Providing aid long-term: does it end the cycle of suffering?

World Responsibility

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

10 Comments on “Providing aid long-term: does it end the cycle of suffering?

  1. Wow. This article really hits the nail on the head. We have years of evidence that charity often only provides bandaid solutions, yet we continue to pay.

    I appreciate the distinction between situations vs entrenched poverty, it’s not something I’d heard before. And I agree, if somebody in my community needed help, I would support them, and I also support our humanitarian efforts for natural disasters.

    I see entrenched poverty in my community and I sometimes wonder of people, why aren’t you at a government or community agency seeking support? I wonder if this is me making a judgment of them. A lot of my work is with people who are at risk of, or who are homeless, and I have observed that when the individual wants to arise, they will. If not, then no amount of loving support or hand holding helps. I really appreciated the reflection offered in this article that a 3rd world nation could be likened to a 1st world individual.

    • It’s common in our small ‘l’ liberal societies to offer explanations for reasons why people cannot ‘arise’ as you say Monica – we look to a multitude of factors from the socio-economic and psychological to bad parenting, abuse and so on – and these are certainly critical in terms of understanding our own and other people’s situations. But within these circumstances there always exists opportunities to change; to identify less with the particulars and challenges of our backgrounds and examine more the choices we are making and the possibility we can choose something different.

  2. The points here made are indeed worth pondering on Victoria. If the aid is supposed to be effective, how come it needs to continue for decade after decade after decade?
    I understand that it’s challenging but I also feel it’s high time to open up and go deeper here, delving into the psyche of the human spirit and its desire for recognition and individuality. This gives us a broader picture as you have here presented. It’s starting a discussion worth having. Even in my own experience and observing my own spirit, sometimes a lot of support has come my way, but only when I was well and truly ready, was I able to change my own difficult situation, so I agree with what you say full heartedly.

    • Wouldn’t it be interesting to conduct an audit of how much has been spent, say on Africa, over the decades and compare this with outcomes that fit the bill in terms of the relief of poverty and distress? I wonder what we’d find.

      And yes, it’s often not until we hit rock bottom and say ‘enough’ that we choose differently, no matter what is put before us.

  3. Continually giving money to charities never really felt right for me but with all the ways I am approached for donations and how they can play on your emotions I sometimes think should I be giving more or doing more. But reading your perspective Victoria on the long-term impact charities are not having makes it clearer for me to see why places like Africa are not changing. Which may be the same reasons for no change in many other areas of our own lives and society – we need to acknowledge first that how we are living is not working. Thanks for sharing your very interesting thoughts Victoria.

    • Does charity work? It’s certainly a discussion worth having. I think another key concern here lies in the ‘playing with your emotions’ that you mention Christine. When you consider that charities regularly do this in order to attract support for their causes, it only seems to add to the feeling that the situation overall does not feel right.

  4. Awesome article Victoria. What you have described here so clearly and simply makes so much sense. The same applies for chronic illness or and affliction that we are obsessed by or addicted to. Around and around I go until I make a choice not to. Can it be that simple? You have shown that it in fact can be that simple, notwithstanding the humanitarian support that is of course needed in emergencies; ones that we are impelled as fellow humans to respond to. Brilliant!

    • That’s true Bernadette, I know I have done similar in my own life – repeated the same mistakes or themes or difficulties over and over, until I decided not to. If we are going to offer support in entrenched situations of what we recognise to be suffering, let’s offer not only instrumental aid but a way that truly supports people to move beyond their situation.

  5. A lot to ponder here Victoria, and what if those of us in the 1st world led the way by arising out of the drama, patterns, identification and need for recognition we have chosen to live with? If we arose from our own personal suppression, perhaps the imbalance between 1st and 3rd world would shift and there would be more natural support across humanity where it was required. Thank you for bringing to light a deeper perspective on the charity divide.

    • Great comment Megan. I agree – the task is to arise from our own personal suppression as you say, and demonstrate there is another way to be – to ‘be the change we want to see’. And this is not purely about solving any material problems. As 1st worlders we don’t face the same issues as our 2nd and 3rd world brothers but we are still struggling just as much – our health is collectively awful, for example. If we can get out of our comfort zones and start to take true responsibility for ourselves we can lead the way.

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