This started out as a longer essay. Maybe a short book. Now it’s just some random notes. Maybe I’ll finish this book and publish it. Until then, this post.
Expressions of kindness (doing nice things) is not the same thing as helping. Helping is not the same thing as fixing or solving problems.

Expressions of kindness feel good for a moment. They are things like holding open the door for the old guy with the walker, or giving the pregnant woman your seat on the subway. They’re things like volunteering at the homeless shelter, or giving $5 to the homeless person at the stop light. An expression of kindness is my daughter, at the age of 8, making me pancakes (and turning the kitchen into a disaster zone!).
In the international space, expressions of kindness are things like collecting bicycles for Zambia or going to build a school in Mexico. Forget for the moment the very real negative effects: International kindness is volunteering at an orphanage, or collecting clothes to take to Haiti.

Recipients of kindness are very often genuinely grateful. They often smile and say “thank you.” “Yes, thank you, grandma, for that ugly-ass sweater. I know you meant well…” Very often kindness is as much about the doer as the recipient.

Being kind is a good thing in your individual day-to-day life. But as professional humanitarians we need to move beyond simple kindness.

Helping is different. Helping is when you use resources tactically to improve a situation. If giving the pregnant woman your seat once is kindness, then giving her something that guarantees she’ll have a seat every time she rides the subway is helping. Giving her six months’ worth of taxi fare, for example. Helping is when parents help their grown children pay off student debt.

The majority of well-planned, well-executed aid work fall into the helping category. We use resources tactically to improve the situation of people affected by conflict, disaster, and extreme poverty. Or we should.

Being helped doesn’t always feel like kindness. An addict whose family and friends stage an intervention might be wildly pissed off, and rehab might be miserable. Making my son plough through his pre-algebra homework isn’t fun for either of us. And he might feel it monumentally unkind that I don’t simply tell him the answer. But that wouldn’t be really helping him, would it?

Using resources tactically means making choices. Sometimes difficult choices. Resources are limited, and you can’t do everything. It’s also important to understand the difference between helping and problem-solving. Helping is not a panacea.

Solving problems is making them go away. Full stop. Solving problems requires the strategic application of resources over a sustained period of time, at scale, and in a way that addresses all or many aspects of context. Recycling at the household level is a good thing, but it won’t reverse climate change – that would take a lot of people recycling plus do a lot of other things, too.

Solving problems may not feel like kindness either. There is no path toward reversing climate change that does not involve all of us consuming less, and no one wants that. There is no path toward peace in DR Congo without addressing the issue of conflict minerals, which then means all of use use less or different communications technology – yes, even the technology that I use to write and publish this post. Eradicating malaria or tuberculosis means prioritizing efforts to do those things at the expense of other issues – someone will almost certainly die of typhoid or meningitis in the meantime, and the reasonable response will be, “but what about me?” (or “them?”). Solving world hunger will mean reducing the profit margins of some pretty powerful global corporations, and reducing the disparity between the “haves” and the “have nots” – an idea that many in the “haves” category find distasteful. For the “have nots” to have more, the “haves” may need to have less.

Humanitarian aid and development won’t solve any problems. The tsunamis, the earthquake in Haiti, the war in Syria, and all the other disasters and humanitarian crises you’ve ever heard of highlight a vast array of problems that the humanitarian system can never hope to solve. Let’s not confuse helping with problem-solving.
And let’s stay clear, to on the purpose of the humanitarian system, as well as of the individual NGOs, INGOs, UN agencies, and donors that comprise it: Our purpose is helping. We don’t solve anything.
Hopefully we do help.

J. is a full-time professional humanitarian worker with more than twenty years of experience in the aid industry. During that time he’s been involved in most of the major disaster responses you’d have heard of, and perhaps even a few you haven’t heard of.

Leave a Reply