Slate recently ran a piece by Emily Meehan, an aid worker who weighs the pros and cons of giving a young Congolese boy money for school:
It was a long time before anyone explicitly told me that they didn’t like what I was doing with Aimé. I knew that I was breaking an aid-worker code, one that says it’s unprofessional for an individual aid worker to single out an individual “beneficiary” and help them with their own money.
No one would actually talk about this code, just as they didn’t talk about the code against discussing why you left home and came to work in a warzone. In fact, people didn’t talk about a lot of things, and I sometimes think that’s why we had become expatriates—to avoid talking about our lives and to avoid our lives.
Still, I had heard a number of vague reasons why I shouldn’t help Aimé. One was that if you help an individual, they will become dependent on your help, and when you stop helping them, which is inevitable, they will be crushed. Aid agencies do that all the time, though. They help a group of people here one day and then stop another day. Besides, almost everyone broke the code.
The dependency argument is a compelling one, but, as Meehan points out, one that applies to all aid. Aside from official aid and charitable interventions like the one in the story, many local staff becomes dependent on expatriate aid workers for their livelihood.
Meehan’s piece is insightful, but a little naive at times. It perfectly captures the ambivalence and uncertainty aid workers feel about giving to specific people – such concerns boil over at the end of the piece when Meehan temporarily suspects her beneficiary, Aimé, of lying to get more money out of her:
“And they stole my money,” said Aimé quietly, smiling and looking at the ground.
“What money?” I asked.
“All the money you gave me,” he said, still looking at the ground and smiling. My little brother used to smile when he lied.
“Who’s they?” I asked, in shock.
“I don’t know,” Aimé replied.
After thinking for a minute, I told him I didn’t believe him.
“You think I would trick you?” said Aimé.
…..I was confused and upset. I realized that I didn’t know anything. I didn’t know whether Aimé was tricking me. I didn’t know why he would trick me. I didn’t know if anything I have told you about his life was true, and I didn’t know if foreign aid works.
I think part of the frustration over helping individuals is driven by the contradictions that arise: aid workers work on programmes that are meant to, directly or indirectly, help people in recipient countries. If we were driven purely by altruism, we should be working in the programmes that offer the greatest chance of improving people’s lives. The desire to spend time outside the programme helping people might be driven by a desire to maximise time spent doing good, but more likely it is a silent acknowledgement that we don’t know whether or not our aid work is doing any good. Otherwise, if we wanted to help more people, we could just put in a few more hours of work per day, or return a hunk of your pay check.
Perhaps there are less rational reasons that most of us have been in Meehan’s shoes before: we have an innate desire to see our charity up close. We have to question who’s needs we are really satisfying when we single out people to ‘save.’