This post is for Americans. Mainly white Americans. The rest of you are certainly welcome to read it, and who knows? It may even make sense for some. But anyway, you’ve been warned…
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Most people don’t remember that Bangladesh offered not just cash but also disaster response technical assistance to the United States following Hurricane Katrina . The US declined the offer of technical assistance, of course. But when you think about it, few places get more practice being resilient and responding to hurricanes and accompanying sea-surges than Bangladesh. It would have been logical to accept their help. But then, the decision had nothing to do with logic. It was about culture. American culture.
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A few nights ago I happened to watch the final episode ever of NBC’s Law & Order. The one in which Lt. Anita Van Buren comes to believe that she may have cancer. You can see the stress on her face. Her colleagues can’t help but notice. They overhear things, snippets of phone calls. She’s away from the office getting MRIs. Hard not to know what’s going on. When it becomes obvious that people in the precinct know what’s going on with her, Lt. Van Buren in very typical American fashion, she makes a big deal out of making the point that she doesn’t want sympathy. And in equally typical American fashion, her colleagues utterly fail to hear that message.
Throughout the episode we learn that Lt. Van Buren will have trouble affording the treatment that she’ll almost certainly need. Her colleagues discover this and set about organizing a secret fundraiser to help her. She discovers the plan, has a fit, and reiterates in strident tones that she doesn’t want sympathy… or help.
That night, back in her trendy, well-lit rent-controlled flat Lt. Van Buren’s fiancée/boyfriend holds her close and admonishes her. She should accept this gesture – both the gesture as well as the actual financial help – from her colleagues. They’re good people. They mean well. They care about her and just want to help.
And the part that absolutely killed me: she should do it for them.
So, basically… A woman is dying of cancer. She wants neither sympathy nor help, and yet in the end gets essentially pressured into accepting in order to make them feel good. She’s the one who’s dying, but somehow it becomes about making her friends happy.
Yes, I know it’s just a television show, but this scenario strikes a strong, resounding chord in our culture. Against basic logic, we are drawn to side with the helping friends rather than the person suffering or dying, not just on TV, but in the real world. I’ve personally witnessed real-life variations on this theme more times that I can possibly remember (and I’m not even that old).
We can’t help it: we love being the giver.
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Anyone who’s ever been part of a church or school or local community “drive” in the USA knows the spirit that ensues. There’s a sense of real community, of real commradarie, of real shared common purpose and common goal. These are all very good things. They are what make communities communities. This is the essence of the mythical “grassroots” that American development workers go out into the world to try to replicate.
Every year around November (American Thanksgiving) and December (Christmas) it is hard to resist being heartwarmed at local news coverage of those local churches or schools or communities that come together to raise money for this poor family or set a goal of X# of truckloads of food for that local foodbank. It’s practically aid work, at least as it’s portrayed in the media: shots of mountains of stuff ready for distribution, trucks laden with whatever rolling out of the parking lot, cheerful little old ladies in wintry sweaters sorting canned goods or knitting shawls for homeless babies…
And none of this is in any way meant to be snide: those are all good things to do. Heck, I plan to take my own kids to help serve Thanksgiving or Christmas dinner at local homeless shelters when they’re a bit older. I think that communities coming together to help their less fortunate members is really what community development and even relief work ultimately come down to in almost any context.
But all of that having been said, it is clear that the emphasis is on the giving. And de facto, on the giver.
Movies like The Blind Side are great examples, too. They make us feel all warm and fuzzy. They seem like great examples of ordinary people getting past cultural and racial barriers. The idea of a petite, white, Republican southern belle with an NRA membership adopting a homeless, mammoth black kid from the wrong side of town and giving him a chance is positively charming. It’s a heart-warming story with a happy ending that ultimately feels like proof that ordinary citizens can overcome social and cultural and racial divides.
And perhaps those things are true. But when you really think about it, The Blind Side is not about poverty or homelessness or racial stereotypes or about a poor black kid rising out of a troubled past to become a celebrated athlete. No, it’s the story of a petite, white, Republican southern belle who did something good. Sure, she made a few mistakes along the way, but her heart was in the right place – she meant well – and in the end it all worked out.
I would be willing to bet money that there were at least a few rich white women who at least for a moment fantasized about finding a poor inner-city child that they could nurture to stardom after watching The Blind Side.
This urge to glamorize giving and hero-ify givers is a huge part of why the American media’s catch-22 of supply and demand inevitably gravitates toward Selma, Madonna, Sean and Oprah and their stories, rather than towards closer looks the people they all claim to want to help. And it’s also why people like Jason (he’s only one of a gazillion) almost immediately get mad and/or fall back on, “but I only wanted to help…” whenever someone pushes back on ideas like 1millionshirts.
We love identifying with the benefactor. We love being the giver.
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Not everyone can recall the message of Acts 20:35 offhand. But I’m guessing even many non-Christian Americans are aware of the existence of a Bible verse which says that it’s “more blessed to give than to receive.”
And that gets at the other half of the problem: While we love giving, we’re terrible at receiving.
Our culture is grounded in the belief that we can do it. We can go it alone. We can figure it out. This is the sub-plot of the “taming” of the American West, where cowboys and settlers alike, gritted their teeth against the elements and stood strong against whatever life or nature tried to throw at them. We’d rather be poor and know that what we have we earned ourselves, than accept a handout.
Being able to survive on one’s own strength is almost a moral quality. “She worked hard and took care of her children, despite terrible challenges” = “she is a good person.”
And although we almost never say so directly, needing help is almost, well, immoral. (Which is exactly why, in my opinion, Nicholas Kristof can write with a straight face that boozing and whoring is what keeps Africa poor).
The way this all gets played out in actual daily life is that while we have a very strong sense of needing to give to those who need, to help those in trouble, it really is about those doing the giving and the helping. And by extension, it is really not so much about those doing the receiving: The poor. And once again, although we almost never say it, their role in the grand drama is to accept and be grateful.
Had the United States accepted on-the-ground, technical help from Bangladesh following Hurricane Katrina, then, it would have meant two things, impossible for Americans to bear: First, it would have meant a loss of morality. We needed help from outside. Second, the storyline would have shifted – it would have become a story about Bangladesh helping, rather than about America gritting it’s teeth and rolling up it’s sleeves and getting through it.
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So what does this all mean? It means quite a few things, but in my opinion the main ones are:
We have to realize going in that with American donors (possibly donors of other nationalities as well), in their minds it really is basically about them. Whether the result of a Judeo-Christian worldview or of simply having descended from cowboys the story, at least in their minds, is about the donor by default. We have to find inventive and innovative ways to change that.
We have to combat this notion that there is immorality associated with poverty, whether than notion is coming from Nicholas Kristof or Pat Robertson. I don’t have words strong enough to convey how important I think this is. We have to break through the misconceptions of our donors (and maybe even ourselves) about this – unspoken, unarticulated misconceptions. Many things make the poor poor, and many things make it difficult for them to rise out of it. But morality has absolutely zero to do with any of it.
We have to make the story be about the poor. We have find more and better ways to communicate the process and outcome of relief and development work from the perspective of the recipient. We have to fight the urge ourselves, both as individuals and as organizations, to make the real story about processes and pipelines and logistics and budgets and technical standards. Of course those things are all important and we have to do them all well. But they are only means to ends. We have to keep the people we’re trying to help in the forefront of the storyline.