Monday, December 5, 2011

The Ethics of Trying to Help

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.”


  1. Sup Trav,

    This is a very moving article. Are you in the Peace Corps or another NGO? I've got a question. If the predominently white, Western nations responsible for most of the aid flowing into these countries in crisis were to stay completely out of trying to help the impoverished peoples, would they find a way to live in harmony with their environment (the natural, social, economical, etc)? That is to say, would nature run its course like it has for thousands of years before the Industrial revolution?

    As you sort of said in your post, is it really a universal truth that all people on this planet deserve electricity, plastic, advanced medical care, cars, and all the other modern conveniences we enjoy here in the West? Or are you trying to fulfill a basic set of needs that once achieved, will be a sign for you and other charitable organizations to move on? What is the end game for these charities?

    As far as finding meaning in your life or discovering your calling, I'm right there with you- got no idea.

    Don't drink the water!


  2. Hey Jake!
    Ya I'm working for an NGO in northeastern India, most of the earlier posts are about that if your interested.

    Great question. There is a whole academic discipline devoted to answering just that question, so the blog and any answer I give is only going to scratch the surface. That said, we have gone way too far to turn our backs on underdeveloped countries. Like Pandora's Box, we can't just shove all our inventions in a bag and take them back home with us. The people in all those countries won't just forget about what they saw and go back to their 'traditional' way of living. We are also very dependent on all those poor countries for our way of life. The world is too globalized and integrated for us in the west to maintain anything like our standard of living if we stopped doing business with everyone except western Europe.

    There a pretty compelling development theory called Core-Periphery (that, incidentally, I first learned about at METU) that talks about how our (the core's) high standard of living is dependent on having poor, resource rich countries (the periphery) stay that way so that we can exploit them for their raw materials and labor. The idea is that way back when we started doing this on a city/state scale then were forced to expand and expand until it reached the global scale we are at now where the core is not necessarily only the west, but rich, urban centers all around the world. There are definitly some flaws with the theory, but one of the things I like about it, that I think your getting at too, is that it says that to catch up with the core a country need to isolate itself from global trade and develop a balanced domestic economy. The case they usually cite as an example of this is Latin America during the 'Lost Decade' of the 1980s.

    I think the way we pushed the western, individualist, bend-the-natural-and-everyone-that-doesn't-look-like-us-world-to-our-will, mindset on the rest of the world, and the ways it contradicts many indigenous cultures, is the reason for a lot of the conflict in the global south today. So kinda like Pottery Barn since we are, at least in part, responsible for the way it broke, we have a responsibility to try and help fix it. Africans were fighting before we got there, and they would still fight if we had never come but they might be different fights.

    To the second part of your question, I think that every person should have the right to self-determination. Maybe they don't want 3D T.V's, blue jeans, cars or western medicine but they deserve the opportunity to decide that for themselves and, if they want what we have, to be able to work for it and get it. The world is never going to be fair or equal but it can be a lot better than it is. The world would be a far better place for all of us if there is avenue other than violence for everyone to get what they want. People should still have to work to get ahead, the reward would be meaningless if they didn't, but there needs to be a ladder for them to climb.

    So, to conclude this long-winded response to your question, I think that making sure there is a ladder is the role of NGO's and charities.

    What are you up to these days man?
    hit me up!