Recently I had the privilege to visit Kenya and interact with some amazing school children. I firmly believe the strength of a nation is its youth and I was pleasantly surprised by my experience. It is a fact that the resilience of human beings is one of those reasons why we as humans have survived with our indomitable spirit. But there were two things that upset me. The first was that this part of Kenya was very poor – almost a subsistence economy though it had fertile land and abundant water. In the 1980s cotton was a leading industry and then the “Do Good” people arrived with charity. Used clothes, donated clothes were “dumped” (it is called mitumba) and since they were cheaper than the locally made clothes, local Kenyan people bought these and the retails industry closed down, the factories closed down and the farmers lost their livelihood. This was a good example when doing good was actually doing harm. We are all guilty of “charity” and here is an important part of “responsible charity” – don’t create dependency!! While this was the beginning, later the local industries could not compete with cheaper imports!
The second thing that upset me was the educational textbooks. It frustrates me that globally we are forgetting that every culture has in its past educational value that cannot only be captured by a “western-based curriculum”. Whether it is acupuncture, ayurveda, or other skills like husbandry or fishing. In fact older civilisations compete with western civilisations for discoveries like flight (Abbas Ibn Firnas), surgery (Sushruta) and astronomy (may be credited to the Sumerians who invented the oldest form of writing)! I met many kids – the most thought provoking one was a boy and girl in a remote island village on the banks of Lake Victoria who besides asking me to compare Darwin’s theory with the Bible asked me why they had to give up their culture to copy those who came from outside. A good question because no one should feel ashamed of where they came from and their culture. Again an interesting question from children exposed to many aid workers. For me Africa is and will always be one of those amazing cradles of civilisation and I think there is so much we can learn from the people of Africa only if we are willing to look at them as equals!!!
“Doing Harm by doing Good” is not uncommon. More than ten years ago, I was approached by a wife of a Fortune 500 senior leadership team member. She brought to me this unique problem where a wife of a newly immigrated Pakistani employee was being denied her “rights” as she had to cook before her husband came home, was not allowed to wear western dresses and he objected when she was greeted with a hug and kiss from male members of the company. The western women were encouraging her to fight for her rights. What did I think, she asked – especially since I had lived in USA. I asked her three questions – (1) were they investing in her further education? – she said no. (2) Where they planning to find a job for her – she said no. (3) Were they going to help her get American citizenship – she said no. So I asked her what she thought she had achieved? She had possibly destroyed a marriage (if she understood this was a normal part of Muslim culture perhaps she would have approached it differently), she had probably got the girl to loose custody of her kids and worse she would have to return to Pakistan maybe in disgrace (since citizenship was not an option) as divorce was not looked upon favourably in most conservative asian cultures.
The third example I wish to share is that of Haiti. When Haiti had the big earthquake in 2010, UN workers were sent to help. Unfortunately some of the aid workers brought with them a dose of cholera that spread like an epidemic and even till today the situation is unresolved. While these are unfortunate consequences in a catastrophe – what was appalling was that the UN refused to take responsibility. They had moved on to another crisis and either did not have the funds or the responsible intensions to do good. Now the UN is facing a ground breaking class action law suit in USA. Unfortunately USA is involved too as the U.S. government, is responsible for 22 percent of the United Nations’ overall budget. While charity, aid, good intensions are all great – if they are not responsible – they may not have the positive impact we need.