[A Close Point of View] How to help without harming?
The good can be found in almost each one of us, and sooner or later it somehow reveals itself. Only a very few individuals derive pleasure from seeing others’s suffering, and usually it’s a result of some kind of psychological disorder.
Sometimes we are moved by the suffering of a child, while some other time we get impressed by displays of exceptional courage. There are people, who will shed a tear when they see a suffering animal. Nearly every day the media show us stories with which we can identify ourselves, and which trigger a need to help. I will not create any hierarchy of compassionate feelings to decide which cases should be prioritized. Each person will evaluate it differently. We have various levels of sensitivity and different value systems which are affected by numerous factors. But I would like to analyze the way that leads from an impulse that triggers an action to its results. Primum non nocere (‘first, do no harm’) is not only one of the principles of medical practitioners. Those of us who want to help in other ways also need to keep this mind. Here, I will be referring to humanitarian activities, not only our own but also those that I am familiar with.
Many will ask: what negative results of providing help can there be? How can we harm someone while trying to assist them? In many cases, a person in need will be happy when we reach out to him or her, giving some attention to their fate. Most probably they will be grateful, while at the same time giving us satisfaction from doing something good. And there is nothing wrong with it. We tend to more often repeat actions related to positive feelings than the ones that we associate with unpleasant ones. It refers equally to donors of funds and to persons that provide assistance on the ground. Most often we help after being triggered by some emotions, rarely thinking about the complexity of the issue. Of course, I am not talking here about unequivocal and delicate cases, such as requests for aid for costly medical treatments or therapies. In such cases, a different problem occurs, but I will say a few words about it at the end. Now I would like to focus on the issue of aid dependence.
Could helping ever be harmful?
We need to differentiate between aid dependence and deliberate taking advantage of it. These are separate issues. There are people who have decided to make a business out of praying on others’ compassion. At some point, there were many organized groups in Poland using women and children for begging. I think we have all come across this phenomenon. When I talk about dependence, I mean a situation where a person, a community, or even an entire country depends on someone’s action to be able to function. Sometimes such a state of affairs is created deliberately, as we can see in post-colonial states. In this way, great powers establish their hegemony in various regions of the world. These are actions on a global scale and a common man has no influence over it whatsoever. But it is worth knowing that the socio-economic problems of many countries often result from interference of various external forces in their domestic affairs.
But let’s leave geopolitics and focus on economics. It is possible to make one dependent on external support not only through foreign aid, but also by creating (even unconsciously) conditions hampering people’s self-development and education. Sometimes independent factors, such as natural disasters, are to blame, but most often it’s a result of wars and terrorism. The latter is applied to achieve political goals, but it also aims at creating an atmosphere of fear as well as economic crisis, hence having a long-term negative impact on the victims. In Iraq, ISIS terrorists murdered men, namely heads of the families, to make it difficult for women to provide for their families. Without proper education, they will not be able to work and earn a living. People who in short period of time lost pretty much everything are in a need of aid. Unfortunately, this aid is often ineffective and focused on something that is called humanitarian aid recovery.
Millions that return
If you haven’t heard about this phenomenon, I will explain it now. Some countries, especially the rich and developed ones, allocate large amounts of funds for humanitarian aid around the world. But it has little to do with altruism. Rather, it is a well-thought strategy bordering on economics and marketing. Not only are such countries perceived as humanitarian leaders; at the same time, they also pursue their goals. In many places, once military conflicts are over, brands from countries that have provided humanitarian assistance there spring up like mushrooms, taking over local markets. It is not coincidental and it doesn’t happen spontaneously. In destroyed territories, advisers and companies appear immediately to coordinate their reconstruction. Often, that professionals from donor countries are employed and paid from aid funds, and in addition they bring their products over to the detriment of local markets. If a country ‘A’ wants to rebuild a hospital in a country ‘B’, most often a project, engineers, materials, and technology come from the country ‘A’ which has offered its help. In the best case scenario, local workers will be employed as manpower, although that’s not always the case. In this way, a $10 million project brings return amounting to tens of percent in the form of support for its own market. It doesn’t matter that the same project could be created by a local, jobless engineer and that required products and equipment could be purchased from shop owners and retailers from the beneficiary country helping them provide for their families. Also, tapping into the local resources would often be much cheaper as the costs of transport are massive.
I can feel like a human being again
Recovery of humanitarian aid is only one of many harmful mechanisms. Often, humanitarian activities are badly planned. I will give you an example of such a project which I saw with my own eyes in Iraq. One organization built toilets and showers for the residents of a ‘wild’ camp in Khanke. It would have been a great idea as there is no plumbing installation in tents and people need to maintain some basic hygiene. Sadly, brand new showers made of sandwich panels stopped working as fast as they were built. The project included everything apart from the most basic element needed for the proper functioning of the showers, namely… the water. It ran out after several days making the facility useless. In Iraq, the water is a scarce commodity and someone would have had to pay to bring it to the shower facilities. The project did not predict that. After several months winter came and some families decided to live there. Sandwich panel protects from the cold better than a tent, so despite some reservations, people occupied empty facilities. These families are still living there to this day.
There are other bigger and smaller mistakes in the way help is provided, most of which we are not aware of. The examples I will talk about refer not only to large organizations but also to the attitudes of individual persons. We can come across them mainly in our part of the world which we call Western civilization. Charity tourism emerged not long time ago. It is popular mainly among young people who instead of regular holidays want to experience an adventure and at the same time, according to their false understanding, help people from the so-called ‘Third World’. There are specialized tourist companies that offer trips to the furthest corners of the world where with no skills or training one can become a teacher, an educator, or a supervisor of children from poor families. In the offer, there are also trips aimed at saving wild species of animals, forests, and many others. In reality, they have nothing to do with actual helping and their main goal is to cater to a client’s requests. Of course, these are extreme cases, but they are on the rise. Our foundation also receives requests from persons who would like to go to Iraq with us believing that they are competent enough to act on the ground. When we ask them what exactly they would like to do over there, usually they have no answer. They want to travel and see a different world, but they have no idea how this could truly benefit people in need. Especially that we have said many times that our projects are implemented by our local partners from Iraq.
Of course, every time we patiently explain the entire process of humanitarian aid, what our trips entail and what our expectations are. And we have quite a lot of them when we take someone with us. But imagine how you would feel if you were a doctor living with a family in a camp for internally displaced people, with no job and no money, seeing someone of the same profession arriving from Germany or France to treat your children. And most often for a salary that would be enough for you to survive for several months. In addition, such a person would need a translator because he doesn’t speak a word in your language. A similar feeling would accompany a teacher, an engineer, or a construction worker not being able to provide for their families.
Similarly, material donations can be purchased and distributed on the ground. Food and clothes brought over from Europe are handed out in refugee camps, small villages, and towns on many continents. But local industries are unable to compete with free aid. Hence, shops and factories go bankrupt undermining the economy even more. Based on my experience, I know that people gladly give away clothes and food to charity organizations, but it doesn’t make much sense to transfer them to the far corners of the world. It is better to support local economies – in a longer-term their recovery will improve the overall situation. But then humanitarian organizations wouldn’t be able to produce charts with statistics which for many of them are proof of effectiveness. It is more impressive to display a chart showing aid provided to 10,000 people in the form of a winter hat, rather than a picture of one family that has received a chance for a better life.
Do help, but do it wisely
Everything I have written above refers mainly to charity organizations active in regions affected by armed conflicts or natural disasters. When we want to help our neighbors, relatives, or even strangers living in our vicinity, most probably we will not make such an analysis. Usually, we are unable to give a job to someone who asks us for support. We are unable to provide self-development opportunities to a person who could improve his or her situation but lacks relevant qualifications. But we can verify what the money we donate is spent on. I’ve mentioned that at the beginning because my wish is that a culture of informed and effective aid develops in our country. I know from experience that humanitarianism is a privilege and a huge responsibility. Many of our fundraisers can be checked on the internet. Not long ago I opened one on the zrzutka.pl portal. It is similar to the one which has been active for two years on siepomaga.pl. Both raise funds for the educational center Ourbridge in Khanke. I wanted to see if establishing another source of funding will bring similar effects. To open this fundraiser, I had to go through a detailed verification process, send scans of documents, KRS data, and so on. The procedure is similar to public fundraising, namely old-school collecting money to cans. Every such fundraising needs to be registered and accounted for (at the beginning of each year) for us to be able to legally stand in front of you and ask you to support terrorism victims. Below you will find a link to a portal where all registered fundraisers in Poland are listed. Please do check such things. It is very easy, and it will help you to help others wisely and responsibly.
Here you can verify registered fundraisers (in Poland) http://zbiorki.gov.pl/zbiorki/index