Just Don’t Hurt, Forget About Helping

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!


10 thoughts on “Just Don’t Hurt, Forget About Helping

  1. I really liked your explanation to Michael because what “the best way to help people is not to hurt them” mean to me is, like you said, really looking at the ramifications of your actions before you do them. Going broader than the aid you were explaining, history is full of instances, especially during the imperial age, where one culture tried to “help” another culture because culture 1 thought culture 2 was more primitive, and in the process of “helping” them, they basically destroyed the other culture and forced their own culture onto them. When your rule is to not hurt people, the focus is much more on how their reaction to your “help” rather than on your act of helping them, and I think this is probably the better approach to take because people can cause a lot of harm unintentionally by just not paying attention. If people were to measure the success of aid by how much better the region was in a few years rather than on how many resources had been put into that region, aid might be more effective because people would pay attention to the repercussion to make sure that they are indeed helping rather than unintentionally hurting.

  2. This whole semester we have been emphasizing putting things in their contexts. I think this is an important issue that humanitarian organizations should always consider. In one of our news roundups you made the point that an organization contaminated the lives of a community in Africa by introducing Western conveniencies, thinking that because these people did not have the Western standard of living, they needed help. In that respect, the organization hurt the community, and I think that aligns well with what Professor Macamo said.

  3. I feel that the whole semester we have been emphasizing putting things in context, and I think helping other people through humanitarian projects are perfect examples of this. It seems to me that some Western organizations assume that people in some parts of the world need help because they don’t have the Western living standard, while in fact those people are doing pretty well by themselves. I think you made a point in one of our news roundups that such organizations contaminate the lives of these people by introducing Western conveniencies and therefore, “hurting” them. If those organizations considered the context in which those people were living, they probably would understand that those people did need that help.

  4. I definitely felt the same way when Dr. Macamo brought up the “do no harm” philosophy on life and, like you, he was able to convince me that he had a point. This program has helped me see how important it is to try to not only have an open mind, but to try to reach out and learn more about others.
    I also agree with Dr. Papillon that we should get Dr. Macamo to Tech! It would be fantastic!

  5. I wish I could have been able to listen in to Professor Macamo’s group’s discussion as well as the one I went to.. Thanks for sharing this!

  6. That’s definitely a different perspective than the general public holds – one that likes the idea of “helping Africa” but doesn’t go far beyond that. With all the aid and humanitarian organizations constantly campaigning for money, it’s hard to believe that the best way to react is not to give.

    Although, it leaves me with the question of how we (as a developed nation) *can* help, if at all. I sure hope we don’t have to “forget about helping,” though maybe that’s just because I can’t quite accept the reality of the situation.

    Are new ways of helping needed, or should “helping” just be left up to… someone else?

    • I am sorry, I don’t think I made myself clear. Helping people is very important and good. The problem is when we “only” help people without looking at what our “help” is actually doing. Development/aid work is MUCH more complicated than just “helping.” As the example I stated above, giving food aid can hurt the local economy and agri-business, but it can also save lifes. It is at that point that we need to weigh the cost benefits and know that food aid is NOT a sustainable solution. This blog is focused on going above and beyond helping, but actually analyzing your actions and *also* looking into not only helping people/communities with aid, but making sure this development/aid is not hurting people more than it is helping. People generally don’t see any development/aid as being harmful and changing that view was the main reason.

      Does it now make more sense?

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