Do Something! or, What Helps?

Lately, I’ve been hearing and reading about a lot of strategies for global relief that don’t really help people who need help — rape victims, war casualties, starving people, victims of natural disasters — and  I’m making a list, and trying to discover what does or might help. (I’m also interested in our urge to help people who are bullied and to increase ‘ awareness’ of breast cancer, and to what degree campaigns and actions targeted in those directions are effective, but more on those in another post.)

My goal here isn’t to suggest that if we can’t help perfectly, we shouldn’t help at all. Or that having mixed motives for our actions is  any reason not to act. I do mean to suggest that the urge to Do Something! may drive us to unhelpful action, and also to suggest that we almost certainly do have mixed motives in helping others — and that awareness of our own motivations and assessment of effective actions would improve relief efforts.

What may not help (or may not help as much as we think it does):

Humanitarian aid

1. Aid goes to oppressors and keeps the cycle of violence and the need for aid going:

Linda Polman’s The Crisis Caravan: What’s Wrong with Humanitarian Aid? gives examples of situations in which money and goods sent to areas in conflict and crisis go to warlords and other people wielding oppressive power and in which humanitarian aid may actually increase violence and other horrors; summarised by David Zetland at AidWatch:

“The people who deliver aid are addicted to horror stories and starving kids, and this addiction is fed by those who benefit from aid, whether they be local leaders, militias committing atrocities or even victims who don’t wear their prosthetic legs because they can get more attention with their stumps.

“… Here’s the simple version: If people give you money because of A, then you don’t do anything to stop A. Even better, make A bigger so you get more money.

“What’s interesting in Polman’s book is the way that warlords and crooked politicians are actively making poor people worse off, to raise their profile and increase the flow of ‘do something!’ money funneled through the Angelina-Bono-Geldof-Sachs pipeline.”

(In a June 2008 post at his own blog, Aguanomics, Zetland defines international aid: “Transferring money from poor people in rich countries to rich people in poor countries for over 60 years.”)

Also on this topic:  The Thin Blue Line: How Humanitarianism Went to War (2008) by Conor Foley, a volunteer in humanitarian missions in several regions. (By most accounts, Foley’s book is better than Polman’s. I haven’t read either yet.)

2. If aid is imposed without understanding the culture, it can cause more problems than it solves, even if it gets to the “right” people.

I didn’t post notes from a lecture I attended this summer, jointly offered by Lina Abirafeh and Jennifer Fluri, that spoke about the failings of humanitarian aid, because aid was discussed primarily in the context of gender and education in Afghanistan, and I didn’t hear much new on either of those topics. But the speakers did frame part of the discussion with a question about international aid and relief:

Does gender-focused international aid hinder or help? How is it represented at high levels and how is it understood at lower levels [i.e., on the ground]?

Their response was not so much that aid just keeps the cycle of disaster turn faster, as described above — though they mentioned that men may resent that power seems to have been taken from them and given to women, e.g., if women are trained for jobs while the men don’t have a job, and that this can cause a backlash and lead to more domestic violence.

Their observation was that outsiders coming into a diverse country with very different cultures, religions, history, etc., can do more harm than good in many ways:  Building schools that can become military and terrorist targets, upsetting the balance of power in families by assuming that women want gender roles to change (they generally don’t), ignoring indigenous groups that already operate, trying to reinvent the wheel in a region that doesn’t want outsiders interfering, and so on.

Their belief is that the most successful aid comes through and in small NGOs that work within the context of what’s accepted culturally, historically and traditionally, and with the actual conditions on the ground. Providing direct financial assistance and loans can work.  They suggested that we support indigenous organisations that already exist in areas of conflict and crisis.

DIY Foreign Aid

1. An article in Foreign Policy, “Don’t Try This Abroad: Nick Kristof is wrong. Amateurs are not the future of foreign aid” (26 Oct 2010) by Dave Algoso rebuts the main thrust of Nicholas Kristof’s recent piece, “D.I.Y. Foreign Aid Revolution, which “offered several aren’t-they-inspiring stories about Americans who have run off to save poor people in developing countries from whatever afflicts them.”

With props to DIYers Muhammad Yunus (Grameen Bank) and Paul Farmer (Partners in Health), Algoso argues that most DIY “stories don’t reflect reality. Spend a little time in any community in the world, and you’ll see people from that community finding ways to improve it — not outsiders. … Yet these sort of people — local community members helping their neighbors and themselves — are absent from Kristof’s stories. Instead, he gives the reader an American heroine (his stories are mostly about women) who comes to save the day. Local individuals exist as needy targets of the protagonist’s benevolence.”

In reality, Algoso says, the situations are usually more complicated than they seem. He raises some ‘critical questions” :

>>  How do we know that what we’re doing serves the best interests of the beneficiaries when situations complex, nuanced and unfamiliar to the helpful westerners? For example, rather than locate orphaned children in Nepal to a newly built orphanage (as Kristoff recounts), might it have been better in that culture for extended families to care for the children? The solution that seems obvious may not be the best solution, or even a good solution.

>>  How do money and volunteers affect the local economy, politics, and culture? How might incentives be skewed?  What unintentional cultural consequences might there be? For example, local businesses may lose market share when NGOs hand out donated goods; or perhaps “local officials face less pressure to provide public services or cultivate a sustainable tax base” if outsiders take responsibility for these things, and if volunteers provide the services, the citizens are left with no recourse if the quality is poor.

Algoso’s advice to those who want to effect change is to become a professional, that is, “pursue international development as a career.” (But then you may become part of one of those organisations that imposes western values onto indigenous populations.)

2. A source cited in Algoso’s article, the blog Good Intentions Are Not Enough, notes in Whites in Shining Armor that “having a foreign [i.e., American or other western] protagonist is the best way to capture the interest of” newspaper readers; hence, many Americans would be surprised to learn that local charities exist all over the world, even in Myanmar (where 500 local charities responded when Cyclone Nargis hit in 2008; interesting linked article evaluating the aid response), and that “the majority of people rescued after every disaster are saved by family members, neighbors, by-standers, and local disaster response teams.”

Buying Trafficked Women and Children out of Prostitution

In Buying a Slave’s Freedom: What Not to Do (3 Oct 2009), Amanda Kloer makes the case for NOT collecting money to buy people out of the slave trade, as compassionate and even necessary as that act seems to be:

a. Think about what the trafficker will do with the money you pay him. “He might buy himself a nice car or something else, but chances are he’s going to use it to traffic more people and make more money. Like any entrepreneur, he’ll invest his returns (which you’re giving him) in his business.”

b. Buying someone’s freedom puts “a financial value on that human life just as surely as the traffickers do. How do you negotiate a price?” Buying people “reinforce[s] the human trafficking culture.”

c. What kind of penalty for human trafficking is “more money, no jail time”? For traffickers and would-be traffickers, profiting without punishment just looks like a good deal.

Kloer’s suggestion instead is to give money to local NGOs, who can then “identify and remove victims to safety and to train law enforcement to find and prosecute traffickers.”


In short, the urge to do something about those in need is strong. But just “doing something” may cause more problems than it solves.

This reminds me of the Buddhist idea of idiot compassion. As Pema Chodron explains it: “It refers to something we all do a lot of and call it compassion. In some ways, it’s whats called enabling. It’s the general tendency to give people what they want because you can’t bear to see them suffering. Basically, you’re not giving them what they need. You’re trying to get away from your feeling of I can’t bear to see them suffering. In other words, you’re doing it for yourself. You’re not really doing it for them.” (More on the concept here.)

(And this reminds me of altruisim, and the question of whether it can ever be unselfish when it meets the need of the giver or rescuer to feel good about themselves.)

Even more to the point, Ven Sangye Khadro (in The Four Immeasurables) speaks on the difference between compassion and idiot compassion:

“We sometimes over-react emotionally at the sight of suffering. We can be so distressed that we weep uncontrollably, faint or run away in horror. Our heart may be moved with pity but our emotions are so out-of-control that we can’t do anything to help! In other cases we might do something but because we lack right understanding of the problem or the person experiencing it, our ‘help’ only makes the situation worse. These are examples of idiot compassion. True compassion balances loving-concern with clear wisdom. This wisdom enables us to stay calm and think clearly how best to help, without being carried away by our emotions.

“Rescuing is doing something for someone when it has not been asked for but is based on our guess at another’s wants or needs.  We surmise, based on our own experience not on the situation at hand, a course of action for someone else. This course of action always includes our continued involvement and importance as rescuer. The main beneficiary of such actions are not those in need but those who come to give rescue. On a big scale a lot of international aid operates in this fashion.”


So it seems to me that one thing that might work is to cultivate self-awareness about our own urge to help, to ask questions like what  need does helping fulfill for me? and what is the best way I can help in a calm and wise manner?

Some other ideas, based on what I’ve heard and read:

1. support indigenous organisations already on the ground and working effectively

2. support — materially or by participating in person — NGOs that understand the realities of the culture, the history of the place, the desires of the people

3. give direct financial aid and loans to individuals, perhaps through groups like Kiva, Grameen Bank and other microcredit lenders.  Or just give money directly to people who need it, or to organisations that do this.

4. financially support the International Committee of the Red Cross, which Foley praises as neutral in his book

5. Fritz Institute may have some ideas. Its mission: “Fritz Institute is a nonprofit organization that works in partnership with governments, nonprofit organizations and corporations around the world to innovate solutions and facilitate the adoption of best practices for rapid and effective disaster response and recovery.” It looks specifically at the efficacy of humanitarian impact

6. Sometimes, maybe, it’s better to do nothing at all.

7. More mystically (OK, very mystically), practice meditation, particularly tonglen meditation, to ease suffering of all kinds and to increase one’s own capacity for compassion.

Obviously, both lists — what may not work very well and what may work better — are incomplete. I’m just starting to learn about this.


2 thoughts on “Do Something! or, What Helps?

  1. Yeah, I wondered about microloans (which I’ve participated in). I hadn’t seen anything really negative about them so included them as a possible efficient way to help … Thanks for the link.

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