Monday, April 16, 2012

"Please, don't help us": On humanitarian aid

Imagine a neighbor was going through his garage and decided that you, his needy non-golf-playing neighbor, could use his old golf clubs. Unsolicited by you, he leaves them on your doorstep. Maybe he really did it to be nice, and that's great. But you still now have to deal with the stuff he didn't want that you also cannot really use. It seems silly, yet it's essentially the premise behind a lot of aid groups -- and because I believe that people really do deep down want to help, I think it's important that we have the conversation on how to do aid better, difficult as it might be.

When it comes to humanitarian aid, there's an interesting tension between giving freely from one place and encouraging economic prosperity in another. Disaster relief is one thing. An earthquake or a flood strikes, of course people need to get food, water, healthcare, etc. from somewhere, and there are plenty of programs that facilitate this. But programs that move around "SWEDOW" (aid jargon for "stuff we don't want") are expensive, inefficient, and sometimes do no more than make the donors at home feel like they did something. It takes a lot of time and money to move that stuff around. "Yoga Mats for Haiti" is perhaps the most aptly lampooned example of this. The money it took to collect, ship and distribute those mats could have been much better spent buying crops from Haitian farmers in order to get people fed. Instead, the influx of foreign food and donations outsold those farmers who otherwise would have been able to salvage enough crops to make a living. It put them out of business and took that money out of an economy that needs to conserve and re-circulate every penny it can. So as someone who genuinely wants to help, I would have a hard time supporting an initiative like that, because while it might get people fed for a day or a week, it has actually made things worse for them in the weeks, months and years down the road.


Yoga mats? Really?


Thankfully, there are many other ways to give freely as well as mindfully. Perhaps the most critical, but also arguably the least warm and fuzzy for the donor, is giving money. There are many organizations that are already a part of communities that need help, that have the local connections to get things done, and a more complete understanding of what is really needed -- after all, those communities would know what would benefit them better than we would. It would be better for them to receive money which they can spend locally and allocate more wisely than mountains of other people's unwanted stuff.

My biggest concern is that people who seem to mean all the good in the world settle for championing initiatives that are, at the very best, only a superficial fix to complex problems. I don't blame people for wanting to help, I applaud it! But we seem to have this idea that doing "something" is always better than doing "nothing" -- and that is just not true. Sometimes doing "something" just makes things worse, and no one wants that. All the good intentions in the world are only as good as what we do with them, and we will never be perfect at it, but if we genuinely want to help heal the world, we need to be constantly vigilant about what our well meaning projects actually accomplish.

I have learned the hard way that this kind of constructive critical approach makes some people extremely uncomfortable. People really are kind, and really want to help, but tell them that their favorite organization is actually making things worse, and it touches a lot of raw nerves.

I've been there too -- I actually participated in TOMS A Day Without Shoes several years ago, long before I learned to my horror how counterproductive those kinds of aid programs can be. Though more or less unconsciously, I had bought into the false premise that all us rich kids need to do to "fix things" is just buy the right shoes and cool t-shirts, or swoop into any far-flung place and start a program to "save" it. The world's problems seemed no more than a puzzle that could be solved by "awareness," hip and intrepid social entrepreneurs, and the steady purchase of free-trade coffee. I was oblivious to the ways that other people's suffering is basically turned into products that I bought without many questions asked. I was unaware of all the incredible things that so many people are quietly and patiently accomplishing in their own countries, in more sustainable and locally beneficial ways. My own goal for myself now is simply to stand behind local people in their own initiatives, help to spread their stories, basically to be a bridge between their work and folks around the world who want to help it succeed. Because the last thing we need is another program -- there are plenty of worthy ones that need support. And it's not about me. I'm just a pair of hands.

Aid groups have done something really fantastic in recent years: they've gotten really good at raising awareness on issues. They do an excellent job of encouraging people who want to help and enforcing the idea that every person can make a difference. Every person can "get involved." And that is true, but I think one of the biggest trade-offs is that the latest generation of humanitarians and activists have a tendency to throw all their weight behind shock campaigns and quick fixes, without due diligence in understanding the global power dynamics and economic realities that create so much need and suffering in the first place; I know I am a long way off from understanding them myself. And when aid organizations stress simple -- or downright simplistic -- means of involvement without pushing for the diligence that comes from nuanced understanding of complex humanitarian issues, quantity of involvement starts to take precedence over its actual quality.

The result is that organizations set up to work on worthy causes can take on a life of their own in a way that is counterproductive. Kony 2012 is a perfect example. An extremely worthy cause is marketed in a way designed to get people to care. That is a good thing. However, the "plan" advocated in the video -- military intervention by the U.S. government -- is definitely not a good thing. And worse, this marketing is done in a way that basically says "support our organization and how we think we should deal with the situation, or you obviously don't care about Ugandan kids." Meanwhile countless Ugandan and other African voices critiquing the video for being outdated and overly simplistic are more or less ignored, condescended to, rendered "voiceless" and "helpless." The campaign and the organization become detached from the very people it claims to support. Millions of actual Ugandans have not even seen this video, yet it's supposed to be about them, for them even, and would affect them most directly. That, to me, is unacceptable.

And even worse, without diligence and understanding, without thinking about the big picture or simply listening to what people actually need and want, well-meaning individuals can become pawns for industry, politicians and the like who exploit people's humanitarian concerns to expand their economic empires and consolidate more power. Aid that's supposed to fill bellies and build schools instead goes to pad the pockets of corrupt bureaucrats the world over. Governments pat themselves on the back for providing a few million in aid to the people of a foreign country with one hand, while the other closes a far bigger arms deal with their oppressive leaders. It's clear that this top-down approach is ineffective at best and downright detrimental at worst.

People's response to that criticism, I've found, is often something along the lines of "I give up then, I guess I can't do anything." This makes me incredibly sad because it is also not true. We (myself entirely included) need to learn how to separate worthy causes from worthy plans and programs. A good aid campaign is designed to render itself obsolete. Programs that essentially put band-aids on important causes, on the other hand, can be merely fronts for the continuation of the real root causes of that situation. That's not cynicism, it's just common sense. Throw enough money and stuff at a population without addressing structural problems, and you essentially make and keep them subservient. I don't think that's quite what most people intend when they set out to "make a difference."

So we shouldn't be asking ourselves "how can we get them stuff?", we should be asking them why they can't afford what they need in the first place, and working with them to address it. That's why I am such a fan of micro-finance, for example, because it allows people who wish to donate to "put their money where their mouth is" in a way that directly stimulates local economies in the places receiving aid, yet still feels a little more personal than just writing a check. I understand that people want to feel good by doing good -- I just don't think that should be our litmus test for what's a good project to get behind. It's not about us. It's about creating a fairer world for everyone to prosper in.

Being more responsible consumers here at home is a key part of correcting the imbalances of privilege and power that perpetuate and exacerbate need and suffering in the first place. Affluent society's expectations for what constitutes a reasonable standard of living are completely unsustainable. This is a huge part of what necessitates the wholesale pillage of other continents' resources that make those other economies so problematic in the first place. (I don't excuse myself from this by any means, because I live here too and am part of the same grid.) Cultivating an understanding that there are plenty of resources in this world to go around, and that we owe it to our human brothers and sisters to make sure everyone has access to them, is one of the most important things we could possibly do. Consuming less in one continent obviously means more for another. Governments cannot, and should not, enforce that -- the onus is on us as individuals to live as ethically and mindfully as possible, and to put our weight behind structural solutions to the issues we care about, instead of quick fixes.

Spiritual solutions to economic problems. I know it's a lot of talk that's much easier said than done. But I'm having trouble figuring out a better way to do it. :)