Spending time with the people

Finally! In almost 6 months of studying global health I finally had a lecturer with something to say. So far all I’ve “learnt” is graphs, statistics, intervention strategies…the basic things you could find in a textbook, medical journals or the WHO website. Today, however, we had a lecturer from India. He studied in UK and then worked in a rural village in India. He now heads a few projects in Mumbai, including clinics in the slums and also coordinates a master’s programme in disaster relief at a university in India.

He was talking a lot about context and how “western” solutions often try to “save” or “rescue” other low-income countries with modern solutions or medical techniques. He touched on the fact that the more medicine progresses, the more expensive it becomes and the less people can be reached. But the part I was interested in most, is when he talked about humanitarian aid. How often good intentions end up into making situations worse. He mentioned when people go in to help in a disaster relief area to, for instance, do some surgeries which resulted in eventual amputations because they had not learned the culture or studied the people. His answer for “but what if you don’t have the time to learn about the people” and he said “then don’t come.” And in my mind I thought: Amen!

It is so often that aid and humanitarian efforts to save the world result in wasted money and even sometimes in making the situation worse. It happens in all fields, not only medicine. People building pipelines to supply rural areas with water, which stop working 6 months later because no one educated them on how to maintain the pipes and where to get the material for maintenance. Another example is of a volunteer who called the Indian police to report slums where children were working, which resulted in them being sent back home, only to find them back 6 months later working in worse conditions (boarded-up windows ect) so that the police would not find the slums again.

He said “what kind of mother would send her 10 year old son kilometers away to work for almost nothing if it was not a desperate situation.” The point being, before acting, find out WHY people do what they do. Walk in their shoes. Share their meals. Use their toilets.

He mentioned that, so often, it is the “rescuer” of the giver who decides what to give, with people neglecting asking the victim what would improve their lives. I have seen this over and over in church projects, in outreaches, in medicine, where people from a high income context want to make a difference, but it has no real effect because it is not sustainable within the context. And I really feel it is time for the “victims” to have a voice. Time for the “giver” to sit up and listen to what the need is. We can learn just as much (even more) from a Mozambican child kicking a ball outside in the dust, than what we can give him.

Another thing I liked is India’s policy on not accepting aid. He quotes that “aid cripples”. Thinking of South Africa and various other countries in Africa, how aid money is spent on dictatorship, ministers building houses and buying cars and never reaches the people, this policy does start to sound very attractive. I have always been an advocate of spending time with the people, of education and sustainability, but hearing it in this context today was liberating. There is so much wrong with the world, but we do not need to sit around and wait. The poor have a voice. The minority has a voice. The suffering have a voice.

And there are people ready to answer.

So that’s my thoughts on this. There are some great people out there, with big hearts who want to dedicate their lives to helping people, but we need to make sure we are, indeed helping. Anyways, if you want to go and volunteer in India (four months minimum) in Mumbai, let me know and I can give you his details.

So, lastly, I encourage everyone to enter in a debate, to think outside the box, to spend time with people and, most of all, to listen…

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1 Response to “Spending time with the people”


  1. 1 @CarlaSteenkamp April 2, 2012 om 7:24 vm

    Aaaah luvit!! Wens ek het al vroeer op jo blog af gekom 🙂


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