To help or not to help?

The debate related to Invisible Children and Kony 2012 has gone viral. The discussion on the conceptualisation of ‘humanity’ (to help or not to help) is complex – whether rationally or emotionally argued. It also links in with any of the other current debates on foreign intervention: Syria, Bahrein, Iraq, Afghanistan, Sri Lanka, Papua New Guinea, Rwanda, Congo, Tibet, Lebanon, or further back, Vietnam, Korea, Argentina, Iran, EU/Indonesia/ME (WW1 + 2) …

The Kony 2012d campaign, much supported on Twitter, by celebrities and politicians, is accused of ‘American Hero Syndrome’ and post-colonial colonialism , where the white man/woman wants to save the helpless black person. It is also debated in terms of its finances, but I want to focus on the former issue.

It may be useful to revisit some social psychological work. Back in 1969, cross cultural psychologist John Berry warned us about imposed etic: the idea that we impose an idea that we think is universally valid. Sometimes it’s difficult to imagine that there are ideas and actions, that, to us, the subjective individual, seem so good and beautiful, but are not perceived as such by the other, let alone gratefully received. Secondly, if the other is a member of an ‘out-group’, such as another nation, another race, another sexuality, our drive to help may be biased due to subconscious processes that view the other as less able, valid, ‘normal’, etc. Two good friends and major academics on the subject of social psychology, Stephen Reicher vs. Jim Sidanius, debate this constantly: our inherent racist nature vs. our socialisation and the impact of collective mobility. Cut a long story short, it reflects that yes, we are all racist (Sidanius) BUT we also have a sense of agency that allows us to make informed decisions and choose actively not to be categorised (Reicher), provided that we have the ability to engage in some self perception with reference to what we’re trying to achieve by ‘doing good’. In other words, we make (subconscious) judgements that someone (of another race) needs our (superior) help, without thinking through how this is perceived and what the long term consequences are.

Kony 2012 activists are also criticised for the self-patting on the back kind of humanitarian aid: the pictures of them carrying guns looking tough and footage of the son saying ‘I want to be like you daddy’. So added to the post-colonial aspect, we need to be aware of the extent of the altruism of our aid. The anthropological and journalistic work of Joris Luyendijk highlights the complexity of charities, the media and politicians, who, with their campaigns, keep themselves ‘in business’.

But I agree that this is difficult as it is so difficult to stand by when the media and role models tell us grave crimes against humanity is being committed and we are just standing by.¬† For this reason perhaps, the wisest aid givers stick to a charity close to ‘home’ – not just geographically but, more so, intelligently. To help a person you know, an organisation you trust and engage in humanity that started with the question: Are you ok, can I give you some help?

It could also involve some lateral thinking: If I don’t want my foreign affairs department to be fussed about country X (think for example the ‘war’ between Maldova, Romania and Russia, which was resolved as if over dinner in a local pub because no other foreign organisation/nation was bothered), then what would that require? Alternative fuels? Voting against the arms industry? In other words, what are the hidden agendas that I am paying for when I donate to charity Z or party X.

It’s difficult because I remain, as a Dutch national, that without foreign intervention there would be no ‘Holland’ during WWII. But due to this aid, Dutch culture is pro-USA to this day as a thank you (that is, until Santorum accused the Dutch of killing their elderly). Instead, they could be a little more critical of American foreign intervention: Sometimes our best friends need us to hold¬† mirror up to see a reflection of some (well intended but ugly) imperfections. Perhaps Jason from Invisible Children could have used his insights to work collectively with local initiatives, as many critical writers have suggested. My point is that any intercultural activity requires some self reflection of why you’re getting involved and are there alternatives, possibly less limelight inducing but more effective for LOCAL (and not necessarily your) values and norms.

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