Mike On Purpose

Finding purpose in the twenty-first century

Posts Tagged ‘poverty’

Are We Asking the Right Questions?

Posted by mikeonpurpose on April 25, 2012

It should be quite obvious that I am a proponent of international volunteering in developing countries–I wouldn’t be doing it if I felt otherwise.  But the question that always informs my decision to volunteer is what I think I am accomplishing, and how volunteering fits into the bigger questions surrounding the poverty that exists in developing countries.  I have observed, from paging through the websites of some organizations that send volunteers abroad or that do international relief projects–and I will not name names here–that some seem to suffer from an unfortunate hubris.  You will sometimes see these organizations bragging about how they offer a “proven solution” to the problems of poverty in developing nations.  This is, I am afraid to say, nonsense.

It is indeed wonderful when non-profits form partnerships with local communities abroad that can lead to greater opportunities for those who live in difficult circumstances.  I am all for that.  But let’s not overstate what an NGO or volunteer organization can accomplish, and let’s not pretend that we are “solving” anything at a deeper level with these kinds of activities.  Giving people more tools to cope with an unjust economic system may help individuals and communities negotiate their ways through that system, but it will not end the injustice.  Certainly, people in dire circumstances need to be in charge of their own destinies, and the assistance that we give should not be about Westerners taking charge of their lives, but rather about a partnership between peoples of different cultures–that’s a given.

But when you travel to a developing country, what should be obvious is that the problems of poverty are deeply systemic.  In countries, such as those in Latin America that I have visited, that are controlled by powerful economic oligarchies that control most of the wealth and land, where these oligarchies employ violence, war, and genocide as the means in which to defend their privilege against those who want simply a fairer piece of the pie, then to say that the problems of inequality can be solved by giving poor people the tools to better function in a society like that–well, that’s just more than a little naive.   (I also think here is something just a little condescending about the attitude that some organization can sweep into a developing country and find a way to rescue its poorest people from their dire circumstances through some “proven technique”.  Local communities in these countries are fighting their own struggles.  What they need and ask for us in the West is partnership, and the solutions to economic injustice will ultimately come out of their own efforts.)

I think that international aid to a developing country is akin to giving an aspirin to a person who has an infection.  It treats the symptom, but it does not cure the disease.  Knowing this doesn’t mean that we stop giving out the aspirin.  But it does mean that we have to recognize the deeper issues that are at stake.

To underscore these points, I would like to recommend a wonderful video of a talk given at Swarthmore College by a woman who is originally from Rwanda and who speaks to these issues directly.  I think that anyone who is interested in international volunteering or other issues relating to international development in poorer parts of the world should see this video.  Among the insightful comments that the speaker, Stephanie Nyombayire, has to say, are these:

I am not saying, “Don’t donate a meal to someone who is starving.” What I am saying is, how can we design campaigns the change the system, or at least undermine the system, rather than sustain it?  These pictures that we see and the lives that people are leading are not the result of, did not come from a vacuum. They are the result of a man-made system, a system made by men and women like you and me, and maintained by men and women like you and me…

Yes, do give where you can, but most importantly, question the relationships that have led to a unidirectional flow of resources…

Instead of fighting the war on poverty, why aren’t we fighting the war on pathological power?

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The return to normal

Posted by mikeonpurpose on December 14, 2010

When I returned about a month ago from spending some time in the second poorest nation in the Western Hemisphere, I was emotionally drained.  I had only spent a little over a week in Nicaragua, but that experience was deeply affecting.  I felt a measure of sadness about the poverty I witnessed, along with a deep affection for the people I spent time with.  I spent the first few days after my return looking up Nicaraguan charities that I could give money to.  I just wanted to help more, to make more of  a difference.

After a while, of course, as the everyday, mundane details of life here in the US begin to occupy my mind, I slowly but inevitably returned to something akin to my  pre-trip  emotional stasis.  I am not sure if that is a good thing or a bad thing.

The thing about short-term voluntourism trips is that one’s contribution tends to be rather limited.  We worked on a project that was mostly managed by professional masons.  We did help in ways whatever that we could–hauling bricks, helping with the laying of bricks–but a lot of the serious  work was done by professionals who were hired for the project.

In some ways, our assistance was more about emotional support and making connections.  Some of my most memorable moments include the conversations I had with the people of the village.  For example, there were the brother and sister, ages seven and nine, who seemed tickled to death to converse with strange foreigners from a land far away.   They knew their own ages but not their birthdays–a jarring bit of cultural shock as I came to learn that in poor communities there,  people often didn’t know the day they were born.

There was Fabio, the mason who three of us volunteers worked with over a few days, who would address Phil, a fellow voluntourist, as “Fili”.  There was Ofilio, an older man with a leathery tan who wore shoes with holes in them, but managed to dress up a little more for the final fiesta before we parted.  Ofilio asked me at that fiesta if my camera was expensive.  It pained me and embarrassed me to realize that I was holding in my hand a device that would cost most of those people several months’ salary.

I was as affected by the poverty these people lived in, with unsanitary water and in many cases without even an outhouse, as I was moved by the gentle and kind spirit they exhibited.

Spending time, even a short period of time, in a developing country in the tropics is a trying experience that affects you in significant ways.  The time has passed now since I came back, and I am settling into my routine as a more privileged citizen of a developed country.   Of course, even in the US, privileges and wealth are not equitably distributed, and in many ways the inequality here is getting worse.  Poverty is a problem that plagues all present and past human societies, and it is one that should not exist if we had the will power to address it.

I said earlier that I am not sure if it is a good thing or a bad thing that I settled back into my routine.  On the one hand, I think it is pretty hard to go on perpetually in the sort of emotionally affected state that I was in when I came back.  Life does go on, after all.  On the other hand, maybe we who are more privileged should be a little more plagued by the suffering of others, maybe we need not to compartmentalize things so much, and maybe we need to be prodded and inspired to do more than we do.

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Quick fixes versus long term change

Posted by mikeonpurpose on July 1, 2010

People volunteer because they want to make a difference.  And yet it is clear that spending a week, two weeks, or month doing short-term volunteering in a developing country is not going to solve the underlying problems of poverty that plague certain parts of the world.   Looking at the big picture can lead one to despair, but perhaps it is a despair borne of misplaced expectations.

To begin with, I think that if sees the purpose of a volunteer trip as being that of “solving problems” then one definitely runs the risk of setting one’s self up for disappointment. At the very least, this may take on the condescending air of defining one’s role as that of savior instead of seeing the project as a form of assistance in a mutually respectful cooperative venture.  A recent online article on voluntourism quotes Linda Stuart from Global Citizens Network, who

gave the example of the volunteer who, when visiting a village with a slow-moving building project, said, “Let’s get a bulldozer and get this done!” Visitors may think they know best, but Stuart said the clinic is far more likely to be a successful and valuable addition to the community when locals are primarily responsible for its construction. This approach also reduces the risk of a community becoming dependent on outside help, “quick fixes,” or donations for what it needs.

But there is another thing to consider.  I think that if we are not careful, the “solving problems” mentality may lead to confusing the distinction between treating symptoms and curing the disease.  Building a clinic in a community addresses  the immediate need for a clinic, to be sure, but does it not solve any of the root problems of  economic injustice that resulted in the need for volunteer help to get that clinic built in the first place.  The global economic problems of inequality and political repression will not be solved by voluntourism, but that doesn’t mean that voluntourism doesn’t serve a valuable purpose.

I did not invent the following analogy, but I think it has some use here.  Imagine someone going to the doctor because they have a boil.   They need to have the boil lanced, because that addresses the immediate need, but at the same time there is an underlying bacterial infection that needs to be treated as well.  These are not mutually exclusive responses to the boil.  We can address immediate needs and also look towards the broader and more complex issues that underlie the symptom.

I am reminded of the following rather famous quote from Dom Helder Camara,:

“When I give food to the poor, they call me a saint. When I ask why the poor have no food, they call me a communist.”

I think it is hard to find many people who do not support feeding the poor.   But asking the hard questions–including the one that demands to know why the poor have no food–then you run into entrenched interests that may not appreciate that the question is being asked.

That’ s the price we may have to pay.  The point is that I think we need to both give food to the poor and also ask why the poor have no food.   These are complementary priorities, all directed by a solidarity and sympathy for the struggles of others who are impoverished financially but rich in determination and spirit.

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