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Wednesday, May 4, 2016

A compassionate volunteer

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Fred is a farmer living a fair distance northwest of this fair city.

Unmarried, Fred also owns a nice single-engine airplane that he flies off his farm strip. An innovative kind of guy, he constructed his own hangar using parts from obsolete center pivot irrigation systems and proudly proclaims it to be "mouse proof." That in itself is no mean trick because mice looking for winter shelter can squeeze through the tiniest gap to set up cozy homes in little-used airplane interiors.

Fred, I mentioned that he is not married, has adopted the practice of spending his winters far from the windswept plains of Nebraska. He chooses more agreeable climes along the equator and south where our winter is their summer, places including Hawaii, Tahiti, Ecuador and this winter, Haiti.

Therein lays the story he shared with me last week. Fred, at his own expense, went to Haiti to help rebuild that small island country devastated by last year's major earthquake. He volunteered his services to an NGO, the current appellation for "non-governmental organization" which can be sponsored by churches, or secular organizations such as the Red Cross and hundreds of well-intentioned others. NGOs are registered and sanctioned by the host governments which generally allow their good work with little interference.

Which one, I didn't ask, doesn't matter.

Fred was assigned to put his farmer skills to work overseeing the construction of homes for persons that lost theirs in the earthquake. Concrete is the material of choice for home building in that tropical climate. An excellent choice it is to counter the frequent rain and humid conditions.

Now, in our country when we want to run concrete we order it from a ready-mix plant to assure proper ratio of ingredients and consistent quality throughout.

Doesn't happen in Haiti, concrete is all hand-mixed in small batches so one can imagine the inconsistent quality of the end product. Then they don't use rebar to reinforce the walls and corners, which is one reason that the buildings crumble, taking terrible toll in human casualties when the earth shakes.

Evidently the motto for Fred's NGO was to build as quickly and cheaply as possible and ignore the future. At least they would be providing shelter for all too many still living in blue tarp tents with little provision for sanitation. Squalor.

Fred had noted that a nice flat quarter-acre piece of ground was available to his NGO and envisioned a nice village with snug houses on plots large enough for future residents to garden and be somewhat self -sustaining. "It wouldn't be a problem at all for this farm boy to lay it out and get started" was Fred's proposal to the person in charge of the NGO.

No response at all for that suggestion so Fred just went back to supervising the construction already in progress. The plan was to run a 50-amp service to the building he was overseeing. The wire furnished to install was 12 gauge.

"Whoa, 50 amps require No. 6 copper wires!" protested Fred. Overloaded circuits cause house fires. The instructions also called for 110 volts to run throughout the new house requiring two wire circuits, preferably two plus a ground wire. "Now wait, eventually air-conditioning will be wanted and that requires 220 volts and three wire circuits." said Fred.

"Ah, just run two wires and they can run the third later." responded the boss.

Now the boss, much to Fred's angst, also controlled his native laborers by yelling at them.

Fred stated that those people weren't ignorant; all working for him could read and write although about half the Island's population is illiterate.

The workers weren't given adequate instruction and when they showed initiative they were yelled at if the boss didn't like their work. Fred too felt hampered a bit not being conversant in Creole, the common language of the people.

Eventually Fred decided that he was getting lonely for his girlfriend back home. And back home was where I found him, hanging out at a pilot's lounge at the airport nearby. He is one of those imminently likeable souls with a twinkle in his eye and just fun to be around.

Knowing his habits, I was surprised to find him back in the country before the snow was gone. No wife, frustration at the worksite, and longing for the girlfriend can do that for a guy.

During the United States' huge response to the disaster in Haiti, my own opinion was that it would be a good opportunity for us to take over the government of that small country. I envisioned an effort similar to we did in war torn Germany and Japan following World War II. We could have installed an interim system of a functional government using capable persons from the United States, much as we installed our own military to govern until the native Germans, Japanese and Koreans were trained and put in positions of responsibility. It would work in Haiti, also. The sorry government that the Haitians had before the quake is in charge once again. Those elites are too corrupt to properly govern and consequently, the rest of the population is condemned to suffer eternal poverty. Fred's opinion, gleaned from experience in other thirdworld countries, was that that any new system of government has to be built both from the top down and the bottom up. With bad leadership the people on the bottom get discouraged and become apathetic with no hope for a better future.

No doubt, the people in Haiti are suffering and have great needs. I applaud the efforts of the people in the United States for their ongoing generous efforts to help the common Haitians in their time of severe need. Unfortunately all too much of our shared treasure gets diverted to corrupt government officials lining their own pockets.

NGO's are one way to get the aid to those in dire need, but judging from Fred's experience, the system isn't perfect.

The old Chinese proverb "Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day. Teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime" comes to mind. I fear that in our noble compassion we are missing an opportunity to make Haiti the dynamic nation that it has every right to become.

It worked in Germany, Japan and South Korea, all devastated by war little different than the natural disaster that befell our neighbor Haiti. So sad to see such an opportunity totally wasted.

That is the way I saw it.

__Dick Trail


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Dick Trail
The Way I Saw It