Western paralysis

Tuesday 6 May 2008

Urbanmonk wrote a thought-provoking post this morning, in the wake of the Burmese typhoon that has killed 15,000 as we speak, about the strange position he and his fundraising buddies found themselves in after the 2004 tsunami.

It got me thinking about how hard it is to do anything here in the West that is outwardly focussed enough to really help. My thought this morning about Burma was, what can I do here? I could pray (except I'm a bit angry at God over the past couple of days, a dummy spit that is precluding me from extended prayer, at least for today). Prayer may seem pointless, but it moves mountains.

Donating money. Well, I don't have any. I have actually sent a text message out this afternoon to a friend who owes me money, so I could use it to pay my bills and have enough money to buy some food before I get paid next Thursday. Still, I'm not labouring under some false illusion that I'm in dire straits. I have never gone without a meal in my life except under my own choice. I could do with going without a few and it wouldn't be a problem. And I'm sure if I really want to, I could still donate 10 bucks. But what for? Ten bucks feels so pointless. (Of course, that whole "this feels pointless" is probably another Western Christian mindset, the idea that all things that need to be done are BIG things. This, while obviously fed by the amazing amounts of need seen all around us, are just as much fed by our BIG egos which want us to do amazing things, not nondescript things).

What I would want to do most would be to actually go to Burma, and help a whole bunch of people who have basically lost everything. I don't know what I would do over there. It's not like I'm particularly useful, but, you know, I could lug bricks or something. For a bunch of people whose language I don't know. Having flown over there on a plane which will contribute enough pollution to already blacken my dark carbon footprint.

Which would be ironic, considering global warming is possibly one of the contributors to the typhoon that has Burma in the position it is (asking for foreign help; how that must rankle their government).

Still, I really am thinking seriously about some sort of short-term national or international volunteering position over the next year or so. Something to get me out of myself, short-term to see how I go (say, a month). I have long wanted to do something (it's all very fuzzy and diffuse; I don't really know what I want to do, it's just a yearning to help people). In many ways it would the perfect time to do something like that. I have no real ties to anything here (indeed, sometimes I feel so untied, I feel like I could go flying off out into the universe just from the unbearable lightness (must read that book). Which would be handy if I went flying off to, say, Burma. Help reduce the carbon footprint). It would be wonderful to do something useful and others-focussed and loving and something I know God would smile on, which would also have the added benefit of getting myself up and going again (I feel so stuck, so morose. To be drawn out of my own misery by helping people who are in real dire straits would be some good kind of face slap, I think).

I have felt little inklings to do something for years. Been looking at a few general websites so far (I'm interested in non-Christian ones, actually) but the irritating thing is that many of them are looking for professionals of some sort. There you go. Even volunteering has become professionalised.

What if you're an unskilled loser who wants to lug stuff for people? You don't need a degree for that.

Looks like I'm gonna have to stop sulking at God and start praying.


  1. I completely hear you. The same arguments go through my head all the time. I always think "well there are enough people right here in my neighborhood or at my kids' schools that need help"...but then I don't do that either because I haven't found an organization that does what I want to do, and I sure as heck don't have the resources to start it.

    I can lug bricks too. I think when it comes to international helping, they don't want to transport/train us unless we have more than one useful skill...are a nurse or architect or psychologist or something...yes it's become professionalized, but probably more for practical reasons than anything...they could fly two of us who can lug bricks to Burma or where ever, or they can fly one person who can lug bricks AND administer meds. I don't know....


  2. The ironic thing about that post was that I had no idea about what was going on in burma when posting it...The interesting thing about Burma is that they are one of the few countries in the world that remain outside the grasp of the Aid industry.. and ipso facto, outside the grasp of free market capitalism. A catastrophe like burma represents nothing less than an opening in a new and profitable market...

    It was interesting to see people on the news "hoping" that Burma would "ask for help" from the international community. The dominant ideology of 99% of the "international community" is not empowering tiny villages, but planting free market capitalism in every corner of the globe.

    I did the OS volunteering and brick lugging a couple of times. Dug a ditch for a telephone cable and stuck my arm down a dunny pipe up to the elbow to clean out the frogs in remote Northern Territory, dug post holes for a building in rural Thailand...

    While I wouldnt trade some of those experiences for anything... its not something I would do again.. I dont think. It can be a great experience. But your right, the aid industry is greedy for professionals who can build infrastructure like hotels and resorts to "empower local communities" Yeah, right...empower the free market capitalist agenda more like it...

    Sound cynical? I recommend you get or borrow a copy of "the shock doctrine" by Naomi Klein.Im reading it now and its blowing my mind... I will never think of the Ford Falcon in the same way again...

  3. Thanks for the link by the way...

  4. Erin - yes, you're right. It makes sense to send one who can do what 2 can do. Sigh indeed.

    Monk - sound cynical? Well, hehe yes it does but I think it's very close to the truth, unfortunately. I don't think many of these organisations would like at it in that way, but just reading the different sites certainly gave me that impression - maybe not so much that they're getting the tiny village a resort but certainly that they're getting the tiny village ready for some broadband, at the very least.

    But if that is so, then how do we go about helping the poor? It's not enough that we sit back and do nothing because ideologies are clashing. That's part of the reason why so many Christians have been sitting back and doing nothing.

    I think part of the answer may lie in the disbanded approach to aid - and it probably wouldn't even be called aid then. It would be called coming alongside the poor. And you couldn't do it for a short month-long stint to see how you like it, and so you can make it back in time to see your football team tip for a premiership.

    Which is what my next post is about actually (coming alongside the poor, not my football team :)

    Naomi Klein is da bomb.

  5. I think actually that quite alot of Christians have and do go on brick lugging holidays. Its actually quite a trendy thing to do. I know someone who did a cycling trip through mongolia ( which would be F**ing cool BTW) to raise money for aid then came back to their career and salary package safe in the knowledge that they were doing their bit.When really all that was done was feeding the poverty tourism industry. When i was in Thailand, I literally was taking photos of AIDS victims and orphans so they could be posted on a website in Melbourne.. Its shameful. Dont let my cynicism put you off though. There are groups out there that will offer you a deeply personal and potentially life transforming "experience"

    Sleep on the streets with the waiters union in brisbane.. live with a family in bangladesh through TEAR.. Hook up with UNOH in springvale. Theres no shortage of "Shock Opportunities"

    Holy shit Ive gone and done a blog post in your comments... sorry abou that

  6. Heh :)

    I think there needs to be a differentiation too between brick lugging holidays, and between coming alongside the poor (in whatever way that is) and living alongside and working alongside and that would look much different to the "here, let the rich knowledgeable Westerner come in for five seconds and do something for you and foster some kind of learned helplessness." Is that part of the reason why you feel like your experiences were so fruitless? I think that sort of thing is often a case of trying to alleviate our own guilt and complicity than it is really trying to reach out and help the poor, in the way that Jesus said. We can't fix the world.

    But again, too, I think there has to be a differentiation between emergency aid and general aid. If a typhoon swept through Melbourne and we were all starving to death, I would welcome aid in whatever form it took.

    What's the Ford Falcon deal?

  7. Good points.

    I dont feel like they were fruitless. As I said, I wouldnt trade any of those experiences..

    The ford Falcon deal is that the ford falcon was the vehicle of choice for the junta to disappear people in Chile in the 70s. Generously provided by the ford motor company in the US. It makes me think of the whole "Falcon Brand" and what it means to different people in different contexts.

    Ive got Naomi Klein on the brain at the moment.

  8. whats the point in doing anything for anyone in this world, there is always someone with a hidden (or not so hidden) agenda?? SO what!
    Talk about throwing the baby out with the bathwater!

  9. Well we run a home for abandoned and orphaned babies in South Africa and we are definitely in need of volunteers. You don't have to be a professional but have to have a love for children and be prepared to spend long days with them and do some physical work like the vege garden, painting, and the likes. So if ever you do decide to continue using those metallic pollution producing monsters again or whether you brave the ocean we are always on the lookout for volunteers

  10. Andi - how interesting that your comment comes above Melanie's, two very different babies and bathwaters :) Yes, I agree that cynicism can wash you up on the rocks and you end up doing nothing. But also, I feel like it's important to get the lay of the land and seeing what we're up against.

    Melanie - Ooh, now you're talking. My friend is South African living here in Australia and has a dream of running an orphanage herself one day when she regains her health. Thanks for dropping in - I shall go and visit your website now.

  11. Apparently the earth is the Burmese military's planet of choice to carry out their human right abuses.

    Anyone here living on earth. Get the f*** off the planet, you human rights abuse supporters.

  12. Why, hello there, David. Nice to meet you. Where do you propose we all go?

  13. Urbanmonk's last response to this was so damn long he wrote a blog post of his own: http://supermarketmonkey.blogspot.com/2008/05/cynical-brick-luggers.html

    I dunno either. I give up trying to work it out (at least for today).

  14. Let's be honest. We don't really give a damn about those poor people suffering in Burma. Well, maybe enough to donate to a "charity program".

    I'm more interested in my comfortable, debt-free, middle class lifestyle (to all you suckers with a mortgage - fuck ya's).

    All the poor pricks in Africa, Asia, South America, if you all died tomorrow would we in the West care? Probably wouldn't even notice.

  15. Speak for yourself, dude. I totally give a shit about the people suffering in Burma and everywhere else. It's got me stressed all week. But what can I do about it (except, like you said, donate some money or go over there)?

    Maybe it's a reflection of our Western mindset that we think we should be able to solve it, the way we (supposedly) solve everything else.

    I wasn't expecting you to come on here and be all sweetness and light, but if you could wait till your comments hit double figures before telling my readers to get fucked, that would be really pleasant. Thanks.


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