There is a very important question that anyone who wants to work in an NGO/charity needs to ask themselves . Why do I want to help? On the surface this may seem a simple question, but I have found that finding a satisfactory answer is anything but.
To start with, there is a degree of narcissism just in the assumption that you can help. That I, the white savior, can ride in and help usher these poor, backwards people into modernity. Help them to become more like me. But what makes me so special? Why do we know what’s best for them?
Our culture feeds into this idea of American exceptionalism. Take movies like The Last Samurai, Dances with Wolves or Avatar. A disaffected, ruggedly individualistic white hero is assimilated into a group of noble savages whom he then leads to salvation because they are incapable of achieving this themselves. Avatar was the highest grossing movie ever. We eat this stuff up.
The problem with this is, as the old saying goes, ‘the road to hell is paved with good intentions.’ Our feelings of God-given superiority, often coupled with the desire to save the aboriginals from themselves, have led to such shining examples of western values as slavery, colonialism and the U.S.A’s genocide of the Native Americans. Well, you may say, that was a long time ago we don’t do that kind of thing anymore. Well, I would hypothetically respond, there are several billion people who may disagree and say that structural adjustment loans and sweatshops are just new paint on old ideas. That crux of Samuel Huntington’s Modernization theory, that all underdeveloped states need to do is mimic the ascent of the US and western Europe, does not seem too effective or popular to the people that it was designed to help.
The desire to do good and help can have negative consequences even when our hearts are in the right place and the ideas seems good. One example of this was when an NGO set out to empower a group of African women by introducing a new species of yam into their village. Harvesting yams traditionally had been the role of women and it was thought that this new super yam, which was bigger and required less space and water than its indigenous relative, would give these women something to sell. Since they wouldn’t be as reliant on their husbands for money they could start taking more control over their lives. Sounds great right? Well it didn’t quite work out that way. The men saw that the women were making real money on these yams so they took it upon themselves to harvest the plants themselves. So the women went from having a little to having nothing. That, and it turned out that in that type of soil the yams produced cyanide, which then ran off into the local water sources.
Another more large scale example of the best intentions run a muck can be seen in African famine relief. Everyone probably remembers the terrible famine in east Africa in the late 1990s (there is another one happening now if you need a refresher). The pictures of skeletal children with blank stares and flies in their eyes with captions asking for your donations. The news reports about how many hundreds of thousands had died and how many million more were at risk. Well if they are starving then lets give ‘em food! That’s what you do when people are hungry, right? And that’s what we did, and in the short term it probably saved thousands if not millions of lives. So what’s the problem? Well the problem is that we shipped all that food from America and Europe, we didn’t buy any of it there. That meant that, since it’s pretty hard to compete with free, what little agricultural infrastructure was left was destroyed. All those 50 and 100 pound bags of grain with USA stamped on the side was just a band-aid on a broken leg. Because of it when the next famine came it was far worse.
There is a whole school of thought that preaches that trying to help in poor areas only creates dependency. That in the end it only perpetuates poverty by undermining the target groups self-esteem and creating a self-fulfilling prophecy by implicitly saying they are incapable of doing it themselves. Though this can and does happen, if aid is done right it doesn’t have to.
What the above examples show is not that people shouldn’t help each other, or that we in the rich world don’t have a responsibility to help those less fortunate than us. We do. The point is that we need to stop, think and check our ego before we try. Most of the time the easiest solution is not the best one and it’s the people in the effected communities that know best what’s going to help them, not us. If really we want to help, we should be focusing on empowering people by finding out, from them, what they need. Helping communities them to help themselves.
Thankfully, this is starting to happen. The World Food Organization is now buying whatever relief supplies they can from the effected areas and investing in infrastructure that should help soften the impact of the next crisis. NGO’s are now asking the communities they serve how they can help rather than telling them how they will. But even with this, the line between genuinely helping and hurting through creating dependency is very thin.
As for me, I keep asking myself this question of why and I don’t always like the answer. Yes, I’m asking people what they need and what they think the best way to get it is, but I would be lying if I said that how the project will reflect on me isn’t a criteria. There is deep, almost desperate need I feel to prove to myself and the world that I can be good at and find meaning in something other than the academic studying that has filled my life to this point. An articulation of a sort of early mid-life identity crisis of who am I, and integral to that, where do I belong? And though most of the stuff I’m working on looks really promising, at the end of the day there is a part of me that thinks, "who the hell am I to help these people?" I haven’t been out of college for 2 years and have almost no practical experience to speak of. I’m basing hospital HR policy on my experience working the graveyard shift at a gyros restaurant! But there is a bigger part of me that says that if it works it works and you have to start somewhere.
In the end, I think a very wise Peace Corp. volunteer best summarized volunteering when he told me about his time abroad. He and his fellow workers had arrived in country with amazing visions of how they were going to make a big, lasting difference. They were fresh out of college and had all kinds of innovative ideas on ways to bring prosperity and engagement to the little country that would be there home for the next 24 months. This optimism, however, quickly slammed into reality. The enormity and complexity of the issues started to come into focus. “By the end of it,” he told me, “you realize that, at best, you will improve the lives of a handful of people and that the people you meet will probably have a more positive and lasting effect on you then you will on them. They were the best two years of my life.”