By Robin Low
Many people do want to help, but do not know how. When a disaster occurs, people donate money and volunteer to provide aid. In post-disaster situations, many people have ideas to help these communities, but how many of these ideas have actual measurable social impact and sustainability?
In Nepal, 1 year after the earthquake, US$4.1 billion was donated to rebuild the damage. The people who were displaced by the disaster and who cannot afford to rebuild their homes are still living in tents. Today, many of the collapsed buildings in Kathmandu that used to house soldiers are still unbuilt and soldiers are still living in tents. Although government initiatives probably are undertaken with the best intentions for the people, taking 10 months to set up the Nepal Reconstruction Agency and more months to implement rebuilding may be taking a little too long.
Closer to home, student groups from Singapore participate in community involvement projects and build schools in various countries, which may seem like a good idea. They raise funds and do actual hands-on construction of schools in other countries out of good intentions. Unfortunately, construction work is not as simple as many may think, and it takes much experience to build even a sturdy wall, let alone a school. In some cases, buildings built by volunteers actually collapsed months after rebuilding.
I have been to many post-disaster communities, and from my observation, one of the most neglected element for recovery is the economy. With aid pouring in continuously, housing, food and medicine are free. Even a few years after the disaster, the aid may still be coming in. It all stems from good intentions, but when it suppresses the local economy, farmers are unable to sell their crops, doctors unable to find work, and the good intentions of the donors actually do great harm in the very same communities they want to help.
Besides disasters, our attempt to solve poverty is also unsustainable. I’ve seen charities building and renovating homes for people living in slum-like conditions. The recipients get much better living conditions when they move into their newly renovated homes, but within a year, most of these families will return to the same condition as before, because a lot of other, more pressing problems like poor infrastructure and access to education are not solved.
After being in the field for several years, I feel that we need a new innovative approach of helping others in a more sustainable way.
What went wrong?
When we help, we make life decisions for people we try to help. When they succeed, we claim credit, when they fail, we blame them for not trying or not following instructions. When we help, we feel content to help but fail to see the whole picture. We search for the approach most efficient for us and not for those we are trying to help. We exclude aid recipients from decision-making processes. We measure success by the delivery of help or completion of actions, and not actual impact.
There is much evidence that has shown 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.
What can we change?
We need to understand our motivation for helping. Giving out of pity removes all the 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 problems like poverty; sustaining these people with aid will create a situation where more people will eventually need help if the root of the problems is not solved.
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.
Through social innovation, marginalised communities can be freed from a life bound by servitude and dependency. Poor people are not stupid. They have ideas and aspirations, but lack the resources to solve even their most immediate problems. They do not need the help from the billionaire philanthropists; they do not need aid and donations. They need to be included in deciding their future, and to be connected to resources and empowered to solve their own problems.
What we need is for people to rethink their consumption habits. Supporting chain stores just because they sell cheaper products, but who may exploit their workers in the different levels of supply chains, may not the best way to save money. We need business owners who treat their workers with respect and encouragement. We should not worship billionaires because it will encourage people to accumulate their wealth at any cost.
Everyone plays a role to empower their communities and enable the ones who are marginalised to do more. Charities are temporary solutions and the main problem we need to address is the unequal distribution of resources.
Billionaire philanthropists and large corporations do not hold the solution to the problems we face today, 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. Mr. Low would love to work with communities to co-create solutions and welcomes conversations and innovative ways to solve social problems. Robin Low’s book, “Good Intentions Are Not Enough”, published by World Scientific, is to be launched on 20 Oct, at The Pod @ National Library at 7pm. The event is open to the public.