Guilty and Unskilled: The Problem with Do-Gooders

If you’re a member of the developed world then you probably know a lot of people who like to ‘help’ others. They travel the world in search of the disenfranchised and squalid, hoping to lend a first world helping hand to the small and the dejected. In their defense, often they’re just doing what they can. And they do it with a kind of fevered eagerness that only wears off when they’ve realized it’s time to move on and get that Master’s degree.

Now there are many different kinds of helpers in the developed world. And I’m not going to shit on all of them, because a great many are doing more for people than I or others ever will, but I am going to critique some varieties of it, mostly what I consider the totally random and unsustainable kind.

I have some relatives that engage in these kind of guilt-ridden, developed-world purging sort of activities that Americans tend to engage in during and just after their bachelor’s degrees. The first one recently made a run to Tajikistan where she was educating women on menstruation. The second loves smuggling himself into Tibet, studying the culture, and complaining about the evil Han Chinese government.

Neither, I think, know a whole a lot about what they’re doing. In the first case, while I totally agree with and understand the importance of destigmatizing menstruation cycles, it is hardly priority one in a nation as crippled by poverty as Tajikistan. In the second, our Tibet-runner’s understanding of Tibet’s history is only 60 years old, ignoring entirely the nuances and complexities of that region’s relationship with theocratic feudalism. Did I mention he’s a Buddhist?

All this, however, is beside the point since neither’s actions redound to any permanent, lasting, or shall we say, sustainable good. It does, however, seem to make them feel better and I’m sure there are some very ephemeral and atomized benefits. I guess that’s better than nothing if I’m being honest.

Another relative, however, is actually saving lives in Sierra Leone with her knowledge of medicine. She is helping to combat ebola among other things in a country desperately in need of medical personnel. Again, people do what they can. And in this case my Sierra Leone relative has the expertise to achieve something sustainable, like actually saving lives. My other two examples don’t have this skill-set.

But that doesn’t mean there aren’t better things they could be doing if they genuinely wanted to help and save and make a difference. They could remain state-side and volunteer at a homeless shelter or they could clear rubble from the streets of a recently damaged city. Of course, none of these activities would be as sexy as jetting off to an exotic and poverty-besieged nation and building a school no one can use or lecturing on a topic that will remain irrelevant for another two decades, but they would have lasting and meaningful impacts. They would also require far fewer resources aside from time while rendering an immediately functional benefit.

Ultimately what I’m getting at here is that many people don’t help because they want lasting change. They help because it is therapeutic. They’re not doing it for others but for themselves. They feel bored, guilty, or ambivalent about their futures and so they jump on the nearest helpy-helperton bandwagon, roll up in some dusty town of brown people, and start spreading feminist abstractions, colorful buildings no one can use, or starting projects that will break down in less than a year.

Personally, it doesn’t matter to me whether you’re doing it for others or for yourself. Either way someone is helped. But what does bother me is the self-righteous attitude of these guilt-ridden college students who have time enough to spend two years in Ghana but not 3 hours to study the nation, cause, institution, or people they’re ‘helping’. Nor do they give a thought to what the most sustainable and urgent aid could be. Immediacy doesn’t matter, but what is fun, sexy, and big does. Schools with no teachers to teach in them and children with no time to attend. Wells with no one to repair them. And subject matter that is irrelevant to everyday life.

I’ll say it again. These people still do more than any diatribe spewing tumblr feminist has, but maybe doing something shouldn’t be enough to get applause. Maybe if we glorified results as opposed to attempts, thoughts, and effort, we’d see a lot more people making meaningful, sustainable change. These projects need to have endings with real and positive results. Or they have to have the capability to continue to yield, in the absence of volunteers, real and positive results.

What I’ve written here has been mostly anecdote and my personal views on the topic. But for less anecdote and more facts I highly recommend you read Michael Maren’s, The Road to Hell. I also recommend reading up on what happens after all the helper’s show up and leave a place. Click on some of the links provided to see specific examples of what I’ve discussed here. Then, the next time someone talks about how much help they’ve rendered abroad, ask them that simple question, And?


One Comment on “Guilty and Unskilled: The Problem with Do-Gooders

  1. Pingback: Areas do-gooders can gain (1/12/15) | geogamut – developing knowledge near spaceship earth

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