Many people do want to help, but don’t know how. When a disaster happens, people donate money and volunteer to provide aid. In post disaster situations, many people have ideas to help these communities, but how many of these ideas have actual measurable social impact or are actually sustainable?
In Nepal, 1 year after the earthquake, US$4.1 Billion was donated to rebuild the damage. The people who were displaced by the disaster who can’t afford to rebuild their homes are still living in tents. Today, many of the buildings collapsed in Kathmandu that housed soldiers were still unbuilt and soldier were still living in tents. Although government initiatives probably have the best intentions for the people, taking 10 months to set up the Nepal Reconstruction Agency and more months to implement rebuilding may be taking a little too long.
In Singapore, student groups who participate in community involvement projects build schools in various countries may seem like a good idea. They raise funds and do actual hands on construction of schools in other countries out of good intentions. Unfortunately, construction work is as simple as many may think, and it takes much experience to even build a sturdy wall, and in some cases, buildings built actually collapsed months after rebuilding.
I have been to many post disaster communities, and one of the most neglected element for recovery is — the economy. With continuous aid pouring in; housing, food and medicine is free. Even for a few years after the disaster, the aid may still be coming in. It all looks like good intentions, however, when it suppresses the local economy, farmers unable to sell their crops, doctors unable to find work, the good intentions of the donors actually do much harm in the very same community they want to help.
Besides disasters, our attempt to solve poverty is also unsustainable. I’ve seen charities building and renovating homes for people living in slum like conditions. The recipients get a much better living conditions when they move into their newly renovated homes, but within a year, most of these families will return to the same condition as before, because a lot of their other more pressing problems are not solved.
After being in the field for several years, I feel that we need a new innovative approach of helping others in a more sustainable way.
What went wrong?
When we help, we make life decisions for people we try help. When they succeed, we claim credit, when they fail, we blame them for not trying or not following instructions. When we help, we feel content to help but fail to see the whole picture. We search for the approach most efficient for us and not those we are trying to help. We exclude those we are trying to help from making decisions. We measure success by the delivery of help or completion of actions and not actual impact.
There is much evidence that has shown that depression overcomes many survivors in the shelters when they have lost everything and have everything done for them. Helplessness sets in when they feel that even simple tasks such as cooking are being done for them. There are a lot of benefits to empowering survivors to participate in the relief and recovery, yet in most cases, they are being excluded.
The curse of exclusion does not only apply to post-disaster recovery. In fact, this happens in many other cases when we fail to engage while we are trying to help a community.
What can we change?
We need to understand our motivation of helping. Giving out of pity removes all dignity of the recipients. To fundamentally solve the complex problems we see increasing today, we need to invest in people’s potential to get themselves out of the problems and poverty; sustaining these people will create a situation where more people will eventually need help if the root of the problems is not solved.
We need to believe in the hidden potential of the people we want to help. We need to stop thinking of people as “needy”, “handicapped” and “pitiful”. Instead, we should look at them as people who need to be engaged and empowered with skills to solve their own problems. Enabling them to think positively while connecting them to the relevant help they need creates a positive path to where they can be productive in society and get their dignity back.
Through social innovation, marginalized communities can be freed from a life bound by servitude and dependency. Poor people are not stupid. They have ideas and aspirations, but lack resources to solve even their most immediate problems. They do not need the help from the billionaire philanthropists; they do not need aid and donations. They need to be included in deciding their future, and to be connected to resources and empowered to solve their own problems.
What we need is for people to rethink their consumption habits. Supporting chain stores just because they sell cheaper products, but who may exploit their workers in the different levels of supply chains, may not the best way to save money. We need business owners who treat their workers with respect and encouragement. We should not worship billionaires because it will encourage people to accumulate their wealth at any cost.
Everyone plays a role to empower their communities and enable the ones who are marginalized to do more. Charities are temporary solutions and the main problem we need to address is the unequal distribution of resources.
Billionaire philanthropists and large corporations do not hold the solution to the problems we face today, it is up to us to take actions and accountability to make things right.