Posted tagged ‘compassion’

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.

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Slogans and bumper stickers

August 6, 2010

Sick of ignorant slogans, bad policy and blatant lies by national leaders, a mate and I have written some slogans of our own in an attempt to add our voice to the current public discourse, if you can call it that, about asylum seekers and the Australian community.

I am appalled at our nation’s leaders inability to speak fairly and compassionately about refugees and displaced people. Australia has the resources and the responsibility to take a lead in helping some of the most vulnerable people in the world. As the third wealthiest country on the globe, the wealthiest in our region by a substantial margin, and as a country that has been continually strengthened by various waves of immigration, a welcome rather than a rejection is entirely reasonable.

The bumper stickers are now printed and ready to go, and welcomerefugees.org is up and running.

As well as a place to order bumper stickers, the website gives a valuable perspective about people who are refugees and the way we can respond as an Australian community. The fact sheets provided by GetUp or the Edmund Rice Centre for Social Justice are a good place to start in being more informed, and so are the stories on the SBS “How far we’ve come” website.

 

forgiveness

July 28, 2010

Some further thinking about the lack of preparations I wondered about …

The desert, so often described as ‘unforgiving’, was the opposite. The length of the journey, the eternity of the horizon and the dirt track laid out before us, it gave us time. Time to remember, time to stop often, time to listen and watch, time to take in the sky and the spinifex. Time to sit by smoky fires and admire the stars. The journey forgave us our lack of preparation.

And the folks who hadn’t heard of us for so long? Hard to describe, hard to grasp even.

There are calls across the bush for children and ladies to come and see these visitors. There is holding of hands, swapping of stories. There is a longing gaze, and a shy glance. There is laughter, and whispering of sadness. There is time together that I will never forget, and hope to return to again.

The desert and its people, welcoming and forgiving.

Home and away

May 6, 2010

 

 

Last night I read a picture book by John Marsden and Matt Ottley – Home and Away. I suggest that you do too. Borrow one, find it at the library, or buy it and keep it. Read it to your kids if you think they can handle it.

It only takes about 15 minutes to read, but its story and images stayed with me much longer than that.