Who do you help?

In Uncategorized on April 11, 2006 at 9:37 pm

Western reporters in Africa struggle over when to help | csmonitor.com

I encountered a very similar conundrum while working as a Peace Corps Volunteer. We all did. What makes it profoundly different from what these reporters face is that we lived in our communities for up to two or three years. We had to figure out how to balance between charity and sustainable development. It was, indeed, the hardest part of being a Peace Corps Volunteer for me.

Who do you help? If you help one person, you will be expected to help the whole village. One day early in our service, a neighbor came by and asked to borrow some cooking oil – a totally reasonable and normal request by American standards, and we happily obliged. Within a few minutes, literally every woman within earshot came by asking for ‘their oil’. At least it wasn’t life-and-death…

My friend Abdou had a big, disgusting boil on his head – it was cold season and our villagers never liked to wash when it was so cold in the mornings. Plus, water tables were low; water is more precious in the cold and then hot seasons. Before leaving for an in-service training, I loaned Abdou a tube of Antibiotic Ointment that I had from my Peace Corps medical kit.

After about a week we came back and Abdou discreetly asked me for more ointment. His boil had healed and he looked good. He took out the completely tapped out, rolled up and waddled metal tube of what I had given him. He had been selling little dollops of the ointment all over the village for days. I was glad that some people had been healed more quickly than normal; Abdou had a family to support and I was impressed with his entrepreneurship. But that’s not why I was there.

So this begs the question, for reporters out trying to expose the truth, for Aid workers living amongst the poorest and most destitute people in the world: Who do you help?

After that: When do you intervene? What will happen as a result of your intervention?

I admit, an immediate emergency requires immediate decisions. You help the boy being circled by a vulture. But what about after that? This is the life of those stuck in the poverty trap – think about how you get through the day and nothing else. We, as the luckiest people on Earth (able to even have the time and resources to read this blog) are left with the luxury to decide how to make it so said event isn’t repeated again; at least how to lower the chances of this event repeating itself.


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