Compassion versus dignity (and being overwhelmed)

Did you hear the one about the cosmetic surgery company that sent a load of silicone breast implants to Haiti as ‘aid’ in the wake of the earthquake? I’d thought it was an urban myth, but no, it really did happen.

Imagine the donor newsletter behind that one. “Mary, 29, says, ‘I lost my home, my livelihood and several members of my family. But thanks to international donors, I now have a fantastic cleavage. How can I ever thank you?’”

In the aid world there is (of course) an acronym for this: SWEDOW – Stuff We Don’t Want. This includes a host of well-meaning projects to ‘give stuff to the poor’ which at best are not useful and at worst undercut local economies. Eg TOMS shoes, A Million T-shirts for Africa campaign (and bam, several local shoemakers or T-shirt sellers go out of business). The breast implant story is not alone – there are some real shockers out there.

Whenever I come back to the UK and people ask me questions about what I do, I’ve learned that there is a very limited window of time for me to give an answer before they start to glaze over. Maybe it’s because I’m not telling them the things they actually want to know. But either way I don’t blame them. There’s a crowded marketplace out there of charities advertising their latest world-changing campaign and tugging on our heart strings as they beg for help, and there is only so far compassion can stretch when people are already dealing with their own stresses and financial troubles. Especially when the needs being talked about are so far away. No one likes being given a guilt trip, and that’s what a lot of charity marketing has become synonymous with, even as we dodge charity muggers on the high street.

There are too many crises. It’s overwhelming. Nowhere more so than here, so please forgive me if I give you some examples certainly not meant to induce guilt.

A few weeks ago I visited a centre that houses little girls who have been rescued from prostitution. We sang some songs together. As I drove out of the gate I saw one of the girls following behind the car, crying. I have been wanting to go back and give them more regularly of my time and love, but things keep getting in the way.

Next door to our new house, a family lives in a tiny metal shack on a small square of land full of rubbish. I hear them coughing from over the wall outside my bedroom window every morning. It makes me feel sick that I live in comfort right next to such extreme poverty. I made a batch of cookies for them last weekend. It seemed like such a stupid, insignificant contribution to their lives, maybe even an insult, when they can clearly see how much more I have than them – certainly more than just the means to make a few cookies.

But the problem is that everywhere I look there are needs worthy of my attention, and what I have to offer them in time and energy is pitifully inadequate.

Inevitably I end up only giving on my own terms – what I can spare, when I can make it – which doesn’t usually correspond to what they actually need, and when they need it. How can I be sure that my efforts are really about those on the receiving end, and not about me?

I heard a phrase recently that’s been going around in my head, that giving always involves indignity on the part of the receiver. So how to give without insulting people’s dignity?

ImageThe aid industry is rightly accused of being too donor-centric. It often seems that the only way we can get the funding we need is to focus our appeals on the interests and tastes of the donor. What do you want to give, and when? What would you like to get out of it? Donors want to see evidence of what their gift has achieved, and it’s not enough to just tell them, ‘thanks to you we haven’t gone bankrupt yet.’ So we say that if you want to get rid of your old stuff, we can take it off your hands. If you want to buy something trendy and at the same time have a donation made in your name, we can offer that too. We can provide a cool bracelet that you can wear to show everyone how socially conscious you are, and a celebrity-backed campaign with a catchy video you can ‘like’ on Facebook as your contribution to eradicating poverty.

I’m not saying these things are wrong. I’m saying that they can be ultimately more about us and what tickles our fancy than about the people we are enthusiastic to help.

How can we ensure that in the process those people aren’t made to feel like no more than our latest pet project, our temporary focus until we find another more dramatic cause?

I recently found these words in a rant I’d scribbled on a scrap of paper about a year ago, I don’t remember why: ‘Aid is not about satisfying our own impulse to create order and feel good about ourselves. It is about the people we are working with, and they cannot tailor or package their problems to suit our appetite or attention span.’

People sometimes say to me, ‘it must be so rewarding’. More like a sense of pouring cement into an ever-widening crevice. Even as we struggle to cover the very basics, the feeling is that we are barely papering over the cracks of problems much deeper than we can begin to address. Hence the sense of barely suppressed despair that is papable among many aid workers.

That’s why I couldn’t do this if I didn’t have a faith. I am daily reminded that even if I could give all my time and love it wouldn’t be anywhere close to enough. The only way it makes any sense is if there’s Someone who can fill the void that I can’t fill, is able to satisfy those needs, and I and all the other flawed self-interested human beings in this are just a small part in that process. Thus there is always hope, thus I have reason to keep trying, even when progress is hard to see.

Too heavy?

Well, I’m going to the pool tomorrow. That’s the other thing – learning not to feel guilty about enjoying myself amid all the needs. Swimming and sun. Just in case I gave you the idea that being here was ALL about self-sacrifice…


About stellainorbit

Spending my third year in South Sudan working in humanitarian communications. Trying to figure out the world of aid and how to tell the wonderful, painful and funny stories that go with it. If I can make small windows between worlds, this may have been useful. View all posts by stellainorbit

3 responses to “Compassion versus dignity (and being overwhelmed)

  • Vera Wennekers

    I’m hoping to join a Medair team soon and just discovered your blog here about your time in South Sudan. Thank you for sharing your experiences, your thoughts in such a beautiful way.
    I am new to this world – but in trying to prepare to enter into it, I go through so many different challenges, and you express many of these here (much more eloquently than I ever could .. It means a lot to me to read this).
    In New Zealand we say ‘kia kaha’ — be strong.
    Thank you.

  • Brina

    Indeed, this is beautifully written and you express so well humanitarian workers’ feelings, including those that are often suppressed. Thanks for putting those into words.

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