March 9, 2009

Greasing the skids… on the road to dependency?

In the past, I’ve described the kind of work we do here as “greasing the skids,” reducing the coefficient of friction in people’s life. If we can help a child go to school by paying his school fees, then that child will hopefully have a better shot in life. (That assumes the school is of decent quality, a doubtful proposition.) I once described this work as being at the margins of life in Itipini but added, somewhat hopefully:

Perhaps if we help people overcome some of the issues at the margins of their
lives, some of the more substantial problems will become a bit more manageable
and or at least seem in the realm of solve-ability.
The trouble is while I may see what I am doing as “greasing the skids” the person in Itipini might take that initial help as a sign that I am willing to solve all her problems for her.

As a result, people start coming to me asking for help on those “more substantial problems.” I’ve written about Nolizwi before, who, after we helped her get started in school, came to me after she was kicked out of her home and robbed. I’ve written about Nomzame, who we helped go to college but now keeps coming back with more and more problems. There are countless other situations like this.

Here’s a secret: I don’t know what to do in those situations anymore than they do. I imagine these people are coming to me thinking I can snap my fingers, produce some money, and solve their problems. That’s not true. I can’t. What’s more, I don’t want to. I want them to be solving their own problems, with some help around the edges from me. But they, having seen the help around the edges, want it in all aspects of their life.

I think this happens in the clinic as well. People with HIV, say, wait until they are very sick before coming to be seen. I imagine they are thinking to themselves, “Well, Jenny has given me medicines in the past that have made my cough feel better so she can handle this as well.” But there are some things - like advanced AIDS - that we are helpless to address. We can only help around the edges, giving nutritional supplements, drawing blood for CD4 counts, and sending them on the way for anti-retroviral preparation but all that is meaningless if the person waits too long to come see us.

What I’m describing is the evolution of dependency, how a little help to “empower” people can quickly turn into making the person dependent on help in all aspects of their life. It doesn’t happen to every person but it happens more frequently than I once imagined possible.

The solution is the sort of personal development I once wrote about, to encourage people to see and use their own God-given gifts. Maybe then they would feel like they could handle bigger problems on their own. But that’s not easy and it’s made less easy when I effectively am giving people contradictory messages - OK, I’ll help you with this right now but in the future you should handle it yourself.


Heidi said...

I think about this a lot on the larger scale, in terms of foreign aid, too. Not simple.