Better Than Nothing?: When a Little Good Does a Lot of Harm

800px-US_Navy_110624-N-ZZ999-070_Stacks_of_shoeboxes_await_sorting_as_Misawa_Air_Base_personnel_organize_materials_donated_to_Japan_by_listeners_of_the_S.jpg

The responses to my NALT post last week were as I thought they would be - defensive. There was a predictable course that ran throughout the comments – “If they’re helping some people, isn’t that good enough?” This is a variation on the “at least they’re doing some good!” defense any time someone brings up a problematic element of a new social justice campaign. It is as though we are asked to allow the little bit of good a person or campaign does to override the harm they could possibly do, as though the world works on a scale – a little bit of good outweighs the bad.

The “well, they’re doing some good” defense covers a lot of ill and is based in illogical thinking. The idea is that if someone is producing some good in the world, helping someone somewhere, then what they are doing is better than nothing. But oftentimes, our good-intentioned efforts to help can often entrench negative attitudes, bad social systems, and play right into the hands of oppression.

Unfortunately, this dangerous thinking forms the basis for many aid organizations throughout the US, and allows them to stick around, doing harm, for far longer than they should be. Let’s take everyone’s favorite Christian example – World Vision. With World Vision, you sponsor a child in a poor area, and that child gets access to new clothing, schools, and benefits from the aid organization. That child is helped. Someone is helped.

But, as numerous developmental studies have pointed out, child sponsorship is actually often a poor response to the problem of poverty on a macro scale. The organization Save the Children phased out their child sponsorship program after discovering the following problems:

-Quite often, children who are sponsored are resented in their communities.

-Child sponsorship has high administrative costs for not very much benefit in terms of actually improving the situation in a poor community.

-It can actually create a cycle of welfare dependence, rather than independence.

And that’s just the tip of the iceberg.

But many people come back with “well, at least you’re helping that one person.” But if that one child you’re helping ends up estranged from their community because they had the fortune of being picked by a rich American, you’re not helping the situation all that much. Study after study has shown that economies are boosted when everyone within a community is helped in ways that enable them to invest in their community – a rising tide lifts all boats, as the saying goes. Child sponsorship, though well-intentioned, is like throwing out one lifesaver into a shipwreck. There needs to be more done than just the good of “helping” that one person.

This is what I thought of when I saw many of the defenses of the NALT campaign – if it’s helping some, then criticizing it must be wrong, correct? But logic doesn’t work that way, and while some people may be helped by a campaign, that doesn’t mean the campaign is necessarily achieving good ends within the overall systems of oppression it aims to fight. All too often, doing “some good” can be worse than doing nothing at all because it quite often creates more problems than it solves.

With the NALT campaign, you get emotional catharsis of “helping” with no push toward material benefit. With child sponsorship, you get to see one child thrive as his community falls apart around him. With TOMS shoes, another example, you get children dependent on foreign aid who may not have a school to walk to in their shiny new shoes. With clothing drives in the wake of a natural disaster, volunteers often show up on a site with plenty of cast-off clothes and none of the actual tools needed to help, creating further problems for the area. With the war in Iraq, sure, Saddam's gone, but at the costs of thousands of Iraqi civilian lives and a destabilized government.

In our desire to help, self-critique is necessary. We must be closely examining our actions so that we may not fall into the trap of using the little bit of good to erase the mountain of bad. We must be willing and open to criticism because depending on our own good intentions can run us into a whole lot of trouble.