Up close and personal

Is it appropriate to single out individuals for help?

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.’

4 thoughts on “Up close and personal

  1. Andy

    June 30, 2010 at 11:53pm

    I admire the honesty all around, and yet it’s not enough to counter the cynicism that’s crept in.

    I want to resist saying it’s inevitable that things will be this way, but I see it as a failure of relationship. If Emily had a stronger relationship, had built a real friendship, then maybe she would have trusted him. But a trusting relationship requires two trustworthy people. If one is just temporarily here and gone, you can’t have tremendous trust.

    The harder, harsher light to step into is the one that reveals my own motivations. Is my “helping” just a self-realization project (perhaps gone askew beyond rescuing)? Here’s a thought. I need a source of love or hope bigger than myself: faith in something big enough (humanity, God) to give me freedom to lay down my own ego.

  2. Andy

    June 30, 2010 at 11:58pm

    Another thought, it’d be nice if I could subscribe to your comments. There is a fine WP plugin for that called: “Subscribe To Comments” (works well on my blog).

  3. Adam

    July 3, 2010 at 12:31pm

    I agree with Andy. Most of the difficult feelings I had when I first lived in very poor countries were, in hindsight, to do with guilt and wanting to make amends for that within myself. They weren’t really about other people. Once I was there for a bit longer I was a lot more relaxed, and had far better friendships. But then I left, which just goes to show.

    But yes, certainly putting thousands of young, idealistic and naive young people into very different contexts is a recipe for emotional weirdness. And quite a few are definitely running away from things, rather than runnning towards them.

  4. trinee

    July 7, 2010 at 11:42am

    Recently there is a big media debate in Berlin about the director of a charity association owning over 50 percent of houses and services provided to homeless, junkies, needy … people. Just yesterday I read a large article about his philosophy and motivation which sums up to the question: Why not combine the own aspirations with what is asked for and the final end of charity projects?
    The question laid out in the ‘ZEIT’-article was: Perhaps this one guy who drew all the attention on himself right now after working in charity successfully during thirty years because he bought himself a Maserati a few months ago, changed far more in that sector than thousands of idealistic people trying the same but working ‘non-efficiently’?
    The answer the article gives is, that Mr. Ehlert, who seems almost free from idealistic and altruistic thinking, had therefore the chance to let ‘economic thinking’ enter the scene and was hence able to change things from the bottom. Putting it more general and connected with the implicit discussion about the efficiency of aid argued above, I think that if you don’t combine personal aspirations with what aid goals are for, efficiency and long term success are usually left aside because what then matters is more the visibility of what money/aid is provided for.
    Isn’t it the same, whether it happens in the personal sphere of a worker or with international development aid in general?

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