I was walking with a friend of mine last night, and we were talking about what we wanted to do with our lives. I’ve, for a while now, had this romantic idea of becoming a factotum, someone who has a lot of different jobs. For instance, I would like to at one point: work on a boat for a year; repel from a helicopter and put out forest fires; work in or near the arctic; bring food, water, medicine, or education to rural areas ALL round the world; work with adorable and strange animals; live in a tree (arborist?); fly some sort of flying machine (helicopter would be best); etc. One thing though, that we had in common, was that we both wanted to do good, somehow. Travel the world and do good, whatever that means in practical application. At this point I commented on just how difficult it is to actually do good in the world. For instance, some forms of aid are bad, because it makes people dependent, and when the aid stops, the people may be in a worse position than at first. On the other hand, there’s nothing I (believe I) deplore more than ideas without action. That is, I hope I don’t ever become pessimistic or cynical to the point of never acting: I hope that action rather than passivity is more likely to do good, even though sometimes it does worse.
Here though, to illustrate my point about how difficult all this can be, is an example. A while ago (back in April) I read this fantastic book about how women are treated these days all around the world (human trafficking, honour killings, abortion and infanticide of girls, no education for girls, abuse, etc.) called Half the Sky. I highly recommend it.
Anyways, at the back of the book, the author’s give suggestions on ways that you can help. One of these suggestions is called microfinancing, where someone lends a small amount of money to someone who can’t afford to take out a loan from the bank, and that person uses that money to start up a small business. When they’ve made enough money, they then give you the money you loaned back. It sounds like a great thing: you’re giving aid, but at the same time, you’re empowering the person since they must create their own business to pay you back. Plus, then you can just reloan the money! In the book (note: this is from memory, and so I may have some things wrong), they talk about how successful this has been, contrary to what most economists thought would have happened.
Unfortunately, it may not be as good as the author’s made it out to be. I was watching a TED video, where the guy talked about how microfinancing was causing epidemic suicides because people had taken out so many loans, but couldn’t pay them back.
I found a 2010 BBC article on it, here.
Now, it may be that the company who was carrying out the micro-financing was doing a poor job, and that situations like these can be avoided. But my point, for the moment, is that sometimes things that look so good, and that I want to donate to, turn out to be bad.
Another example is Greg Mortenson, whose books Three Cups of Tea, and Stones into Schools, and charity organization Central Asia Institute, seemed too good to be true: building schools for girls in Pakistan and Afghanistan, so that they could learn, and one day empower themselves, help their community, reduce abuse and overpopulation, etc. etc. But, as I already pointed out, that guy may actually be a lying sack of shit, who syphons the money from his organization to himself.
Another example is Mother Theresa. Did her belief that suffering brought someone closer to Christ help? Was it a good thing that she didn’t actually help the poor, she just gave them a place to suffer? Or that she took money from donators (including Charles Keating who was known at the time to have obtained the money from a savings and loans scandal) and put it into creating convents? (this, again, is from memory. See my original post here.)
Again, I should stress that it would be a damn shame to let people like the ones above to make me into a cynic, and decide to do nothing. Focusing on the bad, when it may be that most action does good, would be a damn shame. My only point is that it can be very frustrating…