Monday, December 29, 2008

We want to save the world!

Earth in your hand 

I had an interesting conversation with a humanitarian worker over dinner last Saturday. We were discussing about the best approach to use when providing capacity building to national institutions.

We both agreed that the best way is to take the inclusive approach whereby consultations are carried out consistently in order to allow full participation from local staffs.

It was interesting how we have both met many expats who arrive in a developing country and start to make all sorts of unilateral decisions without as much as asking whether the national institution welcomes them or not. This I-know-best mentality is not only patronizing and insulting, but also has a very negative impact on what they are supposed to be doing there. At the end, they don’t build the capacity of the people, but simply dictating or as I like to say sometimes, colonizing.

Then, very often, I have come to notice certain foreign humanitarian workers who “victimise” their local staffs unnecessarily. I don’t know whether I have put it in the right way but just so there is no misunderstanding, allow me to clarify.

For instance, they tend to see people from developing countries as helpless and weak, hence in need of constant rescuing. Simply put, they see them as “poor things”. It’s a bit like if you’re an African, you need to be pitied because your skin colour has subjected your race to years of discrimination and slavery. So, you’re excused from all expectations. Or, if you have a form of disability, then you’re not allowed to be criticised for any wrongdoing.

Yes, that’s right. Instead of realising that their behaviour constitutes pitying someone, they think that they are being kind and compassionate.

The thing is, pitying someone for whatever reasons it may be, does no good to that person. While one must never discriminate, one should also apply the same standard regardless of whether the person is from a developing country, suffered from a violent conflict or in any disadvantaged position. For, isn’t expecting less from someone just because he or she is African or living with disabilities a form of discrimination too?

If our role is to help promote the capacity of these people, then we should put aside whatever background they come from and focus on getting the best out of them. By pitying them will not help them to go far.

I used to be naive and think that I would like to save the world. But now, from the years I have spent living and working in post-conflict countries, I realise that this is just wishful thinking.

If you decide to work in humanitarian field, I hope you won’t leave thinking that you will be saving the world because at the end of the day, you don’t. All you can do is help and at best, do whatever you can so that these people will be able to achieve self-sustainability and independence. 

If you manage to do that, then it is the best thing you could have ever done.


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