First, Do No Harm
This weekend, I read a thought-provoking essay in Time magazine called “There’s No Point in Doing Good Badly.” I remember talking to a man who helped coordinate the relief efforts after Hurricane Katrina. He told me that so many unneeded items were donated following the catastrophe that it involved a massive effort just to bulldoze and burn all of them. During our conversation he sighed and summed it up with, “What a waste.” As someone who helps coordinate charity efforts in China, I get to see firsthand the passion and desire that people have for wanting to help those in need. But sometimes our best efforts don’t really help, and truth be told, might actually cause more problems. The last line of the essay in Time concluded with “First, do no harm.” We repeat that mantra at LWB each and every time we consider a new project. We have learned the hard way that oftentimes ideas that we think seem wonderful (in America) don’t translate to actually helping in another country.
These issues can range from the minor to the major, and we have learned from experience. Take the simplest issue of parents seeing orphaned babies sleeping on bamboo mats and wanting to do good by providing the babies with more comfortable Western mattresses. Trying to help, we ordered the Western-style mattresses on behalf of the well-meaning parents. The orphanage aunties stayed silent throughout this process, surely not wanting to offend us. Very quickly we saw the error of our ways. Cotton rag diapers leak constantly, and where the bamboo mats could be quickly hosed off and hung to dry, a thick heavy mattress would just absorb the liquid and then smell. The babies who before could stay relatively clean each day were now sleeping on urine-soaked mattresses, which was far more unhealthy. The bamboo mats were brought out again (which surely made the aunties smile), and we had our first taste of American “good intentions” that just weren’t correct.
I also remember our good intention of wanting to start an allowance system for older teens in one orphanage in the hopes that this would help them learn the value of money and hard work. We gave weekly allowances to kids who agreed to help with small chores in the orphanage so that they could have their own spending money. This idea sounded GREAT in theory…but was disastrous in practice. Giving children in the orphanage money of their own resulted in kids stealing from one another and in teens spending money on their way home from school on things they wouldn’t normally have access to, such as cigarettes and alcohol. The orphanage finally asked if we could PLEASE stop the program. This is another example of orphanage staff wanting to be respectful to foreigners who wish to help, even when the help they are offering isn’t in the best interest of how things are done in the home country.
Thankfully we now have a solid infrastructure of local citizens in China who help us make the correct decisions the first time for the kids. If we are going to put time and financial resources into doing good, we want that good to make a positive and lasting impact on the children. As I read the article above, I thought again that “First, do no harm” needs to be foremost in our minds when we wish to help others, especially when those others are in countries whose cultures are different from ours.
Have you ever had a situation where your good intentions ended up causing additional problems? Do you think people in the West often feel like our ways are the correct ways?
Amy Eldridge is the Executive Director of LWB and the mom to seven wonderful kids (two from China).