Waylaid Dialectic

August 6, 2011

When you can do nothing, what can you do?

Filed under: Aid,Development Philosophy,Poverty,Social Justice — terence @ 10:48 am

Reflecting on well-intended but poorly informed attempts to solve world poverty J. at Tales from the Hood writes:

We are messing around with people’s lives, here. Just because you won’t be slapped with a malpractice suit if you get it wrong (although I do actually believe that day is coming) doesn’t mean it’s okay to “just do something” in order to feel good. Very often, and especially if you don’t know what you’re doing, the very best thing to do is…


This is not a phrase that I expect to use more than twice over the next century but: J. is wrong.

If you’ve been moved by the plight of people suffering in Humanitarian disasters, or if the scale and scope of global poverty strikes you as profoundly wrong, and if you want to help, do not do nothing. Doing nothing is not ‘very often…the best thing to do’. Do something. It is almost always possible to help.

Of course, doing something isn’t the same as doing absolutely anything, or doing the first thing that comes into your mind. What follows are some rules of thumb (the best I can offer, at least) for doing something and for maximising the chance that what you do does more good than harm.

1. First and foremost: do not assume that the only reason that global poverty hasn’t been solved is simply because you personally haven’t had time to think about it yet. Decades work of work and effort have gone into understanding the problems of global development. And it turns out they are complex. Unlike the woman whose blog J. links to in his post, your first fact finding mission should not be to India or Africa: it should be to the library.

2. Then, accept you are on a learning journey (welcome aboard). Be humble (here’s looking at you Mr Starr). And keep trying to learn.

3. Also, accept the fact that the best contribution you can make in many circumstances will often be unsexy, imperfect, and inconvenient: i.e. a cash donation to a large, credible international NGO (i.e. Save the Children, Oxfam, UNICEF (who probably function as an NGO where you live), World Vision, etc). None of these organisations is perfect: they are human endeavours after all. But they are generally pretty good. Sometimes they will make mistakes, and sometimes you will read about their mistakes in the paper, but they will almost certainly be making fewer mistakes than you will if you try and set up your own NGO.

Giving money isn’t much fun either, but money is almost always the most useful thing you can give. It is much better than stuff you have in your garage but no longer want (the seminal post on this being one of J.’s). And usually much more cost efficient than you going to help personally (although this isn’t always the case in the case of particular specialist skill sets, and see point 5 below).

4. Small is ok. Something is better than nothing. Buying a cup of Fair Trade coffee is not going to save the world. But on the other hand buying it is still likely to help someone — going to make a small contribution to the life of a poor farmer, somewhere. Small things are worth doing. Similarly, when confronted by the magnitude and complexity of the problems of the world, it can be very tempting to despair but, once again, something is better than nothing. Don’t do nohing just because you can’t do everything.


5. Be aware that much of the most important work you can do to help tackle global poverty won’t be about them it will be about us. The foreign policy related decisions made by our (rich country governments) can have dramatic impacts on the lives of poor people in developing countries. For example, climate change: if we don’t limit our CO2 emissions it is very likely that the world’s poorest people will suffer. For example, the global weapons trade: we sell the guns, they suffer the consequences. For example, migration: letting people into wealthy countries is one of the easiest ways of helping them escape poverty; letting refugees into wealthy countries is one of the best ways of helping them escape strife (here’s looking at you Australia!). And so on…

In tackling problems in all of these areas you have one huge comparative advantage: you vote in the countries where the decisions are made. Only one vote and only one voice amongst many, true. And domestic political economy can mean that the polluters, and arms dealers, and business lobbies have a much greater voice than you. But, nevertheless, there’s still more chance that your senator or MP is going to listen to you than to someone on a small atoll in the Pacific somewhere whose sole source of fresh water is being contaminated by rising sea-levels.

Do something, but take care in what you do.


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