With the mind-boggling increases in our ability to interact with distant (from the West) places in the world over the last generation or two, there has been a meaningful increase in the number of privileged Western people, especially among the young, who want to devote either significant portions of their lives or their entire lives to helping those with less. Further, a la Peter Singer, the argument that has a lot of traction within this community is that, since those in the developing and third worlds are lacking more basic needs than the poor in the first world, they should be the focus of such efforts.
This argument overlooks the need for translation inherent in privileged young people swooping in to third world countries to ‘save’ them. By ‘translation’ I do not simply refer to the language barrier. Translation in a much broader, cultural sense is what is needed in such cases. Fundamentally, most of these aid workers have never experienced what it would be like to want for any of the basic human needs that they are so motivated to help give others — which is deserving of high praise as an ideal, but may be more appropriately channelled.
I think that this fact, combined with the unfortunate reality that, in all communities regardless of country and GDP, there exist poor people, amounts to a powerful argument against the one employed by Singer, at least when it comes to helping with one’s feet (i.e. physically going and helping, as opposed to sending a cheque). Empowering people around the world with the education and awareness to help their own communities would seem to be a more effective way of properly eradicating the ills that plague so much of the world. This has the advantage of efficiency and continuity, as there will be less need to have aid workers flown in from the first world (except maybe to start programs), which can often be met with mistrust by the local population anyway; and once you have fulfilled the Rambam’s highest principle of צדקה, the community can become more self-sustaining.
Where does that leave the idealistic aid workers living in the first world? The above argument does not imply that such people do not still have a ton to learn from joining a project in the developing world, so long as the goal is to learn and not to ‘take charge’ or ‘save’ others. Consciously taking some time (and here the argument would be against devoting one’s life to such a project, except for especially devoted individuals) to soak in what it really means to face hardship on a scale unimaginable to most of us in the Western world is still beneficial. One will return a more compassionate advocate for those whom one can help back home without having to culturally translate as fully as one would need to in a foreign country, even if the needs back home seem less drastic (or, dare I say, heroic?).
To be clear, this does not mean that the richer countries (or the individuals living in those countries) should stop supporting the less-rich countries. On the contrary, much more support should be given. The issue is the type of support, and the message that might be heard behind it. It is time to realize that, to help another person (or country) there does not need to be any benefit accrued to the ‘helper’ beyond the mere act of helping. On the scale of international aid, this message will come through much more clearly if the structure of aid is based on educating locals to take control of development programs and then promptly leaving (to be contacted as needed), rather than coming and building up the community while the power and privilege imbalances stay starkly in the spotlight.
For those of us who think ‘changing the world’ is of utmost importance, an important caution to keep in mind: