Every evening, when I leave work and head over to the train station, a man is sitting there. In front of him lies a beige-colored cap and sometimes, I throw a few coins into it. He smiles, I smile back and wish him a pleasant evening. I imagine I am helping him, a little bit at least. Others, though, would perhaps say that he's going to use the money for alcohol. So who is right? The search for an answer makes it clear that helping can actually be rather complicated.
Helping Countries. But How?
A few weeks ago, a colleague came up to me with a great idea: A development aid game. The player would have a million euros that she could use as she saw fit to help people in developing countries. And as she was deciding what to do, she would learn where and how private donations are most effective.
It is a question that I had often wondered about and I began doing some research -- and became increasingly frustrated. The more information I gathered, the more arguments I found calling the efficacy of development aid into question. Myriad experts have criticized the uselessness of this form of support in recent years. Some have even demanded that it be discontinued entirely.
Volker Seitz, who served for 17 years in Africa on behalf of the German Foreign Ministry, is one of the critics of the so-called "aid industry." It has "a tendency to want to tell Africans how to live," he says. It subjugates them. The Kenyan economist James Shikwati, however, believes that the problems facing countries in need also present an opening for improvement. He says that instead of suggesting to these countries that they are weak and in need of assistance, as development aid does, one should promote a "mentality of opportunity." Struggling countries, he said, should address their own problems and learn and grow from them.
In her book "Dead Aid: Why Aid Is Not Working and How There Is a Better Way for Africa," the economist Dambisa Moyo notes that there are now some 500,000 people working in the development aid industry and argues that they have long since begun pursuing their own interests. If one follows the widespread creed of "help people help themselves," then aid organizations should constantly be striving to eliminate themselves, she says. But they don't.
And that doesn't even consider the systematic exertion of political and economic influence pursued by states and companies via the provision of aid money.
Development aid is nonetheless sill extremely prevalent. Part of that has to do with charity superstars like Bono, the lead singer of U2, who has lent his support to dozens of aid organizations. What's wrong with that? Imagine for a moment Justin Timberlake coming to Europe, sprinkling a few million dollars over Greece and then telling us how the debt crisis should be solved.
There's nothing one can do. Is there?
So there I sat -- in my comfortable chair inside my pleasantly air conditioned office -- and thought: There's nothing one can do. I had hoped that the end result of my research would be the realization that sponsorship is a good thing. Or that donations to finance an operation for a blind person are vital. I had hoped that I would be moved to make modest donations more often, in the knowledge that it was the right thing to do. That my money was helping.
But now, it seemed to me that my monetary donations were nothing but a small bandage that would do little to help heal the gaping wound. Or, even worse, a bandage that covers up the true problems and impedes real solutions.
The arguments seemed convincing to me, but heartless as well. Should one really cease all development aid and allow entire countries to collapse so that they might ultimately be able to help themselves?
Do as little harm as possible
Ultimately, I did what I often do when the world leaves me at a loss: I asked a colleague who knows more about the issue.
Nicolai from the business desk said he isn't a fan of the urge to constantly improve the world somewhere else. Instead, he said, he thinks it is better to try to harm people as little as possible through one's actions at home. His creed: consume as little as possible, and do so conscientiously. "I don't buy anything that I don't really need. A huge number of products hurt the poorest of the poor in different ways. Some raw materials, like gold or tantalum for example, are extracted under extremely problematic conditions in poor countries. We're talking about human rights violations, child labor, environmental pollution, the financing of wars and dictatorships -- and the list goes on."
Then Nicolai said that the same holds true for foodstuffs and clothing. In the end, his advice was: "Talk a lot about how crap the world is so that you yourself and others think about why they do things and whether it is damaging."
That made sense to me. And during the conversation, I began to realize that, according to this logic, making donations is also a kind of unmindful consumption. Staying true to a well-reasoned position would affect our everyday lives and is much more difficult than sending 20 euros to your favorite charity every now and then. Instead of reconsidering our habits, we prefer to continue our thoughtless consumption. And sometimes we don't buy our jeans from discount clothing retailer Primark but instead salve our conscience by purchasing ones that would get UNICEF's seal of approval.
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A real desire to help
On my way home that evening, I throw a coin into the hat of the man by the side of the road. If I were an NGO and he was a developing country, would I just be prolonging his suffering by doing so? I smile at him, he smiles back. And I go on.
Just before the crosswalk, I gather my courage and turn back. I ask if I can sit down with him and then ask him to tell me how I can really help. Struggling to find the right words, Lukas tells me that his foot is swollen and in pain and that it's the reason why he can't work. But he also can't go to a doctor because he doesn't have the necessary paperwork. I promise to help him find a doctor. Unfortunately, I haven't seen him since then. I wonder if I did something wrong, if I forced myself upon him. I wonder if he is doing okay.
Helping isn't easy. Not, at least, when you really want to make a difference.