Help, I Need Somebody… Not Just Anybody

 “…We strengthen existing patterns of advantage and disadvantage because our friends, neighbors and children’s classmates are overwhelmingly likely to share our own racial, religious and socioeconomic backgrounds. When we help someone from one of these in-groups, we don’t stop to ask: Whom are we not helping?”

 “What Does Modern Prejudice Look Like?”
Shankar Vedantam

The project to which I and others dedicate many hours each week toils against poverty halfway across the world in a country with many resources, though very unfairly distributed.  There is no rational reason why people from so far away should be needed to provide funding and training given the money and talent that exists within this country’s borders.  And yet after many years in operation, the project relies on international support to pay its bills.

This notion – that outsiders really shouldn’t be needed to provide this type of support – was pointed out to me by a countryman of the project.  It is simply a matter of knowing and asking the right people, he said.  He knew and asked a couple of the right people to help, and they agreed to do so.  They had all the best qualifications and references, and yet they exerted little or no effort and produced little to nothing.  Drawing on the talents of local people came to an inglorious end within two months of its starting.

Why is it that people living alongside impoverished women and children might feel no calling to invest deeply in solutions, and yet a loyal network of volunteers living halfway across the world give of themselves week after week to help these same people?  Why is it that this countryman feels that I was asking too much of his contacts when he himself gives many hours to the promotion of a different endeavor involving a friend?

Shankar Vedantam’s NPR story “What Does Modern Prejudice Look Like?” answers this question in a way that has real resonance to those of us working in countries with citizens who could help but chose not to.  Vedantam cites the work of Mahzarin Banaji and Anthony Greenwald exploring how a shift in thinking from prejudice to favoritism moves the conversation from insidious acts to omitted acts, from hurting someone to not helping them.

“I think that kind of act of helping towards people with whom we have some shared group identity is really the modern way in which discrimination likely happens,” Banaji says.  In societies where the connected lack a significant sense of shared identity with the poor, the people who could provide financial or skilled support don’t, not because they mean to express prejudice but because they focus their support on people with whom they better identify.  They may give superficial help to causes outside their direct circle, but they don’t often “get skin in the game” by tying their name or reputation to the project or carving out time to deliver high quality customer service on par with what they might deliver for someone else.

With so many small social change projects surviving despite the lack of in-country help and because of actions of people living a world away, what triggers this sense of group identity not based – in many cases – on nationality, race, or class?  Why is it that I have watched several times over people within my own community perform the exact same volunteer tasks I asked of this project’s countryman?  Part of the answer lies in the strong culture of volunteerism that exists in the United States.  Another part lies in the safety of helping far away people—you don’t have to face them and their challenges on a daily basis.  Indeed, I have seen people united across borders around a shared sense of hope and possibility, a unifying force that seems absent in the sometimes more pessimistic attitudes of people from within the country.

At the end of the day of the day, however, reducing inequality remains a daunting task when inequality itself divides people in ways that leave the poor with little chance of ever benefiting from the favoritism of the well-connected.  Outsiders can only support social change so far.  Lasting solutions must involve countrymen and women who, like the woman in Vendantam’s story, give equally to causes outside their circle as to those from within.

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