Recently I read Behind the Beautiful Forevers: Life, Death and Hope in a Mumbai Undercity for a book club with some friends. The writer, Katherine Boo, lived in an Indian slum for years, and wrote about her experience. I had to keep reminding myself that the book was nonfiction. At about the time I was getting ready to go to college in 2008, far away in India, a woman set herself on fire, a boy was murdered and his eyes gorged out, a baby was drowned in a bucket of water. After finishing the book, I felt like the .0001% and it was not the best feeling. And I was left with the question: what can privileged, spoiled Americans like myself do that would truly help? The book was no help in answering that question: every well-intentioned charity institution mentioned in the book was corrupted, not even remotely reaching the people they were supposed to help. Here are some examples:
1. A man desperately tries to obtain a grant for a life-saving operation on his heart. He knows that only a small percentage of the grant will trickle down to him after all the officials take their cuts. He can't obtain even this small percentage of what he deserves without a bride. The man cannot afford this bride and dies.
2. The schools are taught by unqualified teachers who don’t bother to teach. Hiring decisions are based solely on bribes. Schools only stay open long enough for the photo ops of the “learning” students.
3. The orphanage only provides enough food when the donors come to visit and otherwise sells the food (expired individual jam containers and the like) for profit.
4. A microloan program is supposed to reward women helping women. Instead it rewards poor women charging usury rates to even poorer women.
It was all very depressing. All we saw were good intentions paving roads in a non-heavenly direction. My best guess for why these charities don't work work is that a person can’t fix problems just by blundering into a foreign culture and throwing money at things. I don’t know how exactly one does fix problems (surprising, I know), but all the successful reforms that come quickly to my mind - civil rights in American, independence in India, end of apartheid in South Afica- were lead by and supported by the very people the reform affected. I hope that foreigners can help, but, ultimately, the best people to change a system are people who completely understand the system and any consequences of change.
The events of the books also forced me to take a harder look at why I volunteer. Am I volunteering to feel good or to do good? If I'm being honest, I know that being able to believe that I’m a good person is at least part of the motivation. I also believe/hope that’s fine, so long as I don’t get too blinded by the glow of my self-imagined halo to check if I’m actually helping. I also need to accept good intentions sometimes don’t lead to much of anything. Sometimes they’re even harmful. That’s just true of life in general.
I still think good intentions are more likely to do more good than sitting around feeling bitter and cynical. It's just that the odds become higher when there is a respect and understanding of the foreign culture.