Waylaid Dialectic

February 3, 2016

Solving other people’s problems

Filed under: Random Musings — terence @ 7:31 am

There are a number of problems with this Medium hit. (“The Reductive Seduction of Other People’s Problems”)

1. The magnitude of the issue — sure it’s like, totally, unhip to naively want to help people. But how significant are the problems it causes? In the scheme of things (Syria, climate change, Ted Cruz…)? Really?

2. The counter factual — people caring about other people in dopey ways may be cringe-worthy, and ineffectual. But it still comes from one of the better, and fragile, sides of human nature (contrast, the couldn’t give a shit and hate that most people express towards Syrian refugees). I’m no ethicist but in the scheme of things, being a dope seems less bad than being bad or simply not caring.

3. The change process — if tut tutting on the internet achieves anything I suspect it’s most likely to stop people caring, than making them more practical.

4. Selecting on the dependent variable — Play Pump is a disaster, but it’s not the only case of people naively going to a developing country thinking they had the solution. I once went to a talk by a New Zealand midwife who’d gone to Vietnam and advised midwives there on the correct procedure for complicated births (my simplification), and saved many, many lives as a result. Quite probably Play Pump is a more representative case, but I wouldn’t draw too many conclusions from one side of the ledger alone.

5. Ignoring the evidence — Tom’s shoes. Sounds awful on the surface. But the best available evidence does not suggest the idea has had particularly bad impacts.

6. Orders of magnitude — The blog castigates people for wanting to solve problems overseas rather than in the United States (a proxy for the developed source country in general). But what’s wrong with this? The (cruelly low) US poverty line is somewhere in the vicinity of $12-16 PPP per day. Many (in the poorest countries, most) people in the developing world live off less than $2.50 PPP per day (these figures are consumption, not income so include subsistence income). The need is greater elsewhere. And this, unless you think, the moral worth of non-American lives is less than that of Americans, is pretty good reason to try and help where the need is greatest. It is true that you may be more effective helping at home, although my guess is that if you’re a white middle class kid in the US the problems of the ghetto are going to be every bit as foreign and complex for you as the problems of Mali. This shouldn’t stop you from doing important things in the US (or New Zealand, or Australia), especially casting your vote for the right political party. But it does mean that there’s no automatic case for prioritising helping at home over helping abroad. (To be fair this point is recognised in the piece, but to my read it’s recognised then ignored.)

The blog does make some good points. In particular:

“But don’t go because you’ve fallen in love with solvability. Go because you’ve fallen in love with complexity.

Don’t go because you want to do something virtuous. Go because you want to do something difficult.

Don’t go because you want to talk. Go because you want to listen.”

Here I agree, both with the specifics and the important point about complexity. Development is complex. But that is true on the donor side too. Few people participate with perfect motives. But is hip scold-blogging going to solve much?



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