I know I’m a bit behind the curve on this one, but I could not help but be a bit amused several days ago over the smallish disturbance in the blogosphere force over the fact that someone named Heather Armstrong (I’d never heard of her before) was traveling to Bangladesh to blog from location about her experience. It’s a narrative we’ve all heard before: Send an inexperienced Westerner to an impoverished corner of the planet so the she can have an epiphany about poverty or whatever, and in the process raise awareness and perhaps some cash for a worthy cause. While I don’t particularly agree with the approach it seems that the Bloggers sans Frontieires train has pretty much left the station, and so no real point in ranting about this. Anyway, Brigid Slipka says more or less what I’d say, albeit probably in a more restrained fashion.
On thing that did pique attention, though, was a post by “Liz” over at Mom-101.
[Side note: I only became aware of ‘mom bloggers’ a few months ago, and have come to understand that they are a force of nature. Whereas aid bloggers have their little “tweetups”, mom bloggers have full-on conventions. In places like Las Vegas. And those who think that I’m snarky take note: even at my meanest and most vitriolic I’m still warm and cuddly compared to some of the mom bloggers when they get riled up. Just sayin’.]
And what particularly caught my attention was this comment by “Cara”: “…I haven’t spent my entire career working in a developing country so my knowledge of what is most effective is certainly limited. But, here’s the thing, even if “you’re doing it wrong” YOU’RE DOING SOMETHING! And that’s about a million times better than a lot of people…”
Between the original post and this comment there is plenty that I could rant about right about about now. International relief and development work is a profession, not a hobby. And if a single, childless blogger was to muck about with parenting and childcare, and then blog about it all in simultaneously self-righteous, defensive and authoritative tones, I think we all know what the backlash from, you know, actual parents would be. I have a tough time understanding why aid work should be any different.
There are the poverty tourism and “Whites in Shining Armor” angles, too. Here again, though, I lack the emotional energy to really engage. It’s all been said before. The world is getting smaller. It’s possible for anyone with enough cash to get a tourist visa and ticket to Bangladesh (or wherever), and virtually nothing stopping them from blogging about their encounters with the people who live there. In general I think that more exposure, more knowledge, more contact with those very different from ourselves are all good things. And for at least today – maybe it’s the jet-lag – I don’t feel like trying to be the thought police.
But the one that I really cannot leave alone right now is the far-too-often invoked line of reasoning which says, as Cara wrote, “even if you’re doing it wrong” YOU’RE DOING SOMETHING! And that’s about a million times better than a lot of people…”
I genuinely struggle to understand how, in so many areas of life we are very quick to say, “do it right, or don’t do it at all…” Yet when it comes to the very complex, high stakes endeavor of alleviating poverty in the context of another culture we are too often similarly quick to shrug off misguided attempts to “help” as perfectly acceptable because at least the person did something.
The argument which says “Do something. Just do something. Even if it’s not particularly right, at least you’re doing something, which is more than millions of others can say…” is ultimately a bankrupt argument. Twisted as they may have been, Hitler and Pol Pot both honestly believed they were making the world better. They did something. They took the initiative. And we all know the results. So while I absolutely do not compare Heather or Liz or Cara to Hitler and Pol Pot, I do have to point out the obvious: Being deeply convicted that one “means well” and that “every little bit helps” does not mean that one is actually doing good rather than – you know – harm, and it is in no way a good enough basis for mucking about with the lives and livelihoods of other people.
And just so that we’re clear, this is not professional exclusivity or elitism (although, as you know, I very cheerfully embrace both). This is me reminding you all of the reality that international relief and development are easy to get wrong. The fact that humanitarian practice is still growing as a profession is in no way license for those who don’t know what they’re doing to go off someplace and sort of figure it out on their own in the name of “at least he/she is doing something…” It takes specific knowledge and skill to get this right.
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…