I am currently at the Global Launch at Stanford California and lately, I’ve been thinking a lot about harm. These past couples of days we’ve had talks by inspiring entrepreneurs all working for a better world in their own way. In our discussions we always came back to the difficulties of the solutions to these conflicts, and how help can end doing more bad than good. External help, no matter if it’s from your brother or an international aid organization, can end up doing harm while still having good intent. People donating their clothes to poorer countries may seem like a charitable action, but can leave the local clothing business bankrupt, worsening the economy and leaving the people even more dependent on the external aid. I’ve experienced this on a personal level as well, but in a different context. I went to an international boarding school named United World College in Norway for two years and we had many sponsors and donors willing to contribute to this wonderful school which was working for peace and sustainability. The problem was that they weren’t from our school, thus they didn’t really know what it was that we needed. Instead of more resources to go into the extracurricular activities, or better projectors and chairs, which were parts of the school that needed some extra support, a donor decided to build a whole house dedicated to baking. Yes, baking. It was called the baking house and it had a wood fire to make the best pizzas in Norway. Now, I had a great time in this brand new baking house that was built during my first year, but it wasn’t something anyone felt we were missing at the school. This house was also hard to use as students needed to have a teacher present and everything needed to be planned ahead of time (which was something we students weren’t the best at). It was such a perfect illustration of the uselessness or even damage that foreign aid did to other countries, tragically ridiculous.
Skip a year forward and I’m here In San Francisco. After all this talk about global inequality, the program wanted us to experience it first hand and we get the opportunity to explore this bipolar city. In groups of ten, we walked through the incredibly rich areas where Twitter had its headquarters and the buildings were 62 stories high. As usual, I wowed and oohed every ten seconds, as I’m coming from Stockholm Sweden where everything is max 5 stories high. Then we were bound to the other, darker side of the city which wasn’t included in my idyllic picture of the great San Francisco. This area was called Tenderloin, and had in the past been a very lively area during the Gold Rush and later as a centre for entertainment. Though in the last half of the 1900s the neighbourhood became very poor, and today it was the opposite of what the Union Square, just two blocks down, looked like. There was a large majority of people of colour, and sadly a shockingly large group of homeless people. Many were on drugs, disabled or were for example just a small family having been kicked out of their homes. While I was appalled by what I was seeing, I was feeling something I couldn’t completely identify, which I now know was shame. I felt ashamed that we were touring in their misery. I am a very privileged person having grown up in a financially stable, white household. I had never been exposed to poverty up close. While the rest of my group kept on talking I trailed behind, overwhelmed by the culture shock.
When discussing the day later on, a girl from our cohort stood up and explained how she felt the activity was dehumanizing. She had walked in the Tenderloin with her group and happened to meet her uncle, who was giving food to a relative who had a drug problem. He had stopped her and asked what they were doing here, and she felt so ashamed to explain that they were having a tour of the Tenderloin, to see wage inequality in SF. She said it felt as if we were looking at animals in a zoo. For me, it felt so ironic that the organization trying to minimize these inequalities had provided us with an experience which presented them in a patronizing way. The intent was good, to educate us and make us aware of this problem, but the impact missed its target. I was surprised. I don’t think the walk wasn’t educational or eye-opening, I had never imagined one of the richest cities to have such apparent poverty downtown. Though, instead of touring the neighbourhood what could have been done was to do something more proactive, like help out at a soup kitchen or in some sense engage with the locals.
I still don’t know what to think, except for that something was out of place.
In less than a day, I am flying to Bombay, India to start my Global Citizen Year. I am afraid that this good intent but the harmful impact will follow me into my apprenticeship at my primary school and daily life.
I know I will make mistakes, but I’m afraid of what I don’t know what I’m doing wrong.
I have tried my best to educate myself on the subject, but maybe my best isn’t good enough?
What if the harm I am doing doesn’t balance out the good?
To listen to the desires of the people we try to help I think is a good way to start. I will try to be conscious of the processes between my intents and impacts. And now I know that my main goal in India is not to help, but rather to learn. Hopefully, this will leave less damage. All there is left now is to wait.