February 06, 2012

Smart People.

One week ago I made some predictions and observations. I predicted that I would come back from the past weekend feeling self-righteous and motivated. I know myself so well. While I'm not up on a super high horse and looking to change the world like I might have in my teenage days, I have been given some food for thought that both encouraged and challenged some of my perceptions of the world.

In the same post I made a week ago, I asked the question of what actually is important. What is it that gets me worked up more than most things? What is it that gets me so riled up that I'm not only passionate enough to get emotional, but maybe even to act. What are those big injustices in the world that are going to have a lasting impact on how I live my life? What's going to make me upset enough to respond?

I think that, for a lot of us, it's easy to get really upset, talk about it, maybe throw some money at it, and then pat ourselves on the back. Is action really tied into it? There has to be something out there that can inspire us to take action. I'd like to think that no one out there is passive enough that nothing could affect them on a deeper level. Obviously not everyone is going to be impacted by the same things because some people are really passionate about saving the whales while some care about wells.

One of the speakers, Sean Peters, talked about rethinking charity. Out of all the options, this one caught my eye right away. He challenged us to fall in love with a problem, not a solution. Find a problem you care about and then work towards righting it. Don't have an idea of what can make it better and then try to force it to work with a given problem. Solutions need to be flexible; problems really aren't.

To back up his point, he gave us some examples. The first he gave had to do with World Vision and the Superbowl. Every year there are official victory shirts for both teams printed for sale right after the game. The shirts that aren't sold (in this case the Patriots) are donated to World Vision, who then ships them to Africa and distributes them. As brilliant as it seems, Sean pointed out the huge flaw in the donation: it undermines the local textile economy where the shirts are sent. T-shirts aren't the most complex or rare industry. These people don't have a need for the clothing. Furthermore, World Vision gives the company a tax receipt for the donation, and it increases World Vision's worth. What's the point of charity without sustainability?

He went on with two more examples of well meaning endeavours that don't actually accomplish the goals they set out to. It's important to have the proper solution to the problem. And it has to practical. He said that he first started thinking about this when he went down with his church as a teenager to build a school. The cost of flying to South America for each member of the team could have doubtlessly been used to employ locals to do the work, strengthening their economy and giving them gainful employment. This idea wasn't new to me. He surprised me by saying that, yes, while schools are important they're aren't so much so in the grand scheme of things. A school is just a building. A school doesn't teach. Teachers teach. It's one thing to donate to help build a school, but to help pay someone's salary is another entirely.

The workshop got me thinking about what really is a useful solution to these problems. It wasn't something that really got addressed because the real emphasis was to focus on a problem, not a solution. As pessimistic as that reads I don't think it is; it's just a stepping stone that too often gets missed. Sending shirts to clothe naked Africans is a solution for businesses, not people. I don't have a very business or economics oriented mind but it seems to me that one of the better solutions for the problem of poverty lies in micro-loans and education.

Self-sustainability is clearly the only way for communities to stop needing to rely on outside and foreign aid. While I'm sure some people enjoy handouts, there is no dignity in that in the long term. I am a huge supporter of charitable giving but I know that my financial contributions are not going to solve poverty alone. You can build someone a well and think that their community is going to be set for life or you can give them condoms and think that you're curing AIDS but without education both those things are useless. Communities need to know how to fix their well when it breaks and how to maintain it properly. People need to know where HIV/AIDS actually comes from and that having sex with a virgin really isn't a miracle cure.

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