victimized by petty thieves. Violence against women also remains a serious problem.
Yet given all of these challenges, Raymond believes that Haiti has a chance to recover and become a stronger place. "I still have a lot of hope for the people of Haiti," he said. "That hope is what is driving me, and is making me think of the future and not the past."
As for the Dalai Lama, Raymond said the Tibetan leader is right: the response in Haiti was a welcome sign of progress and international solidarity.
But Raymond added the cautionary note of a realist who has lived through hell on earth. As the half-year mark since the quake struck approaches in July, Haitians are still facing the hard part of their country's recovery, he said. "It's important to build back something better," Raymond said, "but that's not easy."
Why? "The scale of the problems in Haiti before the earthquake."