The other day I attended a forum on the latest attempt to more specifically define the term ‘public benevolent institution’, a phrase used in Australia to describe those charities that aim to relieve poverty or distress.
As part of the discussion the question was asked if relief should be confined to providing assistance after the fact: shouldn’t those charities in the developmental space – that aim to prevent poverty and distress – also be considered public benevolent institutions?
The discussion brought to mind a question I have long pondered regarding the extent to which relief should be provided to people in distress. The answer seems clear in terms of disaster relief – it would be impractical and unloving to stand by and do nothing to alleviate suffering in the aftermath of an earthquake, flood or similar such event, be they man-made or natural. Emergency humanitarian aid also seems appropriate in situations where displaced populations have gathered as a result of conflict or similar.
Where I find things become less clear are in situations where poverty and distress are entrenched. I’m thinking here, for example, of African nations where poverty has been an issue for decades despite years of western intervention.
Is there not a point we should reach where we have to ask if all that charity is actually doing anything? And if the situation is not improved, despite long-term support, does that not indicate that it is not?
This then takes the argument into the more purely developmental space, where the ‘teach a man to fish’ analogy comes into play. It makes sense that if people are going to be helped it is more useful to teach them how to fend for themselves rather than passively hand over goods. Having said that, developmental charity work does include the handing over of resources such as wells and bridges as well as forms of micro-economic infrastructure designed to improve living conditions and support self-sustainability – so here we are looking at the passing over of goods in tandem with learning.
So it’s possible that a more hands-on, thoughtful and educational approach to aid is more useful long-term than the provision of relief. Even so, is this still the correct remedy? Are these interventions about truly supporting people to lift themselves out of where they’re at?
This latter question takes us rapidly into a more broadly philosophical space. I haven’t worked in international aid but I have been a part of numerous programs designed to assist people in some of the most disadvantaged urban populations of Queensland. My observation of the efficacy of these interventions is thus: on the whole they do not work. Why?
People can only be supported to arise if they want to lift themselves out of their own suffering.
I have seen many people offered many opportunities, only to turn them down – either via straight-out refusal, or indirectly, by sabotaging the situation. I can only imagine the same dynamic exists in foreign regions where aid programs and projects are rolled out.
In other words, we always have a choice, not matter how dire our circumstances and for many the choice is made to stay exactly where they are.
Why would this be so?
Because the human spirit can be just as identified, just as content, with suffering as it can be with its polar opposite, success. There is an enjoyment that can come from one’s situation – it gives the individual spirit means by which it can be recognised, set apart from the rest. It doesn’t matter whether that identification comes from being impoverished or successful or anywhere in between – at the end of the day we are all seeking recognition of some kind; a point of differentiation that pleases us.
It can be hard to believe that this could be so but one only has to think of a time where we ourselves obtained a kind of sneaky pleasure despite immersion in a dire situation; an enjoyment of the drama that unfolded, of receiving attention or recognition for being special or different, despite the realities of our situation.
Bear in mind, this proposition is in no way intended to dismiss the very real trauma people suffer and the terrible effects they can have, often for generations. But it is intended to explore why dire situations are seemingly unable to change.
So if we cannot force another to change their lives, and understand willingness to change is a decision every individual needs to make for him or herself, what can we offer that would truly support?
A reflection that there is another way to live. A way that does not look for recognition of any kind, be it distress or success, but is about living simply and lovingly and with utmost regard for self and others; that is about connecting with and knowing we are part of a much bigger picture – one that encompasses all of humanity. It could be as simple as not only going into long-term, war-torn or impoverished or decimated zones and offering material aid but also giving people the chance to reconnect with something more than what is currently going on for them.
This is something we all need, even those of us who live in seemingly ‘better’ or more materially beneficial circumstances – our world can present challenges no less difficult, only different. Indeed, lifting oneself from the miasma of a comfortable life can be the greatest challenge of all, precisely because there is often little to challenge it. But that is another story.
Suffice to say, the capacity to provide emergency relief is important. If my neighbour’s house fell down tomorrow I would be there to help. If someone has a heart attack, I know I can call an ambulance so they can receive the attentions of a paramedic. Yet as people in the ‘prevention’ or developmental charity camp recognise, providing relief is not enough in situations where the ‘emergency’ is entrenched. However unless the developmental support provided is accompanied with a chance to connect with something more than material benefit, I would hazard a guess that despite all that might be provided, not all would take up what is on offer, never truly resolving the situation. In other words, unless people are supported to arise themselves internally, we’ll be giving, helping and aiding – and going ‘round in circles – for a long time yet.
By Victoria Lister