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First, Do No Harm: An Interdisciplinary Approach to Humanitarian Aid in Haiti

Helping people is relatively simple, right? In the realm of humanitarian aid, not always.

Humanitarian work is often carried out with good intentions, but that doesn’t mean it always gets good results. Sometimes even well-meaning humanitarian aid can be unproductive or even harmful if it fails to consider the unique needs and circumstances of the people being served. The small Caribbean nation of Haiti—home to the highest number per capita of humanitarian organizations in the world—is especially subject to the negative effects of humanitarian involvement.

During the Fall 2021 semester, a group of students led by Dr. Jeremy Browne (Office of Digital Humanities) and Dr. Marc-Aurel Martial (Nursing) investigated the impact of humanitarian organizations in Haiti in a humanities seminar course. The seminar (HCOLL 480R: Haiti, Health, and the Humanities), facilitated student research on minimizing the bad and maximizing the good of humanitarian aid in Haiti, and on solutions to problems that humanitarian aid has created in the past.

A group of Haitian people sitting on wooden benches, a woman in the foreground carrying a toddler.
Photo by Zach Vessels on Unsplash

The two professors’ different specialties helped them create a course with a holistic approach to humanitarian issues in Haiti. Dr. Martial, who was born in Haiti, founded the Haiti Health Initiative, an organization dedicated to serving the health needs of rural Haitians. Dr. Browne had experience with database development; he helped build the Haiti Health Initiative website and medical database. Their shared interest in improving the lives and health of at-risk populations brought Dr. Martial and Dr. Browne together, and out of this partnership the seminar arose.

The seminar featured student research as well as presentations by expert guest lecturers, most of whom were Haitian. Research subjects included Haitian history, culture, religions, health systems, and post-colonialism. This prepared students to take an informed approach to providing culturally appropriate humanitarian aid. “This is real research the students did,” Dr. Browne said. “They were considering problems that nobody had ever considered.”

At the concluding symposium, students joined with past lecturers, friends, and family to eat Haitian food and present on their research. The class identified three areas of focus that all humanitarian organizations should keep at the forefront of their practices: people, assumptions, and humility.


Some students found that many humanitarian aid organizations fail to really get to know the people of Haiti before trying to help them. Ken Ruth (Computer Science, ’22) and Daniel Hansen (Construction and Facilities Management, ’23) investigated a pervasive “get in, get out” mentality which has often resulted in resources ultimately being wasted, such as money wasted on impractical agricultural tools, buildings that fell into disrepair, and hygiene products that accumulated unused. They emphasized that building a trusting, understanding relationship with communities and following up after program termination can help ensure lasting and meaningful change. Jonathan Segura (Anthropology, ’22) noted that “Haitian people are the glue of Haiti. They are the people who actually know what Haiti needs.” By including the Haitian people in planning, humanitarian organizations can make sure they offer effective service and long-lasting benefits.


Other students shared research exploring how assumptions about Haiti and the needs of Haitian people can impede humanitarian success. Mary Sharp (Interdisciplinary Humanities, ’22) and Emily Tew (Dietetics, ’22) suggested that aid needs to focus on meeting less-obvious needs, such as providing electricity. They cited examples of how medical personnel flocked to Haiti after the 2011 earthquake, but limited electricity and daylight limited their effectiveness. Sharp said, “A lot of times we go in thinking of the obvious problems, but simple, underlying issues are missed.”


The humility to put aside assumptions and really get to know the Haitian people was another unifying feature of all the solutions. Dr. Browne put it succinctly: “Unless you have the humility to learn from the locals and understand that you might not know everything, you won’t have the impact.”

Sensitivity to the needs of those being served is essential to humanitarianism, and this course offered students the opportunity to approach difficult issues in Haiti by evaluating more carefully what Haitians really need. Hannah Snarr (French, ’22) summed up the benefit of applying her humanities education to real-life issues: “We discovered how to apply the things we were learning in college to serving others.”