First, do no harm. I am no doctor, but as a habitual do-gooder, that part of the Hippocratic oath is key for me too. There is so much suffering in the world, and I want to help. But too often our responses leave new problems in their wake. For example: massive food aid and lifting tariffs on rice to Haiti in the 1990’s was intended to relieve the agricultural burden and boost industrialization. Instead domestic rice production collapsed and the country now cannot feed itself without imports. Or this: A non-profit provides daily free dinners to alleviate hunger in an urban neighborhood in the United States. Yet what was meant to be emergency aid, institutionalized over time, creates a chronic problem for some: health conditions associated with never cooking at home with fresh ingredients. Hunger is real; so are unemployment, poverty, obesity, and diabetes. To stop responding to the needs of our neighbors is not an option, so how do we think through the potential “problems” our responses might create, and guard against them? Here are some first steps towards help that doesn’t hurt:
1. Resist simplistic explanations
From hunger to trauma to cleaning up in the wake of natural disasters, layer upon layer of cause and effect create the dire need for help. Political, economic, and personal decisions all intertwine in how we hurt and help each other. Both of the above examples deserves its own article or even book, to examine all the factors properly. We all cause damage all the time, sometimes even when we are trying to help. This cannot be overemphasized, because laying blame affects how we respond or hesitate to do so.
2. Base our actions on requests from trustworthy sources with firsthand experience, instead of on what we are willing to give
Who are the people who have been working on the cause for a long time, with not only channels for emergency aid, but a sustainable vision for the future? Long-term community leaders must define our involvement based on what is needed, not on what we want to give. This goes for our emergency response, development work, or getting involved in protest movements.
3. Aim for sustainability and cultivate relationships
If we are interested in contributing to long-term good in other people’s lives, then we have to forge lasting relationships. We need to ask for feedback and correction, so there is mutual accountability, and respect for each others’ expertise. If history is any teacher, what we on the “giving” end need most is an education on how to use our resources well. And it is going to be difficult for us to receive that feedback outside of trusting relationships.
Given the history of some missionaries’ colonizing practices, it may surprise readers to know that these guiding principles come from my church’s approach to global mission, which they term “accompaniment.” Self-examination and confession, then trusting others to know what they need, is the beginning of our attempts to help without hurting.