Ambiguous Expectations

An American friend who worked in Hollywood for years tells some incredible stories about the perils of celebrity.  Fame and money can play havoc with the human spirit as much as neglect and destitution can.  We all develop behaviours matching what we have learned to believe about ourselves.  In destitution, behaviours relate to excessively low expectations, while in celebrity they relate to excessively high expectations.  Which is not to say that every destitute person has low self esteem, or that every famous or rich person is arrogant.  But that these are risks associated with people who find themselves living an extreme existence.

En route to our English lesson the other day we had an interesting discussion about the criticisms of volunteering with children in third world countries.  The concerns and opinions which I’ve shared on previous blog entries are many, real and valid, but some of them are not clear cut.  For example, to volunteer with orphaned babies in institutions where they are lined up in rows of cots, receiving minimal attention or care.  Devoting a period of time in your life to feed and care for these babies seems a wholesome endeavour, offering human interaction and stimulation which they otherwise do not receive.  Such neglect in infancy can have drastic consequences reverberating throughout a person’s life, explained so well in Dr Bruce Perry’s book The Boy Who Was Raised As A Dog: And Other Stories From A Child Psychiatrist’s Notebook. In his book Dr Perry shares some phenomenal experiences and insights into the behaviour of people who are traumatised at critical times in their childhood and it is a fascinating read.   However volunteering in this way also means you are bonding with a child and then abandoning them, which can likewise contribute to known and predictable psychological disturbances.  Similar arguments can be made about volunteering as an untrained English teacher.  For example, would you want your children being taught by someone without adequate training?  It would seem indisputable at first glance.  But what if your only other option was no English lessons at all?  And what of the high value that is placed in many parts of the non-English-speaking world, of exposure to native English speakers?

These are some of the questions I grapple with during my various Cambodian endeavours.  No single undertaking is without debate around it’s impact.  The contribution Medecins Sans Frontieres makes is a good example.  We enter a country with the intent of making a difference and there is no doubt that significant and positive differences are made.  But there are pitfalls.  For example we adhere to local labour laws, which often exist only on paper and are not implemented either at all, or well, in struggling local systems.  We apply national-standard minimum wages and employment conditions which are often markedly different to those of local government employees.  This establishes a two-tier system which may in turn create a dynamic between, for example, MSF and Ministry Of Health (MOH) staff who work alongside each other.  Staff with identical roles and responsibilities may have quite inequitable conditions.  Then, once our intended goals are completed we implement an exit strategy and depart, usually leaving behind many suddenly-unemployed ex-staff in a struggling economy which cannot sustain it’s workforce.  In my recent experience, once the exit strategy enters the agenda, local staff become anxious and stressed about their imminent future.  The repercussions can be much more far-reaching, affecting patient confidence in the system, service quality as staff leave, and many other related issues.

The other night during a visit with the little boy at Shackville, I asked his mother if I could photograph him.  She agreed and instructed him to put his infected stump up so that it was in the photograph!  Taken aback, I got a great shot of his handsome little face, managing to avoid any unnecessary pictorial evidence of the amputation site.  I showed her the photograph and will give her a copy, so she knows I did not photograph his stump.  Perhaps she believed I wanted a photograph of his injury in order to show others who may be able to help their plight, although I could not be sure.  When I have offered assistance to those in dire need, I have credited it to an overseas friend, often because I have received a donation from generous family and friends wanting to help, but also in order to demonstrate that I have limitations, relying as I do on others to help.  This seems effective in ensuring I am not seen as some sort of “boundless benefactor”.  A logical reaction to this might be attempts to connect through me, to distant and unknown people?

Suffering in Cambodia is conspicuous and beggars are prevalent in comparison to the first world where some level of security is in place for vulnerable people.  Although many beggars are disabled in some way, it is rare here (although not altogether absent, especially in the tourist areas) to see disabilities used brazenly for the purposes of begging.  This is in comparison with other places which I have not visited, where I understand disabilities have a worth attached to them based on the sympathy and donations they can garner from strangers, making the disabled vulnerable to all kinds of shocking abuse.  So while I want to contribute to the life of this little boy, the last thing I want is to influence him or his family to perceive his disability as some sort of cash cow.  Yet if I had not noticed his disability, I would never have approached his mother to ask about him.  So have I already turned his disability into a meal ticket of sorts?

Despite the risks of negative consequences, I firmly believe in engaging with people in need and helping when possible.  Unwanted repercussions can be minimised by being informed and reflecting on our actions and their consequences.  During a recent meeting with the Board of Directors at the orphanage some thought-provoking debates played out between members who feel very strongly about not teaching the children to have high expectations which, once they are living as independent adults, they will not be able to sustain; and other members who feel equally strongly that it is healthy and positive to give the children the confidence and insight to pursue higher dreams.  We were not debating highly unrealistic goals, but rather what prospects should be considered attainable for children from impoverished circumstances, living with a stigmatising chronic disease who are clearly going to face many harsh challenges in life.  I don’t know where I stand on the “Expectations Spectrum”, but it was an absorbing and contemplative debate which I felt privileged to be part of.

Contact between “us” in the wealthy world and “them” in the developing world is no longer a distant and unlikely thing, thanks to the internet.  As the most popular social networking site with almost 100 million users, Facebook is an excellent example.  I follow various Facebook pages, including a number of charities who regularly post messages and photographs to promote the work they do.  This is great publicity for an organisation who rely on donations in order to continue operating.  But it also serves a more important purpose, connecting human beings.  People from far-away places can watch and comment and I regularly read people wanting to reach out and help – asking how to volunteer, how to donate, or sending messages of hope, support and encouragement to individuals whose stories and circumstances touch them.  This is a doorway which, without the internet, would never have been open to so many of us (or to the people who benefit from these organisations).

One of my favourite Facebook pages is Humans of New York (HONY), a photography page started by a young guy called Brandon after he lost his well paid job in Chicago.  He bought a camera and embarked on a tour of America, taking portrait photographs of people he encountered in the street and posting the photographs to a Facebook page.  He asked his friends to like the Facebook page and slowly acquired a small online audience.   When he landed in New York the venture took on a life of it’s own, as to be expected in New York!  He began recording conversations he had with the people he photographed and adding short quotes as a caption to each portrait.  This connected his audience to the subjects of his photographs and the popularity of his page snowballed.  He now has almost 10 million Facebook followers.

Brandon is currently on a United Nations-sponsored “world tour” to ten countries.  With four or five days in each country, he started in Kurdistan about two weeks ago and has since been to other parts of Iraq, as well as Jordan, Democratic Republic of Congo and Kenya, where his most recent photographs were posted from.  He will circumnavigate the globe, touching down to meet and photograph people in various impoverished locations as far apart as Ukraine to Haiti.  The aim of this trip is to promote the United Nations Millenium Development Goals.  There are eight MDGs,  attempting to end poverty and improve life for the world’s most impoverished people.  Read more about them here: http://www.un.org/millenniumgoals/.

Following the HONY theme, Brandon’s captioned photographs on this global endeavour connects us to people who we would not otherwise encounter.  Brandon’s own words about this project are “Those are the places that have the most extreme headlines coming out… Those are the places most skewed in people’s heads. The work has a very humanizing effect in places that are misunderstood or feared.”  Like thousands of others I enjoy following his journey, “meeting” some of his subjects and learning a little of their lives.  Thanks to Brandon and the UN I’ve met children crowded together on the back of a parked utility truck, waving, hugging and posing excitedly like many scenes I’ve seen in both Central Australia and Cambodia, only these faces are Caucasian instead of Black or Asian; a legless man sitting on the ground in Nairobi describing the impact his disability had on his (non) education; men and women in war torn countries pursuing higher educations in order to contribute to the growth and development of their nations; and so many others who are just people like you and me but born into difficulties that we have never had the misfortune of experiencing.

Perhaps a year ago Brandon posted a picture from Washington Square Park in the affluent Greenwich Village suburb of Manhattan, of a little boy sitting with his mother on a path I recognised as adjacent to an apartment block where Eleanor Roosevelt once resided and surrounded by apartments now inhabited by New York University academics and professors.  A mat was stretched in front of them with “cowboy supplies” displayed for sale.  The little boy wanted to raise money to buy himself a horse and by the end of that day he had earned US$1 towards his goal.  Living in a small city apartment with no extra money meant this was an impossible ambition, but despite this his mother was supporting her son to pursue his dream.  Brandon posted the photograph and caption to Facebook.  An amazing thing then happened – his followers banded together and raised enough money for the boy to go on a horse riding holiday!

The generosity of his readers continues today, with connections being sought from his audience to his subjects daily.  As one of very many examples, this morning a young Kenyan woman’s portrait caption reads: I’d been studying German for a few years, and I met this woman who gave me the opportunity to go to Germany for a full year. The brochure looked very nice. The program included hikes, volunteer work, singing in church. It was very expensive, but my family thought it would be a great experience for me, so all my relatives chipped in to pay the program fee. I was so excited for months. On the day that I was supposed to leave, I went to the airport, and waited in line to check my baggage. When I got to the front of the line, they told me that my ticket was a forgery. When I tried to call the woman’s phone, it had been disconnected.”  A frenzy of overtures has arrived from HONY.  Offers to buy her a plane ticket, to represent her legally, to host her in Germany and all sorts of other contributions are being hurled at poor Brandon!

He doesn’t acknowledge publicly whether he can follow up on these offers.  I suspect that he cannot because the intention of his work is actually not to alleviate the suffering of random individuals he happens across, but to raise awareness of a global situation.  The enthusiasm shown by his readers wanting to support underprivileged people wherever they are, is an inspiring testimony of the natural tendency humans have towards compassion and philanthropy.  Translating these qualities into acts that actually benefit the most people in the most meaningful way seems to be where the challenge lies, as our need to connect is so firmly entwined with our desire to contribute.

With all of the atrocities that the internet has received notoriety for, it seems to me that social networking also provides us with the possibility of meaningful connections which could literally revolutionise the world?  That’s my hopeful expectation for today’s information superhighway, anyway.

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