Did Evangelicals Break Haiti? 

Not all help is helpful, and we need to be more discerning about how we help – and not just in Haiti

Warren Cole Smith March 8, 2024

The news coming from Haiti is not good. It’s not been good for years, for decades, but today it’s even worse

Gangs now control much of the country. It is essentially a failed state, with the lowest per capita income of any country in the western hemisphere, and among the lowest on the planet.

These are hard realities, but evangelicals need to face a hard reality of our own when it comes to Haiti. The country has also been the beneficiary of more aid and missionary effort from evangelicals than any other country over the past half-century, and the time has come to ask if our helping – however good our intentions — has hurt.

Haiti is a particularly interesting case study to examine this question, because it shares space on the island of Hispaniola with the Dominican Republic. With similar culture, geography, climate, and natural resources, we might expect the countries to be similar in both Christian influence and economic development, but that is not the case. The Dominican Republic is by no means prosperous, but even before the recent collapse in Haiti’s economy, it had a per capita gross domestic product four times that of Haiti. Virtually every cultural indicator in the Dominican Republic, including the number of Christian believers, is higher there.

To be sure, there are significant differences between the two countries. One has a colonial history of Spanish control, and the other French. Voodoo and other pagan religions have a strong hold on Haiti.

But even acknowledging these differences, we should be open to asking if our attempts to help Haiti have not, in fact, had a detrimental impact. J.L. Williams – the founder of New Directions (now called Feed The Hunger) and someone who had extensive experience in Haiti – once told me, “What we are doing is not a part of the solution, but a part of the problem.”

The Rise of Short Term Missions

One of the problems seems to be the addiction of evangelicals to the quick fix. We see this addiction in our infatuation with revivalism, a 25-word “sinner’s prayer,” evangelical media campaigns and rallies, super-sized churches and ministries.

One of the quick fixes we’ve embraced is the short-term mission trip.

Robert Priest has studied the growth in short-term mission projects. He was, for many years, a professor of mission and intercultural studies at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School. Priest said that the “number of lay people in the United States involved in short-term missions grew from an estimated 540 in 1965 to 22,000 in 1979.” By 2003, he estimated that “there were at least 1 million short-termers.” In 2008, a Barna studyconcluded that 8 million Americans had been on a short-term mission trip in the previous five years.

A significant reason for the explosive growth in short term mission trips has been an explosive growth of the Evangelical Industrial Complex. Today, both for-profit and non-profit organizations specialize in mission trips to Haiti and other countries, promoting them in the same way group tours are promoted. Pastors and other organizers often go free if they can get enough people from their church to participate.

Just because there are many more people going on mission trips doesn’t mean that things are getting better in the countries they are visiting. In fact, Priest said “the shift to short-term missions…may be the first mission movement in church history that is based largely on the needs of the missionary” and not on the needs of those to whom the missionary efforts are directed.

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Haiti is a case in point. It’s possible that more Americans visited Haiti as missionaries than any other country in the history of the world – and the country has never been in worse shape.

Bob Lupton has spent a career ministering to the poor, and has written such seminal books about charity and philanthropy as Toxic Charity and Theirs Is The Kingdom. Lupton believes it is possible that short term mission trips have a detrimental effect. Lupton believes microlending and church and community-building programs run by indigenous people are more effective than short-term mission projects. Some advocate for direct support of indigenous missionaries. (MinistryWatch has written a good bit about this “new paradigm” in missions. You can read some of those stories here.)

Unintended Consequences

No one doubts the good intentions of short-term missionaries. And certainly Haiti is in such desperate shape that any effort to relieve the misery there is welcome. But it’s important to look hard at the unintended consequences of our well-intentioned efforts.

This idea is at the center of an Acton Institute film called “Poverty, Inc.” This important film highlighted a couple who wanted to adopt an orphan from Haiti. During the adoption process, someone asked the couple of they wanted to meet the child’s mother. The question was startling. This child has a mother? Yes, and the mother loved her child, and wanted to keep her, but could not care for her.

The American couple realized that for a fraction of the cost of adopting the child, this Haitian mother could keep and care for her own child. The couple realized that their good intentions were about to tear a family apart. It was a poignant moment in the movie, and it launched the American couple on a new path to create jobs in Haiti to keep families together and make them self-sufficient.

Haiti Today – and the Rest of the World

As I write this, the prime minister of Haiti, Ariel Henry, is essentially in exile in Kenya, unable to return to his own country because gangs control the airport. He would almost certainly be killed the moment he touched down. Those same gangs this week released more than 4,000 prisoners – many of them former gang members who will now resume their positions and strengthen the gangs even more.

Given these dire circumstances, some time will likely have to pass before evangelicals can resume their work in Haiti, but when we do, I hope that work will look very different from the way it has looked in the past.

And, until then, American evangelicals need to remember that not all help is helpful. This insight should not freeze us into inaction. We have a duty to help. But good intentions are not enough. The Bible commands us to be gentle as doves, but also wise as serpents.

Lives, even the lives of entire nations, may depend on our ability to obey this command.

TO DIG DEEPER: To read more on this topic, we recommend the book mentioned above, Toxic Charity, as well as When Helping Hurts. For a history of Christian charity in America, we recommend Marvin Olasky’s The Tragedy of American Compassion.