Archive for September 2010

The bus stop

September 24, 2010

At the bus stop on Friday I had an extra cause to smile. There was a young lady singing. Not so much singing to herself quietly, just singing. And not necessarily singing to those around either. Just singing and singing well – and it was a very pleasant Irishy* sounding ballad. When I commented that it was nice to here someone singing in public in such a way, she said she did it because it was a good way to finish the working day. The ballad was a most welcome counter to the drone of the passing traffic. She stopped when she got on the bus – perhaps the singing is reserved for walking along and waiting at the bus stop.

I liked the freedom of it – the thought that we can do things just for joy, not for recognition, or payment, or for attention. And it wasn’t offensive and it didn’t exploit anyone or make someone else feel smaller.

Just joy in a public place, unrestrained.

* I’m not sure ‘Irishy’ is a word, it just came to mind at the time

Burning

September 15, 2010

Most things we do have some unintended consequences, but some people are more circumspect than others, and some people are fruitcakes.

The bloke from Florida who wanted to burn the Koran has already had far too much attention than was warranted, but a piece by my friend Phil in Afghanistan brings a solemn dose of reality to our thinking, and is a timely reminder that in our interdependent world, the actions we all take can cause ripples not only in our own pond, but in places and ways that we might never imagine.

What they really need

September 13, 2010

A Kenyan bloke I studied with was telling me about some women who had recently arrived from Somalia, and now lived in and around Yokine in the northern suburbs of Perth. A local council was keen to be involved with them, and some community workers got together to cook up some strategies to help these ladies who were still settling in to a new place, far away from home, and having had some dreadful experiences along the way.

They decided a walking group for the women would be good – it would help everyone keep healthy, and help them get to know the places that were around their community. And it would help people form new networks and relationships, with each other and hopefully others. Plans were made, funding sought, and brochures and posters done. Nobody came though. Even with a bigger promotional push, interest was very low.

A number of conversations later, the reasons became much clearer. These women were refugees – they had been walking all their lives. After years of trauma and travelling to escape violence, the last thing they needed or wanted was to walk some more.

Good intentions

September 8, 2010

“Couldn’t we get involved with those people you visit in the compound on the edge of town – the people with HIV?”

That was my question to Paul, the Zambian man we stayed with for four months. After all, we had come as volunteers to help and to experience. Wouldn’t that be a good use of time, an experience more ‘on the edge’? Among the many tasks Paul did, he visited and organised practical help for some of the many folks living with and dying of AIDS in the compounds, the very poorest communities on the fringes of Kitwe, the northern Zambian city he lived in. No, we were to teach some English in the local school and maybe help with some first-aid. And we were take our time and listen, and see where we might fit in. Sometimes we were good at that, sometimes we weren’t.

There are many notions tangled up in my question, few of which I could recognise myself at the time. What were my thoughts about other people’s poverty, and maybe about my own? Did I think I could do better, or just as well at least, as a local person? What role does international volunteering have in addressing complex issues? Who really benefits in the end?

It was 12 years ago and half a world away, our time as volunteers in Zambia, but some reading I did the other night reminded me of my conversations with Paul. I got stuck into reading a number of blogs about international aid and development – a couple of them I regularly read, but as happens with online  reading, a link to a link to a link takes me all sorts of places I never expected. Very often it’s worth it though. It’s worth examining why orphanages are a bad idea most of the time, or the way grinding poverty gets mistaken for authenticity. It’s worth asking questions about well-intended schemes to free people from human slavery or send a million shirts to ‘Africa’, or even about the way we characterise communities that are only ever seen as poor, and never anything else. All these bear further thinking about – so often good intentions are gravely misguided, and the errors gets hidden away beneath the goodwill, seldom exposed for their ignorance.

None of this is new – debate about the best ways to address pressing issues is ongoing. There is a natural counterpoint to this too. We could get paralysed with fear that we might do something wrong. Surely good intentions should be applauded? Surely passion for alleviating poverty and harnessing the vast resources of those who have them is a key part of working for justice and compassion. With too much complexity and too much criticism, won’t we kill the passion and creativity? Creativity and passion are powerful forces – for good and evil, but they are never enough.

In this vein, the importance of self-examination and critical thinking cannot be under-estimated, especially on actions that affect others so much. As one writer argued, we don’t let anyone do brain surgery on our relatives just because they’re keen and they have a creative idea. In our thinking about contributing to overseas aid and development, often we are not as thorough. The feel-good factor of offering help in times of need can often cancel out the important task of thinking about further ramifications of our actions.

There are so many others can write with clarity about these matters with much more maturity and expertise than me, but in a sense it helps me crystalise my own thoughts, and to encourage others to go on a similar journey. I would recommend a read of some of the material on Blood and Milk, Good intentions are not enough, Aid watchers and many of the writers they link to. And I think  Staying for tea writes a beaut post about competence and passion and humility, that makes good sense of some of the competing ideas. It’s a bit like a chain that never ends.

And I make these comments here with trepidation, because who am I, having rarely travelled beyond my own comfort zone compared to so many others? However, in a world that always seems to be in strife, where a million causes and ideas to face them stare out at us, our own seeming good intentions and the intentions of others need serious consideration. Ignorance can so often be laziness.

The road to hell is paved.