I had a particularly rough morning today. My mother has been gone on a business trip for the past week and half, so I have been waking up at 6:30 AM every morning, sometimes to just wake up my brother for school, sometimes to make breakfast for him. This particular morning, I managed to splash hot oil in my eye and forehead region while making fried eggs for a sandwich for him — which my mom is positive will scar me for life. But what really got to me this morning was a comment from someone, calling me an egoist for going to Haiti.
His points were:
- That I should be working to establish independence of a people, instead of suffocating them with good will.
- That I should discuss everything in depth on a theoretical level before taking it to the ground.
- That the need to see direct results, instead of seeking to understand issues in depth on a theoretical level, is a product of my ego.
After the initial anger subsided, I began really thinking about his criticisms in depth. Whatever his intentions may have been, his criticisms still deserved thinking about. The concept of ego is something I have been constantly struggling with since I started considering the possibility of going into this. He is right that helping people can become a form of egoism too. When people choose paths that have less monetary reward, the alternative reward is possible more self-fulfillment, which can be easily warped into ego boosting. Is it wrong to find self-fulfillment in helping the poor? Am I stepping on the backs of the less fortunate to help myself get somewhere higher and better? Maybe not money profits, but am I profitting in some other way from this?
I don’t think these are questions that will leave me any time soon, but, I think for now, I can check myself by constantly reminding myself that the needs of the people that I am working with should always be placed before any of my own need for self-fulfillment. I may achieve self-fulfillment through this work, but if the time comes that require me to set aside my ego and back out of a project, then I should be ready to take this step.
To begin addressing his particular points then, we can begin at point 2, that I should seek to understand issues on a theoretical level. I think this was something that I was and still am struggling with — which holds more educational value: being on the ground or in the classroom? I think the two offer different but equally valuable lessons that supplement each other. Eventually, I will be heading back to school to receive more training and spend more time thinking, but right now, I have this opportunity to be on the ground, learning more about it on a in-the-field position. And this intersection where theory meets people is where it actually really matters.
I was desperate to seek out an opportunity to return to the field last semester. Part of it is because I want to see if this is what I really want to go into. But part of it is also the need to see direct results. However, I think it is less because of an ego issue so much as I am slowly learning the difference between words on a page and people in real life. Not just in the implementation of theory process. Words don’t hold the same significance for me as people do. This petition for Chester schools takes on a whole different meaning when I remember the kids I worked with on Saturdays with Dare 2 Soar. Many of them eagerly said with bright eyes that they want to go to college — this petition becomes about finding opportunities for them and not just words on a page about equal education opportunities. Remembering and seeing results in person motivate me, because ultimately, it’s people that motivate me.
As a response to his first point, about establishing independence within a people — this is also something that I have been constantly thinking about lately — what types of projects are sustainable in the long run, within the country and without outside aid? Is there an evolution of the project or does the project need to be established with that goal in mind? The obvious answer would be that NGOs should always try to establish programs that are self-sustaining — and most currently functioning NGOs in development work do employ more in-country staff than internationals. But — when is a situation to be considered an emergency situation? In other words, when are immediate intervention efforts necessary to help stop worsening of certain situations, while other more, long-term efforts go on? What about Zanmi Lasante (Partners in Health), which is sustained mainly by foreign aid? It has done a lot of good, but it cannot be a long-term solution. It was implemented in a situation where the need for it was deemed dire enough to require intervention at this level. More concretely, in terms of the compost latrine project proposals I have been writing, I have been looking for data that shows that such an operation can be profitable in the country for a community so that it can be sustained beyond my involvement and provide some job opportunities. This means, at the basic level of planning, where I want to have this project and whether or not I want to collaborate with a public organization. Are compost latrines to be long term solutions or interventions until some permanent, municipal sewage system comes around? These theoretical questions gain a concrete context, but then, as again and again recently, I realize just how little I know about everything.
This is a really rambling post — mainly because my thoughts are not yet fully formed on any of these. Just my mind going on in the early mornings.