How Do We Help?

Dale Easley

10 June 2002

"You are too young to help anybody and I am too old," he said. "By help I don't mean courtesy like serving chokecherry jelly or giving money.

"Help," he said, "is giving part of yourself to somebody who comes to accept it willingly and needs it badly.

"So it is," he said, using an old homiletic transition, "that we can seldom help anybody. Either we don't know what part to give or maybe we don't like to give any part of ourselves. Then, more often than not, the part that is needed is not wanted. And even more often, we do not have the part that is needed. It is like the auto-supply shop over town where they always say, `Sorry, we are just out of that part.'"

[p. 81]
from A River Runs Through It by Norman Maclean.

There is an old saying, "Give a man a fish, feed him for a day. Teach a man to fish, feed him for a lifetime." Though there is much truth in this statement, reality is more complex. Does the man want to learn to fish? (Is coercion involved?) What will he teach us-is the relationship reciprocal, in that each culture is assumed to have something of value to contribute to the other? On a government scale, helping is often called development. When we talk about development, is there built into the word an assumption that they should be more like us? And finally, if we decide to help, what will be the unforeseen side effects (overpopulation, ecosystem destruction, exploitation) that call into question our decision?

As we begin looking at these questions, it is worthwhile to see what anthropologists and sociologists have to say. They have identified four main approaches for those attempting to help others:

Direct Aid:
giving to someone. Examples include the Red Cross responding to a disaster. Many church groups donate goods to Haiti, go there to build churches or houses. Some foreign aid is in this form.
Sustainable Development:
helping people do for themselves. Examples include education, transferring skills, substituting appropriate technology, such as the work of APF and CARE.
Policy Formulation:
working with governing bodies to create just, sustainable policies, such as fisheries management, international trade and tariff agreements, and loan policies. Locally, the Lake Pontchartrain Basin Foundation works on changing policies towards the lake.
Political Advocacy:
speaking out on behalf of the disenfranchised and disempowered. Examples include the work of Bread for the World and Amnesty International. Recently, the Congressional Black Caucus has advocated lifting the U.S. blockage of aid to Haiti.

If you decide on trying to help, from where does legitimacy come for your efforts? Do you represent a group of people, especially the ones you seek to help? What is your value system? Is it in agreement with those you seek to help or are you trying to impose a different one? Are you effective, or mainly making yourself feel good while wasting resources and potentially harming worthwhile projects? Are you empowering others or glorifying yourself? Why are your trying to help in the first place? Your own neurotic need to feel worthy? An addictive personality trait that compels you? A sense of shared humanity?

This trip is an educational trip, not a helping trip. But for many of you, a desire to help may follow. Be honest with yourself. Examine your motives. Think about the implications of what you want to do. Good will is nice but not sufficient-anyone who has studied families of alcoholics knows that. You and I are not the experts on life in Haiti-the Haitians are. We are going there to learn from them. Afterward, we will examine what we may choose to contribute. First, we need to be open to their reality.

This was written for students planning to travel with me to Haiti.