I put off this post for a while because I didn’t know how to start it but I think I’ll begin with a little bit more about me and my interest in human rights, and human rights law. I should start by saying I am not an activist or a campaigner. Instead I am someone who sees the world and its problems in much more pragmatic and practical terms. In this sense, I believe humble actions are worth infinitely more than condescending outrage over human rights issues.
I remember back in high school sitting in assembly one day and listening to some fellow students talk about Ann San Suu Kyi of Burma. To be completely honest, I remember nothing from that speech apart from being told than some lady was under house arrest, it was apparently outrageous, so “DO SOMETHING!”
What exactly that something was I have no clue, and in fact I am doubtful the well meaning student advocates had any clue either.
This brings me to a question that struck me while I was at the Enactus World Cup. Why should we, as university teams from western developed nations, go to far off places like Africa, to run projects which could probably be better run by local students?
(For those who don’t know, Enactus is a worldwide student-focused organisation aimed at enacting change through environmentally, financially and socially sustainable projects based upon entrepreneurial principles. Each participating university has it’s own uniquely structured team, and independent projects.)
At the conference, quite a few teams from developed nations presented projects which they had undertaken overseas – for example the Melbourne University team has a project active in both Ghana and India. Often times however, these projects run into difficulties given the geographical distance between the student volunteers and the people on the ground. It can even be difficult to coordinate with local aid organisations staffed by ‘westerners’ to ensure smooth management and execution of the proposed projects.
Having met some extremely capable and passionate students of teams from developing nations I thought surely, local students, living in the same communities, would have far greater knowledge of what is actually needed and how to achieve desired outcomes? Besides, it costs far more to run overseas programs than locally needed projects which are necessarily neglected. In response to this, my cynical side would say that it is simply western charity do-gooders wanting to “feel good.”
However, the real story is not so simple. Putting aside cynicism for the moment, what is it that we, as westerners, can bring that locals of developing nations might lack? I would say that whatever it is, it is not the ‘outrage’ or even money that we keep trying to send them through endless Facebook campaigns, and disturbing TV commercials. They are not asking for our outrage, nor could we come close to matching their passion for their own homelands with any amount of page liking or small change donating. They are not asking for simply money either, they are asking for action. Outrage and money might lead to action, but focusing on those aspects unfortunately often means forgoing real analysis of what kind of action is required. We here in the western world seem to focus a great deal on the means, but neglect to consider the ends we want to reach. Just because we can do something, does not necessarily mean we are most suited to do something.
Just as was said in the RSA video “Does Africa Need Our Outrage?”, we in the west lack humility. Instead of asking how can we help the passionate local activists, we seem to want to take their shoes and be the heroes. We relegate them to being victims, helpless sitting ducks who desperately need salvation of the most glorious and outrageous sort. A pertinent example might be the urgency with which we try to mobilise, through democratic pressure, western governments to intervene – a well meaning movement which on closer examination is decidedly condescending and dismissive of local activists. We want to believe that we personally are doing something to change the world. Perhaps our achievement and success driven meritocracies are to blame. However, the whole system of setting an arbitrary yardstick and assessing against goals makes sense only in the context of achieving a defined goal, such as accumulation of wealth or sales targets. It is perhaps the reason that human rights law is seen as a career with low job satisfaction – simply because it does not match easily conventional criteria. Furthermore, such linear thought processes do not seem to lend themselves well to the broader explorations of complex global issues and desired outcomes.
As an example, in all our political commentary on sectarian violence, solutions are often framed in the simple sequential steps of what needs to be done to solve the problem. Yet often this is an unconscious oversimplification of the actual situation, which in reality does not exist in a controlled bubble whereby a sequence of events plays out exactly as planned with no feedback from one stage to the next. Seldom do we consider the internal relationships and mutual incompatibilities within the wider sphere of the problem. Furthermore, it is not for lack of ability or knowledge that we neglect such considerations – sociology, philosophy and other liberal arts disciplines are hardly new areas of study. Of course, it’s a delicate balancing act regarding the trade-off between executable simplicity and comprehensive complexity. However, it might be time to rethink jumping straight away to the tried and tested plans of attack engrained in our societal thinking. We need to move away from the colonial habit of externally enforced change, and examine how best it is that we achieve organic change – something that has often been seen as a somewhat ‘unwelcome’ revolutionary force. It has only been recently, particularly following the Arab spring that we’ve really started to examine grass root movements as the most legitimate force for change. Surely we could transfer this recognition to our aid efforts as well.
Perhaps, once we start recognising that the passion, energy and desire for change exists organically within the communities we are trying to help, we can focus our attentions on the real task at hand – that helping the real heroes, the local heroes access and utilise the resources which they require to build the future they will be living in. Instead of outrage and money, we should seek to give support and cooperation.
The saddest thing is though, I haven’t a clue who those local heroes are. I only know the names of aid organisations like The Red Cross, World Vision, Oxfam and the like. I’d like to find out more about who the people bravely marching towards change, at their own personal risk, actually are.
(Written as a follow up to my post A Dismal Career in Human Rights, the RSA video mentioned can also be found at the top of that post.)