5 Insane Things I Learned as a Foreign Aid Worker
In a world full of people whose concept of charity extends only to forwarding inspirational Facebook messages, it's impressive to hear of people who actually fly across the world and spend years of their lives living with the needy people they're trying to help. And we're here to tell you, that shit is even harder than it sounds.
Mark Hipwood spent 15 years providing medical aid to isolated villages in the Pacific Islands. Cracked sat down with him to learn the pains, pitfalls, frustrations, and reams of B.S. that go along with trying to make the world a better place. He told us ...
Nothing Can Prepare You for the Culture Shock
My first time out, I strode into a village with my clipboard and crisp, white button-down shirt, plastered a big, helpful "I come in peace" smile on my face ... and watched helplessly as the village's entire child population ran screaming into the jungle.
Behold the face of evil.
This was a remote village in Vietnam, and many of the kids there hadn't seen a white person before. The kids didn't think I was a god or anything, but my blazing whiteness was utterly alien to them. I looked like some sort of nightmarish cartoon character, only these kids hadn't seen cartoons, either. If this was a movie, we would be just a few humorous misunderstandings away from realizing that deep down, all people are the same, you guys! But in real life, the gulf between cultures can be almost incomprehensible. I'm talking about things like the basic concept of time. At the same village, I had this exchange:
"How long does it take you to fetch water?" I asked.
"No," he said.
"No, sorry. What I mean is: How long does it take to get water from the well?"
This went on for ... well, a long fucking time. Then I realized I'd been missing what his eyes were saying: "It takes as long as it takes, dickhead."
"I usually get home sometime between dumbass-American o'clock and half after take-your-shit-elsewhere."
See, it turns out not everyone measures time in minutes and hours. Sure, the people I was working with had a basic idea that time exists: Stuff happens and then something else happens after that. But there isn't much point in keeping track of minutes and hours if you can get by just fine without it (remember, watches weren't even commonplace in the west until a few hundred years ago). When your major daily concerns are getting water and avoiding crocodiles, you care a whole lot less about how fast some arrow moves around a dial. That stuff isn't done by appointment.
"Besides, they keep eating our damn clocks."
And the culture shock hits you twice -- when you spend a few years in that environment and then come back to "normal" life, it really is jarring to realize how time-oriented our society is. People are absolutely insulted if you show up late and twitchy about things running too long. You have to wrench your head back into that mindset after you've become used to waiting an hour for anyone to show up -- because that's how it is in a situation where everyone has just a vague idea of what time of day they should be somewhere.
So then you start to resent how rigid life is in a developed country: You think, "Geez, does everything have to be so exacting?" You go to Starbucks and find yourself with an overwhelming variety of options. Do I really need six different types of latte? Would it be worth making do with lukewarm instant coffee to never see one of those brightly lit menus again?
Only if it still costs $4.75.
And then, there are the desperate women.
At home, I am straight down the line average: a single white guy with no kids and a little bit of disposable income. Maybe I get three responses a month on OKCupid. But in these villages, I'm seen as somebody's ticket out. Every time I went into a new location, I had to deal with the shock on people's faces when I gave an honest response to the simple question, "Are you married?" Then the offers would come. A relentless barrage of desperate women and desperate parents of young women would approach me, and I would have to awkwardly decline "come save me" sex again and again.
This isn't a boast -- it had nothing to do with me and everything to do with them seeing an easy way out of a tough situation. If I had it all to do over again I'd have gone to Walmart, bought a cheap ring, and lied my ass off to everyone who asked.
People Can Make It Hard to Help Them
We were doing a sexual health program, and we put a whole bunch of condoms into the health dispensary to get them out to brothels, bars, pretty much anywhere people hook up for casual encounters. On our first visit, a huge number of condoms went missing. We investigated, and it turned out those condoms actually worked great as fishing lures. So the fishermen stole all the condoms and the people celebrated with well-fed but unprotected sex.
We imagine the fish who managed to get away had one hell of an evening too.
Another time, we bought a car for a local hospital and the minister for health pulled the engine out and put it into his own car. We left a shiny new vehicle, came back a couple of months later to do an inspection, and found a shiny new wreck. The guy who did that wasn't an evil guy; he was dedicated and probably put years of work into the health of his fellows. But he wanted that car. And the fact that it didn't belong to him mattered exactly dick. Clearly we had plenty of cars, so many we were just giving them away. To paraphrase Fiddler on the Roof: Would it ruin some vast, intricate plan if he could just have one car to do wicked donuts in?
We call it corruption, but many don't view it that way at all. They consider it inventiveness. It's easy for the people you're helping to start to see aid funds as the only way to get anything done, so, it's in their interest to game that system. Every activity imaginable in these islands somehow winds up requiring laptops and cars. They're flashy things that all people want, and they're also hip things for Westerners to give away. Why not go for it?
"While you're at it, our irrigation system could really use a new PlayStation."
So, immediately post 9/11, a lot of funds became available for anti-terrorist stuff. You can guess what happened next -- everyone looking for funds found a way to work their project under the anti-terrorism umbrella. "We need this car to transport patients between hospitals, because if they don't they'll leave the village and might become terrorists."
Along the same vein: They get very clever about over-reporting deaths and attributing them to certain diseases to keep getting funds. If someone old bites it, the hospitals can be pretty creative about ascribing them to "complications from Tuberculosis." Why? Because that means more sweet donor dollars for all the living TB patients. So you could get mad at them for lying, but your anger will last right up until the moment you get TB.
Modern Conveniences Bring Their Own Problems
One time, we procured a bunch of laptops for some local laboratory workers. We made sure they were good, capable of WiFi, and all that. But people started downloading porn, and it knocked down their local networks and bogged the machines down with malware. This happens all over the developing world; people who lived without power until recently suddenly find themselves online with no frame of reference to know that new toolbar is a liar and a thief.
"Pills that make your penis bigger? I'd be stupid not to click!"
These people hop right into the deep end, with no one to explain about attack sites or Nigerian princes, and it can end up being even uglier than the first week your grandparents had AOL. In some parts of Fiji, the locals have a special word for when you meet someone online, become infatuated with them, and then leave your current spouse. It's a real social problem there because, as crazy as it sounds, for the first time people are able to have private, sneaky communications with other people.
None of this is to say that technology is a bad thing, and it's important for kids everywhere to grow up with some understanding of the Internet, because that's where we're all going to live in a few years. But even after distributing 2.5 million laptops across 42 countries, One Laptop Per Child can't show any improvement in test scores for all the effort. You can't just open the doors of the Internet to unprepared people and expect them to thrive. There be dragons (and RedTubes) in these waters.
Which has its own set of dragons for those who don't know to shun videos
whose titles contain terms you don't recognize.
It's kind of like all of those European settlers coming to the Americas carrying a shitload of diseases they were immune to, but that ended up killing pretty much all the natives. For an even more dramatic example, look at what is happening with fast food.
Way ahead of you.
Here in the West we've had fast food for a couple of generations. Obesity is a huge problem, but at least everyone knows Big Macs are bad for you, and there's a whole giant healthy-food industry pushing back against our instinctive hunger for fat and salt. The same isn't true everywhere, and the last couple decades of exporting fried deliciousness has taken a horrific toll. Since 1980, the number of obese people in the developing world has quadrupled.
And that kind of drives home the point of everything we've talked about here so far -- every stereotype you know about these populations is wrong at least some of the time. Poverty isn't always the big issue. Neither is starvation. Liberating people from ignorance is a lofty-ass goal, but Internet access doesn't fix it. In many cases, the biggest, hardest, most intractable issues have a lot more to do with the crazy pace of modernity than any anything you can easily mail off to assuage your guilty conscience.
Speaking of which ...
We Donate the Wrong Things
The oversimplification that the aid agencies perpetuate is that if the public gives them money, they will help a particular poor child. They might even send you a kid's picture to reinforce the idea that money equals helping one person in need.
Usually the village stock models.
The reality is that there are an almost infinite number of steps between one person's donation and the final beneficiary. At the end of the day, it's not possible for an agency to target one vulnerable kid; it's just not practical. They have to work with local structures that have their own agendas. But, it makes for a nice ad campaign that tugs on the old heartstrings.
And that is made necessary by the fact that there is such a massive gap in understanding between the people who need help and the people who are being prodded to actually provide it. Even once the money is in play, it's easy to blow it on the wrong thing. We like to come in as the advanced, enlightened Westerners there to bring the help that these backward villagers didn't even know they needed. In reality ... yeah, you really have to listen to them.
"Digging a well sounded like it would take a lot of energy, so we thought espresso maker!"
We were working with a foreign public health aid agency, and they wanted to bring this fancy system to the islands that would let doctors there send tests back to the U.S. to get really quick results. As cool as that sounded, the local medical professionals just wanted help building a better system for tracking their patients across the islands. That's all -- fishermen just pop off in their boats and sail to new islands all the time, spreading whatever disease they had. It was so obvious that the agency had missed it altogether -- which is easy to do, when you're from a western country where the vast majority of your patients have addresses and cell phones, and it's actually considered weird when somebody just takes off and disappears. But the islanders didn't need a high-tech miracle cure -- they just needed better record-keeping.
This "the locals know best" concept is hard to grasp in light of all of the talk of corruption above. Yet, often the most effective aid you can give people is cold, hard cash, with no strings attached.
Apparently, the secret weapon against worldwide poverty is far less complex than you'd think.
That's right -- you might expect handing out lump sums of money would just markedly increase the quality of recipient's televisions and, briefly, their liquor cabinets. But the government of Uganda actually tested this theory on a group of 12,000 citizens, and they found most aid recipients spent their windfall on such extravagances as school and starting a small business. People who got the aid were 65 percent more likely to practice a skilled trade. Four years later they earned 41 percent more than their peers who didn't get the benefit of a big, meaty stimulus package.
Feeling Sorry for People Is a Dick Move
When I was about three years into my stint, I had the misfortune of visiting a village that was in the midst of severe famine. I just lost it. Cue tears and Sarah McLachlan music. "What's the harm in a bit of emotion and sympathy?" I hear my younger self ask. The answer is, a whole lot. These people have to live that, and my reaction pissed them off. Walk into a friend's house for the first time and immediately burst into tears, see how they take it.
Get the full experience by telling their kids they'll be with Jesus soon.
By getting all worked up and theatrical, I was treating these folks like the cast in my own heroic drama. They didn't want sympathy, they wanted solutions, and all I achieved with my outburst was reminding them of how shitty their life was compared to mine. So, no, helping those less fortunate isn't about shedding tears and letting them touch your heart -- you actually have to get to a point where you're numb enough to block out emotional onslaught and just treat it as noise. There's work to be done.
I should mention, by the way, that drug and alcohol abuse is rampant among the aid workers I've been around. That's often because they're trying to find some strategy that helps them avoid melting down in front of these people (hey, at least there's nothing disrespectful about brooding over a whiskey bottle). It's the people who can't throw off the "heroic savior" mentality who cause more problems.
Meaning no matter how much dried food you brought, resist the urge to introduce yourself as "The one the prophecies spoke of."
Once, there was a Peace Corps volunteer who came to help at our hospital. She was a very gung-ho type, and that's great. But she also acted like her ideas were strokes of genius she was bestowing upon the ignorant peasants. Weren't these people just so lucky she was there? For example, she wanted to initiate a measure where everyone would use alcohol hand wash as soon as they entered the building. It was a fine idea, but her attitude caused even the locals who had already been using it to stop, just to spite her.
So that's one thing we do have in common, all over the world. Nobody likes being treated as the victim or feeding somebody else's savior complex.
Mark Hipwood worked as an aid worker for fifteen years. He has compiled an anthology of short stories about living and working in the Pacific Islands. It's called London Via Banana, and you can grab it here.
Related Reading: Other things you might have to do helping in foreign countries? Reviving a corpse so you don't become one yourself. Of course jobs here are unsavory also, especially when you're asked for underwear soaked in menstrual blood. Have a story to share with Cracked? Email us here.
Got some high-and-mighty friends who want to heal the world? Show them just how hard that REALLY is by clicking the Facebook share button below.