Friday, August 17, 2007

Motive versus End Result: What If Helping Is Hurting?

I've always wanted to believe that noone is bad at heart. Noone actually wants to cause pain to anyone else, they merely make a mistake in judgment where their own desires consume them and make them forget or misjudge the degree of pain they may cause someone else. Or they feel they are faced with two bad decisions, and make what they feel is the better of the two. Another big problem is when they hurt without knowing they are hurting. What if you do something to help someone and it ends up hurting them? What really matters, the motive or the result?

One major thing that I’ve been questioning is whether by “helping” whether we’re actually helping. What if we aren’t? What if I’m contributing to increasing pain and suffering in the long run? Because in the end, is it the length of someone’s life that is important or the quality of it. And is it the actual quality in comparison to others’ lives, or is it the quality that you make of it. In other words… by changing the lives of certain societies that may be poor and dying of illnesses that are curable, we are changing other aspects, including, inevitably, their perception of what is possible. As they see more lives being saved and more opportunities.. more material possessions… won’t they just keep wanting more? Isn’t that a major problem with our society? So many people have so much, and yet they just want more. What if we’re turning them into us? I thought that perhaps by respecting their culture, being open and with my desire to absorb everything about their culture, I would not be imposing my own, but one particular conversation really made me think….

In Arusha, I was documenting a Mobility Clinic that makes wheelchairs and special chairs for children with cerebral palsy. There are 4 men and 1 woman, but the 1 woman was out sick for the first 2 days I was there. Unfortunately, they didn’t have many orders due to a lack of sponsors and a lack of a program to find sponsors, so they had a lot of down time during which we discussed problems, projects ideas, their lives, and the Tanzanian society. We were talking about women’s roles, which in Tanzania are mostly to stay at home and cook, clean, and take care of the children. While I plan to cook, clean, and take care of my children, I also plan to have my own career and really make a difference in more people’s lives than just those of my family. Talking to them about this, they were surprisingly receptive. Perhaps because they work with the 1 woman who I later met and is very curious, and full of desire to learn. They started out by saying that women should stay at home because otherwise, who will, and on top of that, if a woman makes money, she will have an affair. I argued that while that may be a big problem among successful, working Tanzanian women, I felt that was more a product of societies’ view on working women rather than a product of them working. I proposed to them a situation where wives worked and perhaps made more money than they did. I asked how they would feel, and they were quick to say they would feel less manly and would not be at all pleased. They would feel she had all the power. On top of that, the rest of society would look down on them as being less of a man, and not capable of supporting his family. And then I asked how the way they treated her would change. They realized that they would probably treat her poorly and pick fights, taking out their frustration and feelings of inadequacy on her. Then they agreed with me that perhaps society was the problem not the working woman (though I was sure to mention that the woman was wrong for having an affair). In a typical situation, I would have been pleased that the discussion (one among many like these, the rest of which I can also share with you when I get back if you wish) had ended with me making a good argument that had “won” the “debate,” but I realized that though I thought I was doing it for the better, and in fact really I was just having what I thought was an interesting discussion, I had basically imposed my views upon them. What if they’re right? What if by women working (or rather, more like by having both parents working) the quality of the society will decrease? Just because I don’t think it will doesn’t mean it won’t… after all what do I know?

There are other immediate problems that arise from our "helping." Noone would say that saving lives is bad. However, if we go into Uganda lets say, and save every life that we can, the natural selection process will be interrupted. The already overpopulated nation will be even more populated. Families that can barely afford to raise their living children and send them to school will have even more living children to take care of. Noone wants to say lets let these children die, but we have to develop all aspects in parallel which is no easy task. We must educate, empower, and (forgive the cliche) teach them how to fish instead of just blindly saving lives and treating diseases. Perhaps this is something everyone else already realized... but its something I recently discovered.. and it is no easy feat. There are very few organizations or individuals that work on all aspects at once and there are very few ngos that work together. Progress isn't being done in parallel, but rather at their own paces. I cannot emphasize enough how important parallel development is. Otherwise our helping may end up hurting.

btw, i know the pictures are kind of random, the first is of one of the men (luke) from mobility care spoking a wheel... and the second is of a coffee bean tree. yes, they grow on trees. and they're green. weird...


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