What does it mean to help?

(9 am. – promoted by ek hornbeck)

This is a question I think progressives need to spend more time contemplating. Our commitments tend to be about moving forward to correct the wrongs and injustices faced by people in the world. But the truth is, too many times our efforts either don’t help or create unintended consequences that can make the situation worse.

A co-worker and I spend quite a bit of time contemplating this question as we attempt to manage programs at a small nonprofit whose mission is the work with troubled youth and families. And I was reminded of the question last night while listening to a portion of Krista Tippent’s NPR program, Speaking of Faith. Her guest was Binyavanga Wainaina, editor of the Kwani? literary journal and a visiting professor of Africana Studies at Williams College in Massachusetts, for a show titled The Ethics of Global Aid, One Kenyan’s Perspective. Here’s a quote from Mr. Wainaina that was highlighted in the conversation.

A lot of people arrive in Africa to assume that it’s a blank empty space and their goodwill and desire and guilt will fix it. And that to me is not any different from the first people who arrived and colonized us. This power, this power to help, is just about as dangerous as hard power, because very often it arrives with a kind of zeal that is assuming ‘I will do it. I will solve it for you. I will fix it for you,’ and it rides roughshod over your own best efforts.


This brings up one of the fundamental issues related to the question “what does it mean to help?” Too often, the methods used are more about assuaging the guilt and needs of the person wanting to help than the real concerns of those on the receiving end.

On the other hand, what about when the person we’re trying to help is convinced that the only way to do so is to enable destructive behavior? We face this challenge all the time at work. The reality is that many times helping can mean NOT paying attention to what people want and letting them suffer the consequences of their actions. These are very tough calls to make and often there’s no “rule book” to follow.  

In addition, what I so often see in efforts to help are solutions that are crafted from the perspective of what would work for us – rather than the real world of those on the receiving end. I saw this so clearly a few years ago when our state legislature was looking for ways to reduce truancy. One of the things they did was give courts the ability to revoke youth getting a driver’s license at 16 if they were chronically truant. That threat is a powerful one for most suburban and rural youth (at least as far as threats can be effective, which is not so much). But many of the urban youth we work with live in families where no one drives/owns a car and they don’t see it in their future either. They would tend to laugh at the threat. The legislators passed a law that they envision working with THEM when they were teenagers and it was completely ineffective with a whole group of our highest risk kids.

But I have other questions as well. Most of them have to do with good intentions getting institutionalized in order for the programs we create to “go to scale” and have a real impact. As an example, we just completed a public art project at work that was partially funded by a city program that promotes cultural activities. Because it uses state dollars, anyone who accesses this funding must comply with the Davis Bacon Labor Standards Act (which ensures that prevailing wages are paid to contract and subcontract employees) and Affirmative Action outreach efforts with regards to women, minority and small businesses.

I completely support the intent of programs like these and recognize the need for them. But what it meant in reality for this particular project was a complete nightmare. We had an amazing artist to work with who wasn’t registered as a “small business” with the state. He rounded up his family and friends to help him with this community project in order to keep our costs down. NONE of that was in compliance with these programs.

In the end, this example is really not a big deal to me. But as I was going through it all, I felt the tension of being supportive of things like Affirmative Action and Labor Standards, but being so angry with the bureaucracy that has been built around their implementation. I see this happening all the time in both government and nonprofit programs. And it not only means that the goals of the efforts are compromised, but it gives fodder to those who want to criticize our attempts to address these issues.

As you can probably tell by now, I have WAY more questions about this than I do answers. But it strikes me as a critically important dialogue to have if we ever want to really change things.

In the midst of these questions, I am often grounded by a quote from the book Lest Innocent Blood Be Shed about Andre Trocme, a French minister who led the small town of Le Chambon to provide refuge to thousands of Jews during world war two.

But he did not give it (this celebration of life) to Le Chambon in the way that one gives money to the poor or gifts to friends. Trocme gave his aggressive ethic to them by giving them himself. Aside from the distinction between good and evil, between helping and hurting, the fundamental distinction of that ethic is between giving things and giving oneself. When you give somebody a thing without giving yourself, you degrade both parties by making the receiver utterly passive and by making yourself a benefactor standing there to receive thanks – and even sometimes obedience – as repayment. But when you give yourself, nobody is degraded – in fact, both parties are elevated by a shared joy. When you give yourself, the things you are giving become, to use Trocme’s word, feconde (fertile, fruitful). What you give creates new, vigorous life, instead of arrogance on the one hand and passivity on the other.



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  1. of Jay Elias’ sig line when I think about these questions.

    The urge to save humanity is almost always a false face for the urge to rule it.

    ~ H.L. Mencken

    • Edger on December 8, 2008 at 19:36

    in Jay’s sig line, is another thought I’ve often had, that most “helpful advice” is given as an un-admitted attempt to make life easier for the advice giver

  2. …seldom, I think, accomplishes what it was intended to accomplish.  But I also find there are no shortage of people — both on the helper and helpee side of power — who will happily explain that the efforts to help are colonizing shit and/or “not teaching to fish” or something else which amounts to fuck off or damn convenient, as the case may be.

    I have known a couple people one step below country director on two seperate UN programs.  I don’t think the experienced people doing that work are sanguine about unintended consequences or the very real limits of their actions.  I don’t think it’s useless or per se colonizing, either.    

    • kj on December 9, 2008 at 01:51

    opened, NL.  

    my experiences are one-on-one or small groups, with no qualifications other than experience and/or identification, with a healthy dose of anarchy and mirrors to spare.  the lines between helper/helpee, teacher/learner are so mixed as to be non-existent.  stories.  🙂

    but when it gets to the level where you have found yourself, i have no idea.  and the UN?  or NGOs?  

    years ago i collected totems.  it became a sort of passion.  ran across a beautiful wolf and promptly broke one of the legs.  ended up telling my friends at the rock store about it, and he advised me that wolf stood for teacher in come cultures.  he fixed the broken leg, i tied a tiny bit of leather around the break and loved the idea that i had somehow ran into the ‘wounded healer’ archetype with such force. a concrete reminder.   (later i broke its other leg, but that doesn’t make as good a story ending!)

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