A couple weeks ago, I posted a note called “The Burden of Charity.” It was a strong piece, reactionary and controversial in nature. People reacted accordingly. To those who read, commented, questioned and shared it around, thank you! Your interest and comments encouraged me to look further.
There were a lot of good tough questions that came out of that discussion. I’ve held off answering mostly because I didn’t really know how to answer. I don’t have an appropriate or solid answer to things like “So what would be appropriate out there you think, if anything at all?” (Bodhi). At this point, I feel I am only able to tell you a bit about what I’m seeing and ask a lot of questions. So I went searching for some answers.
In that search I came across a few interesting articles and websites. Like my note, they are opinions, but I find them to be very valuable; they added to my initial reaction with thoughts and insight of their own.
What I have realized is that this is not a discussion about charity (although charity and development in general is part of it); it’s actually a discussion about INTENSIONS. The debate goes: Are good intensions enough to justify our actions? Or do we need to look further into the reasons behind and consequences of these actions? I fall on the side that good intensions are NOT enough and that the impact of actions will speak louder than the goodwill of their beginnings.
Beyond Good Intensions (If anyone can download/streamline this, I’d love to know what it is about)
To Hell with Good Intensions, an essay by Ivan Illich
This last article struck me pretty hard. Hard enough that I have spent the last couple of weeks struggling to reply to the good questions that were asked by friends and strangers alike on my first post. I’ve been crippled by the loss of motivation and self-criticism. I began to wonder what am I doing here?
What I have come to is this: I am a volunteer, but I long ago stopped referring to myself as one. Instead, I say I’m working. It’s a technicality. My pay cheque would mock any attempt to deny that technicality. The difference is perhaps in how I approach my work. This is my life and this is my job (for me the two are often one and the same… I come from a long line of work-a-holics). I treat it as such. I don’t expect to solve Malawi’s problems in one year. I certainly don’t expect to do so by handing out stuff or building anything. (“Azungu! Give me money!”) I have a possibility of influencing people I work with, or sharing the knowledge and skills I have gained through a couple of degrees at great universities. I can bring a new perspective, some expertise, a lot of questions, but very few solutions. Bringing solutions is neither my role nor my intension; it is not what an intensive month and a half of training from EWB, a year long Masters degree taught me to do.
I would be lying if I said that this was all about Malawi and Africa, about “serving the poor” and “helping those in need.” Yes, I really do think that’s important. I am constantly angered by the inequality of opportunity I see. But this is also a brilliant opportunity and investment in me to develop the knowledge and intuition needed to make better decisions in the future, to help my community and Canada make better decisions on aid in the future. It is an opportunity to connect two places that may at first seem two worlds apart, to teach Malawians something about Canada and more importantly I think to teach Canadians (or any other nationality following this) about Malawi.
Yes, this is an adventure. It’s new, exciting, a way to see new places, meet new people and learn a whole hell-of-a-lot. But this is not a vacation. It is not a gap-year where I came down under the pretence of building an orphanage, but spend most of my weekends and often some weekdays at an Azungu Paradise (fancy hotel), drinking and partying and trading cute stories about locals. This is my life and my work (did I mention I’m a work-a-holic*?) but it is also the life and work of many people around me. And maybe more than ever, those impacts are obvious. I travel, yes, but I travel to stay with farmers, or to see the manufacturing plant for our end product (chips). Is this self-less? Hardly. It’s essential for me to do my job, and the fact that I enjoy it and find inspiration in that is to me an added bonus.
I’m talking about the intension of investing. Of investing in good people to do good things that can really make a difference (Jeff Skoll) rather than good people who want to do good things but never stopped to examine their starting assumptions.
As we boarded our plane bound for Africa, Levi told us to be ready to unlearn all that we think we know in order to learn it all over again. It could not be more true. I traded theory for ground reality and will likely find my niche somewhere in the middle.
Am I self-less? No. In fact, I’m pretty sure I’m a recovering narcissist. Am I any different than the people I’m criticizing? Well I hope that I ask a lot more questions and through that avoid the obvious blunders and band-aid solutions. I hope that my questions inform debates and discussions, that they do more than confirm a stagnated view. I hope to instead push people to re-evaluate, like I have had to do, my views on development, aid and charity. I hope that people will think a bit longer about their role in this complex and inter-connected web, about what part they have to play. (Stephanie Nolen)
And so I hope that I’m different, but likely only time will tell.
To me, good intensions are not enough. It’s what I do and what that means for my colleagues, friends, family and near strangers I meet that really matters.
*In a recent phone conversation back to Canada, someone asked me what I do in my spare time. It took a while for me to think of. Lately, when I’m not working or eating dinner with my family, I’ve been writing blog-posts, studying Chichewa and watching TED talks if my mind is too full to read, write or study anymore. It struck me that this was maybe not the answer he was looking for.