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.