December 13, 2010; Source: USA Today | Sarah Palin’s two-day visit to Haiti on the invitation of Franklin Graham, son of evangelist Billy Graham, garnered some controversy over a picture that the Associated Press ran with a caption that the former Alaska governor was having her hair done before a photo shoot.

It was a silly fight and the AP caption was a distraction. The interesting thing about Palin’s visit wasn’t how she pinned up her hair, but what she was doing in Haiti, with whom, and why. Directing a faith-based NGO called Samaritan’s Purse, Franklin Graham has been a subject of other articles at NPQ. Read here, here, and here.

He seems to have struck a working relationship with Palin establishing him as her religious guide. Were she to become president, he might serve her the way his father functioned as sort of the nation’s pastor during Nixon’s presidency. In return, she has defended him, for example, for his repeated attacks on Islam that have made him unpalatable even to some conservative groups.

Her visit to learn about the challenges in Haiti occurred within the confines of Samaritan’s Purse aid sites, so she didn’t get to experience alternatives to Graham’s approach, and she was shielded from the press—except for the accompaniment of Greta van Susteren, Palin’s Fox News colleague.

What did Palin learn? That conditions in Haiti were “much harsher” than she expected, that Americans should “get out of [their] comfort zone and volunteer to help,” that conditions merited “a military airlift to come bring supplies that are so needed here,” and that she came away with “a better understanding of the problems facing the country now.”

But she only saw the country through Franklin Graham’s NGO lens. It was only the fourth foreign country she has ever visited. It’s good that Palin is touching down in other countries. Though her time in Haiti was only a weekend, she showed up during a devastating cholera epidemic and presumably saw its horrendous effects. But her questions, as reported by Samaritan’s Purse staffer Ken Isaacs, about why Haiti had such poor sanitation and infrastructure sounded naive and unresearched, and she needed to be talking to more than just Graham’s aid providers. There’s a big world to learn about, Governor Palin, and there is a world of NGOs to understand beyond Franklin Graham’s often controversial religious group.—Rick Cohen