Are we really helping?

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By Robin Low

Do Facebook likes really help?

Does sharing news really make an impact? Do your donations really reach the survivors?

Today, there are many people concerned with various causes. On social media, many people share heartbreaking stories on disasters and wars. Many share these stories and some even donated money for these causes.

From my experience after the Haiti Earthquake, Japan Tsunami, Tacloban Hurricane, I don’t see much impact “prayers” had on the survivors. In Haiti, the response was slow and people did not have food and medicine for days. There were certainly a lot of shares on Facebook and reports on the news. The poor response did get news coverage, however, the outrage online did not really help with the situation on the ground.

In Japan after the earthquake, I went to Ishinomaki, a coastal town that was destroyed by the Tsunami. The news and media that were allowed in Japan were all in Sendai and the disaster response went well where the International NGOs and volunteers were located. However, even after 5 days, Ishinomaki still had no power and neither the army nor any aid agencies have not arrived. There were so many donations for Japan, however, when the people in Ishinomaki needed them most, nothing arrived.

One year after the Nepal Earthquake, 4.1 billion dollars were donated for rebuilding. Yet, none of the destroyed homes has been rebuilt. During the winter following the earthquake, the people living in higher elevations did not have access to blankets and insulation for the weather. As a result, many froze to death.

People help to feel content. They feel good about themselves after donating money or sometimes just sharing posts on Facebook. They do not think about what actually happens next.

I have been to many post-disaster communities, and one of the most neglected elements for recovery is -- the economy. With continuous aid pouring in; housing, food and medicine is free. Even for a few years after the disaster, the aid may still be coming in. It all looks like good intentions, however, when it suppresses the local economy, farmers unable to sell their crops, doctors unable to find work, the good intentions of the donors actually do much harm in the very same community they want to help.

In a world where we are spoiled for convenience, we search for the approach most efficient for us and not those we are trying to help. We exclude those we are trying to help from making decisions. We measure success by the delivery of help or completion of actions and not actual impact.

There is much evidence that depression overcomes many survivors in the shelters when they have lost everything, and have everything done for them. Helplessness sets in when they feel that even simple tasks such as cooking are being done for them. There are a lot of benefits to empowering survivors to participate in the relief and recovery, yet in most cases, they are being excluded.

The curse of exclusion does not only apply to post-disaster recovery. In fact, this happens in many other cases when we fail to engage while we are trying to help a community.

We should not see helping as a duty, or see it as a “cool thing to do.” We need to understand our motivation of helping. Giving out of pity removes all dignity of the recipients. To fundamentally solve the complex problems we see increasing today, we need to invest in people's potential to get themselves out of the problems and poverty; sustaining these people will create a situation where more people will eventually need help if the root of the problems is not solved.

Today, with climate change, terrorism and wars, many things could happen to us. Instead of thinking like “This is never going to happen to me” we should have more empathy and think of what will we do if we are in the same position.

In most cases, the people we want to help are survivors. They did not ask for our help. They can be same like you and me, except they had unfortunate circumstances happen to them. We need to believe in the hidden potential of the people we want to help. We need to stop thinking of people as "needy", "handicapped" and "pitiful". Instead, we should look at them as people who need to be engaged and empowered with skills to solve their own problems. Enabling them to think positively while connecting them to the relevant help they need creates a positive path to where they can be productive in society and get their dignity back.

Everyone plays a role to empower their communities and enable the ones who are marginalized to do more. Charities are temporary solutions and the main problem we need to address is the unequal distribution of resources.

It is time for us to start thinking about solutions. There may be little that can be done for the people in Aleppo, but for those who escaped, they now stay in refugee camps, or they are somewhere in transit as all the big nations reject them. These survivors did not ask for the war to happen, and they just want to survive.

In refugee camps, the survivors are given housing, fed and provided medical support. But the same system also does not allow them to work or have any form of economic activity. Many of these people may be doctors, engineers, teachers and other professionals, but they are now allowed to find work.

Instead of waiting for billionaire philanthropists and large corporations to solve all the problems we see today. Perhaps we should make up fewer excuses, and start to think of solutions. It is up to us to take actions and accountability to make things right.

Robin Low is the co-founder of Civil Innovation Lab, with projects in Haiti, Nepal, Japan and Singapore. Robin Low is the author of a book “Good Intentions are not enough” published by World Scientific.