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Adventure / April 16, 2018

In Haiti, an author finds that doing good isn’t easy

Written by: Stacey McKenna

In 2013, Allison Coffelt spent three weeks volunteering and touring around Haiti, a nation that had blossomed and festered in her imagination for over a decade. In her recently released book, Maps Are Lines We Draw, she weaves a poetic narrative that’s traces her time on the island and initiates a nuanced conversation about the ethics and pragmatics of public health, development work, volunteering, and travel.

The book’s title stems from Coffelt’s lifelong fascination with maps—lines that represent geographic and political boundaries—and references the more abstract ways we move about the world. Lines separate a perceived “here” from “there,” or “us” from “them,” and they stretch between us, creating messy webs of connection and accountability.

Coffelt, who grew up in Columbia, Missouri, became infatuated with Haiti after reading Mountains Beyond Mountains: Tracy Kidder’s biography of doctor, medical anthropologist, and public health activist Paul Farmer. So when did finally visit, she did so in the interest of public health. While in Haiti, Coffelt divided her time between two public health clinics: Maison de Naissance and OSAPO.

But this book is not a savior story. Rather, it’s a meditation on the nature and implications of philanthropy. Coffelt examines her own work witin Haiti’s natural and historical context, and considers whether it’s possible to do good without somehow causing harm.

Is it possible, she asks, for international NGOs that pay European wages and demand a European standard of living to commit to long-term development? Or is their very presence undermining a local economy that struggles to sustain them? And what of short-term volunteers like Coffelt, who arrived armed with a 50-pound bag of clinic supplies and a knapsack of base essentials? While the locals struggle to survive, they come and go as they please.

A street market in Port Au Prince, Haiti, 2013. Photo by Alex Proimos.

A remote fishing village in Haiti, 2013. Photo by Silvia Zukrigl.

Coffelt is acutely aware of the structural privileges that make it possible for people like her (white, USian) and others to visit countries that have been historically oppressed and economically depressed. She grappled with the implications of that privilege as she planned for the trip, while she was there, and while writing the book.

“Before I went… I actually looked at applying for jobs in Haiti, but felt like it wasn’t a good use of resources. I don’t speak the language, all these other reasons I go into in the book. I felt really conflicted,” Coffelt told me by phone. “I was in my early twenties, I had this sense of this is right and this is wrong. I had read some of Paul [Farmer]’s other books. [I spent] years reading a lot about Haiti and about aid. So when I got there, I think I expected it to be complicated, but I don’t think I really understood the depth of connection that’s possible even though it’s complicated.”

One such connection that holds the book together is Coffelt’s friendship with Dr. Jean Gardy Marius (Gardy), the founder of OSAPO. The stretches of highway between Port-au-Prince and Gardy’s clinic in Rousseau, and the conversations Coffelt and Gardy have while driving them stir up the most potent epiphanies in Maps Are Lines We Draw.

They drive through villages where residents sport second-hand t-shirts, stop at just the right vendors to purchase sweets, pass the lingering rubble of 2010’s dream-crushing earthquake.

“Inherent in the of accident is the removal of blame, of the possibility of prevention,” Coffelt writes. “But there is a reason Haiti’s ‘poor’ are so poor. And, subsequently why the buildings are not made well.  

At one point on the road, Gardy speculates about a health NGO that chooses to spend grant money by giving families cash rather than paying salaries, buying medicine, or upgrading medical equipment: “Because if they do something sustainable, that really helps people not be poor, where would the group be? What would they do?”

 “Without people to save, what is the savior?” Coffelt writes.

 As the journey unfolds, Coffelt draws the lines of her map. They’re a web of relationships, intersections, and divisions. They spawn accountability and harm as readily as they confer benefits. But they are not hopeless.

 “We make decisions consciously or unconsciously about how we define our sense of here, of closeness, what we’re willing to take care of and be in relationship with or be compassionate for,” Coffelt told me. “And we define our sense of there and other, what feels beyond us, like we’re not responsible for it. And we have to do that. We can’t walk around the world all the time with our hearts broken wide open. But one of the things I’ve learned in writing this book is it’s really important to at least notice when we raw those lines, and how we do it.”

 And that’s a lesson, she says, that the world of global health would do well to heed.

Coffelt’s book, Maps Are Lines We Draw is on sale now. If you have questions or comments about this feature, please email them to [email protected] 


about the author

Stacey McKenna

Journalist Stacey McKenna covers travel, adventure, health, environment, and social justice. She has written for numerous print and online publications, including Narratively, Mind+Body, The Wayward Post and The Development Set. A medical anthropologist by training, she applies her expertise as a researcher and fascination with the human experience to tell deeply-reported stories in context. 

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