Back as a naive nomad when first starting out on this trip, I thought any kind of volunteering was positive, any effort to alleviate poverty was good, and education was the key to breaking the poverty cycle.
I don’t believe any of those things anymore.
I haven’t become jaded or distraught. Far from it. I’m just a little less naive.
Standard Of Living
Some believe that if everyone had the standard of living people enjoy in the West then everyone would be happy. But the planet doesn’t have the resources to sustain that and we haven’t figured out cold fusion or some other magical energy solution.
So, for the time being, all the “poor” people help subsidize the massive consumption and energy use in developed countries.
Oh, and many people are perfectly content with their simple lifestyles and don’t want the complicated bonanza of life in many developed countries.
Volunteering Can Be Negative
In general, I still believe in volunteering. It just depends.
Think of medicine. Some medicine is good. Think of all the lives that have been extended and improved thanks to anti-biotics.
But then there is the other side of medicine – side effects, addiction, dependency, etc. We’d all agree medicine, on the whole, is good. But we all acknowledge the downside of medicine as well.
Volunteering is the same.
How To Help People
I would say now, at my current level of naievity, my definition of helping people is as follows:
- Listening to their issues and problems. When building a bridge you start at both ends and meet in the middle. Assume you know nothing about rural poverty in South America or urban poverty in Asia.. because you don’t! Many people have no idea about the poverty in their own countries, in fact. So be humble and listen.
- Creating multipliers. That is, helping people help themselves in an exponential way. For example, helping mothers often has the side-effect of helping children.
- Improving communities to be more self-sustaining.
I’m not always able to find volunteering assignments that are multipliers, but I see this trip as my university – my insight into the world accumulating insight and knowledge (what corporate tools might call “capital”) so I can spend it in a positive way afterward.
While being interviewed by a journalist in Singapore for The Business Times, he told me about Bunker Roy. Basically, he gave up a good life (top schools, was a top athlete in India, and ready for a diplomatic career) to help the rural poor. He is fantastically entertaining and beautifully inspiring. Check out his video below.
For him, helping grandmas is the way to go. It’s hard to argue with him given his fantastic success.
I’ve tried to present a coherent argument here, but I’m still not completely sure how to help others. I know the best way you can help others is through empowering them to accomplish their dreams, but maybe there is no concise, easy answer. I just try to listen to my heart and those of others to contribute positively. Hopefully that’ll be “helpful” in the end.