Who are we really helping?
“There is much more to doing good work than ‘making a difference’. There is the principle of first do no harm. There is the idea that those who are being helped ought to be consulted over the matters that concern them.” – Teju Cole in The White Savior Industrial Complex.
After reading an article written by a fellow Peace Corps Volunteer in South Africa on the TOMS model, and articles by others about the ‘white-savior industrial complex’ and the similar topic of volunteer tourism, it got me thinking a lot about sustainable development in rural countries, and how us Americans are influencing villagers. There is so much going on in the media about poverty tourism- volunteers who visit third world countries to build houses or give out food for a week, take a bunch of pictures, and return to their privileged lives feeling really good about themselves and their work. In my opinion, any help is better than no help at all. However, as people who wish to contribute to humanity, we must examine the different types of aid we are giving, and understand what long-term impacts that ‘help’ will have on the people receiving such generosity.
As an HIV prevention and community outreach volunteer, my ability to make an impact on the lives of villagers can be quite large or quite insignificant in the long run- depending on the approach I take to development.
Peace Corps volunteers have many projects we work on throughout our service. Some are impressively sustainable- incorporating many stakeholders and structured in such a way that once we leave, those projects will successfully continue indefinitely. And then there are short term projects, like distributing TOMS shoes or Mother Bears. Things like this have a small, obvious impact- providing footwear to children who run amuck in the villages barefoot, thus decreasing their risks of injury and viral contraction. The first thought that pops into mind when seeing a shoeless child is – “Give them shoes”.
This is the perspective I had just before leaving my privileged life in the first world. But after being here for over 5 months and seeing first hand the struggles of villagers, the lack of opportunity and drive, I am beginning to shift my thinking.
We must take a step back from such sympathy and asks ourselves “Why does this child not have shoes?” and “What is a sustainable way to provide shoes for this child, not only once, but continually for that child’s lifetime?” Buy him a pair of shoes is the easy answer to the only part of the question. The harder, sustainable solution is to find a way to help that child and/or his family create an income-generating opportunity to work and earn income for themselves, and then they can afford to buy shoes and whatever else they need for the rest of their lives, ideally.
Many family members and friends of mine have offered, and continue to offer, to send money, clothing, shoes, toys and other consumer goods to me so I can then distribute them to the children in my village. As much as I am endlessly thankful for the offer, and totally impressed by the concern and generosity of my loved ones back home, I must graciously deny all such offers. I firmly stand by my wish to make sustainable change in my community, and I do not want to offer handouts. I am adamant about traveling down the long, hard road of capacity building and skills transfer.
It is heartbreaking to see villagers who cannot afford to provide shoes for their own children, let alone luxury items like books and toys. There are times where I come close to pulling the shirt off my back and giving it to a child so I don’t have to see him shivering in the cold. But I have to ask myself- who am I really helping here by doing this? Am I doing more harm than good?? Handouts just encourage the stereotype that all Americans are filthy rich, money spewing out of our pockets, and we come to South Africa to make it rain all over the poor. It is really, really hard to live and work in a village where people think I am here to give handouts. The ‘rich American’ stereotype promotes harassment, and causes a lot of volunteers to be mugged/robbed at knife point because everyone thinks Americans have money.
I still do support TOMS shoes and Mother Bear projects, and I do support donation-based models because they do have am impact. I have seen the small, yet satisfactory feeling of providing consumer products to children in need. I visited a primary school last week and witnessed first hand how big of a difference TOMS shoes can make in a child’s life. Children cannot attend school without shoes. If the family cannot afford shoes then the child doesn’t go to school. Like I’ve said, I believe that any help is better than no help at all, but the fight against poverty cannot be fought only through buying fashionable shoes in America.
In addition to first-world consumeristic tendencies like buying TOMS, I strongly encourage those back in the States to find sustainable ways to have an impact in your own communities, whether it be through beach clean ups, community gardens, assisting in community centers and soup kitchens, or starting up income-generating projects to benefit those in need.
Many volunteers have started income-generating projects with women in their villages who have special skills such as jewelry making or tapestry design, they just lack basic business model understanding and structure. The women work diligently to create beautiful, custom pieces and sell them for reasonable prices. All of the work is done by the villagers, and all profits go directly back to the villagers. The volunteer is merely there to help facilitate, aid in finding people interested in purchasing, and ideally when the volunteer leaves the village- these women will have created a small business that they can be proud to call their own. These small projects are the types of ways us volunteers can make a more sustainable impact on our communities.
I rock TOMS nearly every day, but my main desire is to pursue community development, and help my fellow villagers learn the meaning of hard work. In the non-governmental organization I work for, we have a small greenery project. We have provided a space for gardening, and trained community members who are HIV positive to grow crops for their own consumption and also to sell and earn income for themselves. This project has many benefits- mainly it increases the nutrition and overall health of the sick, as well as creating an income opportunity for those who could not find work due to stigma and discrimination revolving around their HIV status. Once they have grown to acknowledge their own strengths and abilities, I’m sure they will strive to continually earn income and provide for themselves and their families – no handouts needed here. ❤