Why don’t people care more?

Upon the completion of a two-year stint in Malawi as a math teacher a very long time ago, I attended a debriefing for Canadians returning from overseas postings. The facilitator asked how many of us had gone through their first posting; most raised our hands. He continued, “I’m sure you’re filled with wonderful stories of having met tremendous hard-working, resilient, beautiful people who have led unimaginably difficult lives but have nonetheless held their heads up high despite the horrible conditions they live in. You’ll want to tell all your friends and families about all of these people and how they’ve affected you and ultimately made you a better person and more appreciative of what you’ve got. You have so much to tell people!” As he was speaking I thought Yes, this guy totally understands me.

“No one cares,” he said.
He was a downer, but for the most part he was right. My mother cared (in part because it was her default response to do so) and some of my best friends cared. No one else really gave a shit. My experiences in Malawi, and more precisely the people who changed my life, were of little importance to the people back home. They wanted to hear more about my stories of roadside mice snacks than the struggles of the poor living there.
It was a harsh but important lesson that repeated itself when I returned to Africa two years later and lived in Ghana. Life was so utterly different, poverty was so utterly everywhere, it was impossible to remain unaffected. And still, upon my return to Canada, it was a challenge to convey to others the importance of helping people elsewhere whose pathetic standard of living prevented them from living in dignity.
It begs a fundamental question: why is it so hard to care about strangers who live less fortunate lives? Here, I use “care” in a very broad sense. There are many ways to show you care. Of course you can give money. You can also become a slacktivist for your favourite cause, you can volunteer, you can Tweet your solidarity to those in need, you can learn about their lives and their struggles, you can raise awareness in your community, you can change your own habits, the list goes on. However one defines “care for others”, I believe there’s a tremendous shortage of it. No wait, that does sound pessimistic. Then let me say this: there should a whole lot more caring.
To focus on giving, and in particular giving money: giving is easy, especially now when you can go online and click away your cash in seconds. Giving leaves the giver with a sense of satisfaction and personal fulfillment, however it does little to strengthen their understanding of where their money is going and the change it is meant to make. While lots of people do give, again I say: there can be a whole lot more.
Maybe we’re just too selfish. Maybe our own problems, however trivial they may seem to others, effectively block out anyone else’s and don’t leave us room to care. Maybe our lives are too hectic to care. Maybe it’s too easy to change channels from the latest massacre in Syria to the next round of American Idol. Maybe the sheer enormity of the help required is too overwhelming for any one person to think they can make a difference. Nearly ten million children under the age of five die every year from preventable diseases, over a billion people live in slums, more than a billion live on less than 1,25$ a day. Millions of people are forcibly displaced every year from their homes due to conflict or environmental disasters, hundreds of thousands of women and girls die every year before, during, or just after childbirth. Around seventy million children worldwide are without access to basic education. It’s enough for the average person eager to help wonder, “Whatever I do won’t make a difference.”
This is not so: giving can make a difference in people’s lives. The language around giving has changed considerably since my stay in Malawi nearly twenty years ago. As such, the actions taken to make sure that giving is effective have changed as well. It’s much less about meeting needs as it is about realizing human rights; it’s less about giving and receiving and more about sharing and enabling (for everyone). It’s less about pity and gratitude and more about respect and dignity.
Twenty-odd years ago, the realities of the poor were not always well understood and often not accurately conveyed to those more fortunate. If you lived in a rich country, you saw images of poor Africans with distended bellies looking sorrowfully at the camera with a pseudo-celebrity (why do I keep thinking Sally Struthers?) asking for your help. Nowadays, messages like this and others are at times labeled as poverty porn, a term that gets its point across but with a regrettably vulgar choice of words. Effective nonprofit organizations have moved well beyond this oversimplified and misrepresentative vision of aid. Those organizations need to raise their profiles and share their good practices of using funds wisely and transparently while enabling people to claim and enjoy their rights. I think – I hope – people will give to something they know will make a difference.
Ultimately, someone wanting to help will have the empathy, the desire, the kind-heartedness and the will to find a way to give. Asking Why don’t people care more? I realize that the question could be phrased differently. I recently came across another way of asking this question from an unlikely source: my children’s comic books. DC Comics unveiled a new campaign where members of the Justice League (Superman, Wonder Woman, Batman, and the other usual superheroes) are “spokespersons” asking to help dying families in the Horn of Africa. It’s a fundraising campaign called We Can Be Heroes, in which DC Comics matches your donation to one of three partner organizations. OK, the use of the term “heroes” to designate people giving money to help others is patronizing to the extreme, but I’ll let it slide because these are comic book characters. At any rate, an awareness-raising video from the website asks the question, What do you do when someone needs help?It’s direct, it gets to the point, and it leaves room for only one answer as far as I can tell: “I help.” Doesn’t matter who needs help, where they live, or what they do: just help.

"Human rights means you respect each other. That’s it, isn’t it?"

My brother and his family came over last night for Christmas dinner. He’s a business man, I’m not. He’s a salesman, I teach people about human rights. Our views on many things are as opposing as they come, our outlooks on life equally different. I showed him a human rights handbook I worked on. He flipped through it, liked the look, but wondered how the hell you could write so much about human rights (the book was about 200 pages). He looked up from the book and stared at me, saying simply, “I don’t know why you need to write so much about something that’s common sense. Human rights means you respect each other. That’s it, isn’t it?”

Yes. A simple question deserves a simple answer. A cursory glance at some of the headlines over the past year is enough evidence to show you that the common sense approach to human rights is not evident. The world’s poor reaction to the humanitarian crises following the earthquake in Haiti and the floods in Pakistan, China’s reaction to Liu Xiaobo’s Nobel Prize, the continued violence in Darfur or the Congo or [insert country/region of choice here, no shortage of options], election violence in Côte d’Ivoire…the list goes on. Granted, there have been advances in human rights this year, with the release of Aung San Suu Kyi being among the most notable. But looking at the global picture of human rights can leave you wondering why we’re doing this to ourselves.

As a human rights educator, thinking about the advances and the setbacks we’ve faced in respecting human rights leaves me filled with (almost) equal amounts of hope and despair – hope does win out, as it does, I suspect, for most people who call themselves human rights defenders. I think what keeps the spirits up for those defenders is that they can effect change within their immediate spheres of influence – their neighbours, their friends and families, their colleagues, and the people in their communities.

When I think of the work I’ve done over the past year, I’m most grateful for the opportunities I’ve had to facilitate workshops for human rights defenders who are making a difference in the lives of others around them. In other words, to use overly dramatic make-me-gag-sappy lingo you’d see on sites like CNN, they’re heroes. The first workshop I facilitated this year was in Jordan in February, and the group consisted of everyday phys ed teachers in Palestinian refugee camps and people working for NGOs. They came to the workshop to learn about children’s rights and how to use games to promote human rights values. The work they do as teachers or NGO workers is unrecognized hero-stuff. They teach others to respect each one another – in other words, they ascribe to my brother’s definition of human rights. Take Thawrat, for example: a kind man with a gentle face making sure Coptic orphans in Egypt live their lives to their fullest potential.

Every workshop I’ve been part of this year has had its share of Thawrats: from Vancouver to Winnipeg, from Jakarta (twice) to Colombo to Kathmandu, everyone trying their best to make a difference in the lives of others. And for me, now in my ninth year doing this type of work, I have asked myself the following question more often that usual: Am I really needed – do I really need to do this job? Don’t think this is a cheap attempt to elicit sympathy from readers, it’s not. It’s a question anyone in “international development” should ask. A related statement would be: I should work my way out of a job. On my last trip this year to steamy Jakarta, I got the answer. My last meeting was with a group of people who have been undertaking their own annual human rights training program for the last three years. Now getting ready for their fourth year, they are well-prepared, aware of the work they must do, conscious of their fundraising needs, and fully capable of having a successful fourth annual program. The group consists of people who are part of my organization’s alumni and who needed my help and the help of my colleagues for the first three years. My role was specifically in assisting the group on the curriculum content of the program. I sat through the meeting doing absolutely nothing other than listen. I had nothing to contribute. They had everything covered. I felt unneeded. I had found my answer – at least on that rooftop in Jakarta, and I couldn’t be happier.

More end of year posts coming in the next few days…

Questioning development

Two friends of mine have returned from a trip to Haiti. The devastation there is unimaginable, they have said – no surprise there. The mismanagement of aid is unimaginable – again, no surprise there. It could be argued that no one was prepared for a devastating earthquake that left hundreds of thousands dead. The same could be said of the 2004 tsunami that wiped out about as many people as Haiti’s earthquake.
What we – and by “we” I mean everyone else who is not directly affected by a disaster such as the earthquake – do to help and how we help is crucial. Donating money to humanitarian organizations is fine, as long as the organization is reputable and that you know the money will be well spent on creating and maintaining an adequate standard of living for those affected: basic access to food, water, lodging. Security as well – people need to feel safe. Organizations that send food or other basic necessities to Haiti are doing so in droves, but sometimes that kind of essential aid does not get distributed evenly or fairly. It sometimes falls into the hands of those who greedily control access to it, and demand payment in other forms, one example being girls as young as two and women who are raped in order to have access to food and shelter.
I have not been to Haiti, but if I were to go I’m sure I would be filled with hope seeing ordinary citizens continuing to live under pathetic circumstances, crushing chunks of concrete, living on the street, mourning loved ones, and probably wondering “Why isn’t anyone else in the world helping us?” It would warm my heart to see the fantastic work that countless volunteers are doing. And it would piss me off to see how some aid is being colossally mismanaged.

I visited Banda Aceh, an area horribly ruined by the 2004 tsunami, just over a year after it was destroyed. As I wrote in my journal back in March 2006 [the drawing, “sorrow,” was part of the entry], “The day left me hollow inside. I had begun to feel disdainful towards the international community’s efforts at reconstruction. My first exposure was an anti-malaria campaign, where I was handed a free cap and t-shirt seconds after jumping into the donor’s vehicle. Hotels in Aceh are fully booked, prices have increased tenfold. Rents gone up 400%. Prices for food gone up dramatically. INGOs [international NGOs] recruiting people who used to work for local NGOs, leaving them to suffer. Disorganization, mismanagement are words everyone is using concerning donor assistance. 

All true, however, looking at the devastation, the area is being rebuilt, and that wouldn’t be possible without the efforts of the UNHCR and others.”

In other words, it’s not unusual in my line of work to be totally psyched and excited about great development efforts and to be equally depressed and disheartened by bad ones. So here for me lies the one issue which has conflicted me the most during my years working in international development: how does one reconcile/live with/find balance with the tremendous disparity between well-intentioned but misplaced and mismanaged assistance/charity and development efforts which truly engage and empower those whose rights are not being fully realized? The former types of efforts have, in my experience, greatly outnumbered the latter. And I admit to having been part of development initiatives which, in retrospect, were not all that effective. I questioned my first posting as a volunteer teacher in Malawi back in 1993 (I’m writing about it here); was I not, after all, taking the place of a well-qualified Malawian teacher? It could be argued that I could have taught my colleagues some innovative teaching practices, but in fact I had none (or at least not many). On a personal level, my first experience in development rendered me aware of what could be done right and what had been done wrong. The organization that hired me the first time, WUSC, sent me out again two years later and their approach was entirely different: it focused on the often-misused-don’t really-know-what-it-means term “capacity building.” But it worked, because we worked with local partners, made decisions with them, and let them take the lead. I can’t help but think that if donor organizations in Haiti trusted local organizations to help them more in distributing food, organizing shelters, building schools, and distributing water, there might be a few happier people sleeping in their tents there tonight.