"Whenever I go into a restaurant, I order both a chicken and an egg to see which comes first"

Wednesday, December 25, 2019

Helping The Poor– Idealism Has No Bounds Whatsoever

Melody Banner had no idea what she wanted to do with her life but knew it had to mean something.  While the law and business might be attracting alternatives for some, for her they had no soul, no higher calling.  While she could see herself defending death row inmates or providing counsel to civil rights groups, the whole idea of torts, contracts, and accounting seemed a punishing way to reach a simple goal – helping people.  There must be more direct, personal ways that could provide assistance and succor to the poor and disadvantaged and help the earth and give her a sense of immediate satisfaction.

She was active in campus protests for racial and social equality, marched on Washington, and went on latter-day Freedom Rides to protest corporate greed, environmental insanity, and war; all of which provided the immediate gratification of doing something and the camaraderie of like-minded, sympathetic people.  Doing the right thing was fun.  Of course she and her classmates took their causes very seriously, but there was no denying the enjoyment of post-march pizza and beer, sleep-overs, and friendship.

Graduation was a wake-up call, for she saw that her friends had left their fiery campus commitment behind and had applied to graduate school,  sought government internships, and found jobs in advertising, marketing, and sales.  While she had lost none of her enthusiasm for social change and right civic behavior, by entering such practical, mediocre occupations.

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The first years after college were easy transitions from the heady days of campus activism to the real world.  She lived in series of group houses in Atlanta, Chicago, and St. Louis, eating at soup kitchens with the homeless, sharing the small rent, and was able to keep her spirit and enthusiasm.  As she reached her mid-twenties, however, the blush was off the bloom of the rose; and while her desire to do good still burned as brightly as ever, marginal living didn’t suit her.  Living like the poor – communal and empathetic at first – grew old quickly.  While she had always criticized her parents as bourgeois and hopelessly middle-class, she secretly wanted at least some of it – a good bed, decent pasta, and an occasional weekend on Nantucket.  Yet the path she was on held none of those minor pleasures; and she could see only irritation, drafts, and small change in her future.

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Things changed when she joined the Peace Corps.  Here was both an opportunity to do good and to prepare for an institutional future.  The State Department development wing was manned almost entirely by former Volunteers.  In fact the Peace Corps program itself was designed as an inexpensive way to train future employees by reinforcing their empathy with the poor, giving them hands-on experience with the type of projects the Department financed on a large scale, and giving them a taste of the life of those for whom they would eventually be administering large financial grants.   In order to stay relevant and to keep the same low-level, non-political eyes and ears in Third World countries America needed as friends, Volunteers were now being recruited as counsellors and advisors in legal affairs, media, and education rather than empathetic helpers and advocates for the poor; but when Melody joined the Corps, it was still a hands-on, chicken-and-pig raising affair, a people-to-people experience with two sides to a bright, shiny coin.  The Volunteers who got to live with those whom they had idealized when in college – the poor, the marginalized, and the forgotten – without having to share space with the angry, hostile black residents of inner city slums – an impossibility. At the same time the State Department saw its talent pool grow each year as each year a new crop of young, enthusiastic men and women applied for appointment and cubicles in the lower floors of the Ronald Reagan building were never empty.

It didn’t turn out as everyone had expected.  The gap between middle-class American children and desperately poor, marginalized villagers was simply too great to breach.  No matter how enthusiastically the Volunteers promoted pig farming, irrigation, or sustainable kitchen gardens, the villagers simply shrugged, put up with these strange interlopers because they were told to, and went about their meager lives. 

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Human nature being what it is, it was not surprising that the Volunteers grew resentful and disdainful of their village hosts.  What the Volunteers were promoting was so simply that an idiot could do it; and because the villagers showed no aptitude or even interest in innovation, they must be idiots.  Not that they would ever come right out and say it, but there was no mistaking their total dismissal of the Guats, Foulies, and Dingers they called Guatemalans, Malians, and Bangladeshis.  Increasingly the Volunteers took extended leave from their blighted villages and took refuge in the chilled hotel lobbies and bars of capital city hotels.  The management of the Peace Corps program was deliberately lax – learning to make one’s own way and make one’s own choices in the difficult environments which would eventually be their professional hunting grounds was part of the deal.  So, for every Volunteer that went rogue (stories of Buffalo Boy, a young man from Ithaca who was found living in a manger with water buffalos in a village in India far from his own), hundreds finished their enlistment ready to move on.

Of course that didn’t work out very well either.  While the former Volunteers retained their sense of compassion and responsibility for the poor, they also kept their prejudicial views of native ability.  It was one thing to administer grant programs in health, education, agriculture, and husbandry.  It was another thing to expect them to work.  Life went on for these ex-Volunteers as it had before, the only difference being their offices in Washington bureaucratic enclaves and not in Mukkanrotigunj.

So the United States development program ending up suffering from the same corrosive idealism and false pride of ‘helping’ that had infected former Volunteers. 

There is something about institutions with their organic, corporate culture that confirms prejudices and breeds new, endless ways of extending them.  Many non-profit agencies which competed for contracts from the US government, ramped up their notions of bonding with the poor and instituted programs of inclusivity, and what they called ‘participatory engagement’.   To them It mattered less if outputs were realized than if the process of implementation instilled in villagers a sense of mutual respect, honesty, and preservation for native values.  The means, in fact, were more important than the ends.

This means-first approach was very satisfying to the young idealists of ‘development’.  It felt good to bond in solidarity with villagers who needed only minor tutelage to guide them towards true participatory democracy.  Institutional identification of needs was a vestige of colonialism – the white man telling the brown man what he needed.   Melody’s job with Children International was as satisfying as her village experience in Africa.  She had learned first hand how needy – and yes, dependent – the people in her village were, and now she could apply new paradigms of cooperative learning with them.  They would learn hand-in-hand, for she would take as much from village history, lore, mores, and tradition as they would take from her advanced techniques and technologies of social progress.

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Not surprisingly, this, too fell flat.  The villagers knew quite well what they wanted and didn’t need to be guided by any white fathers.  The problem was that despite all the participatory, collaborative, inclusive show, the white fathers had one and only product to sell, take it or leave it, like it or not.

In one World Bank project a number of years ago, money had been made available for low cost sanitation – simple latrines which would provide a sanitary solution to human waste.  The Bank went about its collaborative efforts to determine local needs, but were stumped when the local community identified solid waste disposal as the key problem – cardboard boxes, plastic bags, and bottles were clogging the drains which overflowed when it rained, and the stagnant pools which resulted were breeding grounds for malarial mosquitoes.  Help us unclog the drains, the community said.  Nothing doing, said the Bank.  It’s toilets or nothing.

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None of this stopped the young, enthusiastic, socially committed former Volunteers who ran the show at Children International and a hundred other likeminded agencies in Washington.  They kept investing in means regardless of ends, and the Third World was littered with unused latrines and a bevy of other useless products, services, and ideas.

After a few years at this, Melody’ interest and enthusiasm began to wane.  After all, even the most means-convinced worker had to see that nothing ever got done, that money was wasted, and the only result was stored resentment of the know-nothing gringos who had arrived unannounced and unwelcome into villages which hadn’t changed for centuries.   She left development, but was afraid of landing too far afield and joined an American domestic aid agency which worked in America’s inner cities.  She would now try to do the same  good that she had done before as an undergraduate, but she was totally, categorially shunned by the truly indigenous efforts she had tried to foster.  Black activist groups wanted nothing at all to do with her white supremacist arrogance, and in an ironic twist argued that the means justified the ends.  Progress as measured by educational or professional success meant far less. It was only wokeness, black racial pride and militancy, that mattered regardless of the outcome of their protests.

So, not surprisingly, Melody joined the private sector, worked in a small computer graphics firm, jettisoned her idealism, joined the 21st century, and was all the happier for it.  She had a new clique of friends, all of whom left their youthful idealism on the curb,and who were satisfied just to write software for computer games and have plenty of money for fun.  She never regretted her days of unfortunate, unfounded hopefulness.  It was a learning experience; and she was never ashamed of her turn to the Right. 

Realism beats idealism any day of the year, she finally learned. 

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