What is humanitarianism? Charity? Aid? How do you do it? Fundamentally, how do you help the “under-privileged” masses of the world?
I would definitely not use words nearly as grand as “humanitarian” to describe it, but last summer K and I were lucky enough and delighted to go to sub-Saharan Africa to lend a hand to a project for a few weeks. I like to think we helped a bit, though we left feeling rather unsatisfied, that we hadn’t done as much, or given as much of ourselves, as we had hoped to.
Don’t get me wrong, I think they are doing great work down there, and I feel absolutely blessed to have been able to add a tiny bit to it. Children need love and attention. They need to see that others care about them and their wellbeing. Hopefully we could help with these, and the smiles on their faces were well worth the price.
But I can’t help but notice a certain under-current to the projects. We gave them toothbrushes and toothpaste, toy cars and coloring books. They made felt flowers and later, jewelry. In April they decorated Easter baskets.
All of these projects reflect the mistaken Western addiction to materialism. It’s stuff. Again, please don’t get me wrong, I am not attacking these programs by a long stretch. A kid making a bracelet and giving it to Mom is absolutely precious; creative energy, tangible production of something, and gift giving are all beautiful and powerful things important to the wellbeing of the human spirit.
But on a certain level, it’s a plastic trinket. In can only provide so much benefit, and all the decorations in the world are not going to lift a people up. There has to be something better than the underlying message that happiness, progress, and success have anything to do with possessions. But what?
(A quick aside, I now wonder about the wisdom of the tooth brushes. I didn’t examine any kids’ mouths, but they seemed to have healthy teeth, far healthier without our sugar and high fructose corn syrup. I am wondering about the possibility of toothbrushes/paste disrupting an oral system that is already in balance, “fixing” something that isn’t broken, then making them dependent on the products. Kinda like shampoo. What’s that expression again about “paved with good intentions…”?)
This summer K and I will be volunteering in Nepal for two months, teaching English classes in Bhaktapur. We are utterly thrilled at the invaluable chance to experience another culture on a level deeper than pure tourism (we’ll be staying with a local family), to get to spend the summer in such an amazingly beautiful place, to meet people there who are not just making money from the interaction…you know, “real” people.
English is undoubtedly useful in the modern world; it is the world’s second language. At my job in Antwerp we had people from dozens of countries speaking dozens of languages, and the in-house common language was always English. On the street in Estonia I listened to a conversation between a Korean man and an Argentinean woman…in English. Business and product slogans in Belgium are usually in English.
English is the default language of tourism and internationalism. Knowing English will give these kids an advantage in a globalized age.
But what does that “advantage” really mean? Better access to tourism income, definitely. Better chance of business or international employment, certainly. But still! Is that the best we can do?
That’s an honest question. Is that the best we can do?
If we brought all these kids into the global economy, would we really be enriching their lives (no horrible pun intended) or just bringing them into an economic system based on the near poverty of the masses? Are all employed people in the Western World all that happy and fulfilled?
(There are of course intensely significant differences in essentials like access to clean water, food, basic healthcare, and education, and in that sense there is of course a drastic and shameful disparity between First and Third World countries.)
What if we could figure out how to help the “developing” nations develop into something BETTER than the “First” world. What if instead of injecting materialism and employment rates, we could give them… What? An opportunity to build something better. To teach us.
The paradigm of Westerners going to the Third World to help save the Poor Little Things is rather arrogant and self-righteous. This, combined with our dedication to material wealth is reflected in the language. “Developing” countries, “enriching” them so they can reach a “Golden” Age, like us in the “First World.” (That last one is particularly ironic in Africa, where humans came from.) We assume we have all the answers, and that everyone else wants to be just like us.
Developing nations. Developing into what? Suburbs? Is that our highest goal? And on a planet that human behaviour is already wrecking, is that responsible, much less even possible? I am highly doubtful that the WTO and IMF are humanity’s saviors.
So what else can we do? (I am not going to touch religion with a 40 foot pole right now.)
Green jobs? If Nepal became the leading supplier of wind turbines and solar panels, would that usher in a Golden Age? (Reminds me of this article about 870,000 homes in rural Pakistan using solar panels…and a salute to the World Bank for it’s role there.)
Subsistence agriculture? Does food security hold the key to success in the 21st Century? It is certainly not to be underestimated in the era of Peak Oil. (Look out, China!)
Last weekend we went to a cultural fair, which included a few tables of people working in projects overseas. One of these is restoring the gardens of a 17th century palace complex of the Maharajahs in Rajnagar, India. The project aims to introduce organic farming there, revitalize the cultural site, generate local employment, and integrate them into the emerging context of sustainable tourism.
Their motto is “For and by the local people” and they are trying to faithfully reproduce the historical agricultural practices of the area, updated with modern knowledge, technology, and environmental awareness.
I think that’s fantastic. Using the products of our bizarre and self-destructive path to post-industrial First World globalization wealth, maybe we can help the masses (on whose backs and poverty that development partially depended) build something better for themselves. And then if we’re lucky, and they don’t hold a grudge, maybe they’ll share that better way with us, because guess what, “They” and “Us” are the same thing now.