Tuesday, August 18, 2009

When help isn't helpful

Last week a friend from blogsphere asked about Swaziland in an IM conversation. He said “what did you learn?” I told him that I’d learned tons and that I was going to blog about my learnings. I realize as I begin to do so that it will take more than one post to describe it all, mostly because it is still unfolding. I’ll start today with this one: SOMETIMES HELP ISN’T HELPFUL.

Before going on this last trip, during and since coming home, whenever my thoughts turn to Swaziland (which is very often), I have found myself in the middle of a tension. The tension looks something like this:


On the one hand I am overwhelmed by the abundance here in America; my ability to solve every problem with the snap of my fingers or the swipe of my credit card. When I linger very long in this train of thought I begin to feel ashamed of myself and critical of people around me because we lack appreciation and in spite of our abundance, still want more. And when my memories of Swaziland surface, I am equally overwhelmed by the desperation of the people and the seeming powerlessness of so many to do anything about their own situations. Children, the elderly and the infirm, who cannot see to their education or food and clean water or basic health care, even when they are desperately ill. If I stay too long in this train of thought I feel like I must do something - - - anything, from my abundance to help solve the problems in Swaziland.

And then other memories from Swaziland surface. Memories of disappointment about previous efforts to help, gifts given and services offered that have not been sustained for even a few months, much less years. And even more disappointment that some friends have abused our trust, been dishonest about their own need or intent to use our gifts.

When the tension pulls my pendulum to one side I get frustrated that we (and western aid) have created among developing people an entitlement mindset. And I also feel some resentment that people who freely take our help seem unwilling to help themselves or their neighbors. But then the tension pulls my pendulum to the other side, I feel angry that in a world where so many have so much . . . there are still people dying for lack of clean water or basic health care.

I must admit that I have been feeling a bit jaded watching the news and listening to the uproar about the issue of health care reform in America. First I think, “shame on people for feeling entitled, demanding so much health care when so many in the world can’t get an aspirin to ease the pain of their arthritis.” And then I am convicted, “shame on me for judging, I have good health care, I purchase hundreds of dollars of prescriptions every month for just a few dollars and can go to the doctor whenever I sneeze. Where is my compassion for other Americans who have the best health care in the world in their backyard but they cannot access it.”

Newscasts have recently told the story of Remote Area Medical Foundation (RAMF, see news piece HERE ), a non-profit that provides free clinics for uninsured and under-insured. The implied message (as I hear it) is that the existance of RAMF is evidence of the need for public health care. If all of RAMF's clients were covered by some kind of public system, RAMF wouldn’t have to provide these services. Really??? Why not consider that the inherent good will of people could (should) be leveraged as part of our system. Let's empower the one who is caring for his neighbor instead of building another public system that would eliminate the need for people to care for one another, perpetuating the attitude of entitlement and dependency.

Just as RAMF is made of up people who are standing in the gap for people who lack access to health care in America, so the Shiselwini Home-Based Caregivers are standing in the gap in Swaziland to care for their neighbors affected by AIDS and lack of access to health care. You can read about their work HERE or (if you are a Facebooker) join the new Facebook group HERE and learn about coming along side and helping these caregivers help their neighbors.

Perhaps both governments could do things to make health care more accessible (certainly the Swazi government could). But to make improvements so that programs like these where neighbor helps neighbor are not needed – HEAVEN FORBID!!

To summarize my rambling thoughts. . . Help that robs people of the desire, the ability, the skill development needed to serve their own neighbor isn’t helpful. Neither is help that will cause people to depend on us (to fix the well when it breaks, build the next house, pay the next semester’s school fees, etc.). Furthermore, help that comes from people who have pre-determined the solution before fully understanding the problem (from someone living it) isn’t honorable or respectful, but it is arrogant. On the other hand, help that comes along side desperate people who are seeking (and finding) their own solutions and are already demonstrating service to their neighbor is encouraging, empowering and sustainable. And the best news is that it is very possible to help in this way, but for Americans, it will require searching and willpower, because of our propensity for quick answers and for building things, fixing things and solving problems. The search and patience is well worth it. I promise.

Wendi

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