Redefining the Messiah Complex

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For those of us who work in the world of faith-based non-governmental organizations (NGOs), we're well accustomed to the snubs and not-so-subtle criticism of our “secular” NGO peers. All too often, we're seen as nothing more than the offspring of those overly zealous missionaries of old who partnered all too well with historical colonialism. As a result, we constantly are attempting to distance ourselves from this characterization of the Bible-thumping fundamentalist who triumphantly arrives to save the poor from their poverty and the ignorant from their ignorance. 

Unfortunately, the Messiah complex mentality that typified the majority of those first outsiders who arrived with the “good news” — that turned out to be bad news for so many traditional cultures around the world — isn't simply a remnant from the past, but a mentality that is still very much present and influential. 

On a Firm Foundation

HILDA DE BOJORQUEZ holds a set of blueprints in one hand. Her other hand is pointing. At a better future, perhaps, if things go well.

De Bojorquez is the chief engineer at this construction site in a neighborhood just outside Port-au-Prince still blemished with rubble from Haiti’s 2010 earthquake. She commands respect from the all-male crew of Haitians working at the site—she tells a group of visiting U.S. reporters that her gender has never been an issue in the male-dominated world of construction, here or in her native El Salvador.

When asked about obstacles on the project, De Bojorquez goes on for 15 minutes—she’s an engineer, after all—but the point is that they’ve tackled them, one by one, and done so the right way. She extols the importance of a solid foundation and robust retaining walls. She points to the cinder blocks and the rebar, and explains how her group had to teach a company how to provide high-quality materials, with the promise that they’d buy everything the company made. And she emphasizes that she’s there not just to oversee a number of construction projects, but to train Haitians to do it themselves the next time—and to do it right.

The steel-reinforced blocks are rising into walls that will surround a new six-room school for perhaps 200 children in this neighborhood four miles east of Port-au-Prince. The narrow site is wedged between two crumbling buildings, both showing earthquake damage. Even to an untrained eye, the differences are obvious between the fragile, deteriorating blocks next door and the solid retaining walls rising at our feet.

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