The world is a complex place. So complex, in fact, that most of us don’t even know exactly what our role in global society is. We don’t realize the extent of the cultural diversity between us and the people 10, 100, or 10,000 miles away from us. We like to live in our own bubbles of comfort and forget that not everyone thinks the way we do and wants the same things we do. I’m not just talking about corrupt political leaders or particularly self centered individuals, I’m talking about the humanitarians of the Western World. “But they do so much to help those in need!”, you may be thinking. Maybe they do, maybe they think they do, but the situation is more complicated than that. This video gives some examples of how not everyone who claims to have good intentions actually does, and when they do, they aren’t always enough.
How many times do you hear about individuals, aid organizations or even church groups going on mission trips to impoverished nations, and then coming back with stories about the relationships they made with the locals, and all the great things they accomplished? If you grew up in a particularly privileged or religious (or both) community, probably pretty often. But how many of those trips were really as impactful as claimed? Linda Polman would argue not very many.
To see why, let’s think through how a typical mission trip goes from the viewpoint of a local. First, a bunch of strange people come into your hometown, claiming they’re there to help you. Help would be cool. You’re starving, you have no choice but to give your kids water that will make them sick, and you don’t have adequate shelter. Maybe these people can work with you to get some water pumps set up, fix the hole in your wall that’s letting rainwater damage the inside of your home, and set up some jobs so that the people in your community can live comfortably. But that’s not they way these people see it. They want you to look up to them and see you as their savior. They think you want to be able to drive around in a shiny car and play on a computer in a memory foam bed with a Starbucks latte at your side. So what do they do? They give you that latte that will kill your stomach because you’re not used to caffeine, and then they take a picture to show all their friends what a great thing they did. Then, they interact with the people in your community for a few days. They keep treating you to first world luxuries because they feel guilty because they have things that you don’t. They fail to realize that what you want is to be able to provide a healthy life for your family. The worst part of it all is that a week later, they’re back to living their comfortable lives, talking about what a great thing they did for you, while you’re back to living exactly how you were before they came.
The idea of a ‘white savior’ coming and thinking they’re fixing the developing world’s problems is one of the issues Polman brings up. Another is the way charity organizations often run. Instead of working together to get everyone in the world what they need, people often waste money trying to get people to donate to THEIR specific charity so THEY can look good. This is what she meant by “Aid organizations are businesses dressed up as Mother Teresa.” These organizations often have incentives other than wanting to help. They give westerners jobs, compete with each other, and spend donated money on things other than the cause they were donated for, all while holding the image of helping the poor.
The media doesn’t help the cause. Journalists often report the great things that are done by charity organizations and fail to mention what is really needed, like long term help. Governments in the United Nation should work together long term to make sure everyone has the resources to live comfortably, rather than sending a few billion dollars to an impoverished nation and calling it good. But what needs to be done goes beyond the media and government. As humans, we can all make an effort to learn what our fellow human beings need, and to help them get it. We need to stop thinking it’s okay to look down on people who have less than us and work with them to find out how we can best help them. When you see a person who needs help, you help them. Not because it will make you look good, but because they are humans, they have rights, and they need help.