Professor Elisio Macamo, from the African Studies department of Basel University, recently told me “Sometimes the best way to help people, is not to hurt them.”
My initial reaction was to roll my eyes and laugh at this comment that was clearly beyond cliché. As Professor Macamo continued elaborating on this point all I could think about was that I truly had a passion for helping others and there was NOOOO way he was not going to convince me differently.
Five minutes later my entire thought structure was broken. I felt like all of my thoughts on development, humanitarian aid, and compassion for others had shifted slightly. But how? I had only met Professor Macamo a few minutes prior to our discussion, so how had I let him turn me upside-down so quickly?
He basically said something to the extent of, if you want someone to have a better life it would make sense to help them right? This is true, but only if what you are doing is actually helping them. However, a tremendous amount of people get hurt through development programs, humanitarian aid, and “compassion.” It must be something far beyond “helping people fix their problems,” if you ever actually want to solve any of the worlds problems.
So what does this mean? Every action has an reaction. It is as simple as that. If you buy a chocolate bar, it very well could have been produced by trafficked individuals, thus incentivizing the cycle of poor labor standards to continue. If the United States gives immediate food aid to Haiti it may help in the short term, but that action can also put local agri-businesses out of business which in return increases the local poverty rate. On the other hand, if we take no stance at all, this inaction can also have serious negative consequences as well (something that I have really learned by living in Switzerland for the past four months where neutrality is key to life).
An example of how inaction on an issue can be just as damaging (if not worse) can currently be seen in Syria. No matter if you believe the US should be involved in stopping this matter or not, almost everyone agrees that a country intentionally killing its our citizens is despicable, even if it does fall under the countries right to sovereignty. So the international communities inaction has the effect of “hurting” the people of Syria by letting them to continue to die every day that we, as a planet, just sit and watch.
So what is the solution? If we really focus on “not just helping people, but just not hurting people” then they will be able to better help themselves. People are, for the most part, willing to put in the hard work to better their surroundings if they know that what they are going to do is going to “make a difference.” Of course their are exceptions (like Syria to some extent), but it is the unnecessary harm that developed societies and their people put on less developed societies that seems to causes the most harm in this natural development process whether it is directly or indirectly, intended or accidental. If we switch our focus to just not hurting these other societies or people, not out of a selfish desire to only focus on our self’s, but out of a desire to do more than just “help” or to “just fix their problems” we can all share a much better world with a higher quality of life for everyone.
The way I now see it, thanks to Professor Macamo, is that not hurting people shows more compassion and dedication than the traditional sense of “helping people.” The only way to “not hurt others” with your day-to-day life is to be informed, care about yourself, your community, and the consequences of your actions. I know that I am no longer only going to focus on helping others, but take it one step farther and focus on “not hurting others” from now on and I challenge you to do the same!