Good Intentions are not Enough

Disaster strikes, transforming cities and towns into graveyards and wastelands in a matter of minutes. But help is on its way: news channels and social media relay the information to all corners of the globe in real-time, mobilising hundreds of people and organisations to aid. Yet, with standard relief packages regardless of the location, and a lack of effort taken to match volunteers' skills with tasks, just how effective are we at helping others? 

Many people want to do good, but they like to do it at their convenience. These attempts at helping often fail, and the blame invariably falls on the disaster victims, rather than looking at the suitability of aid provided. Such help, offered without a thorough understanding of the context or the impact of actions, can create situations that leave the victims worse off than before.

So how can we create real sustainable impact? 

Most communities have a lot of unused human capacity. When offering help, many aid providers fail to engage the local communities, thus excluding a critical group of people with the knowledge of local ways and needs. 

This book elaborates on a simple principle essential to effective aid — Never Help: Engage, Enable, Empower and Connect. 

It is important that we fully understand the problem before we try to solve it, and who better to help us with solutions than the local community? 

Readership: Volunteer welfare organisations, charities, foundations, people involved in post-disaster relief, social workers, schools/universities/students interested in volunteer activities.


Short Excerpt


Good Intentions Are Not Enough
why we fail at helping
by Robin Low

Drawing experience and failures from working in post disaster areas and developing communities, and observing the inefficacies of large organizations, Robin finds the reasons for these failures and suggests ways to get to sustainable impact.

Helping is complicated and easy to mess up. That much is obvious now at the end of this book. But this does not mean it is ok to not try. Doing nothing at all is not a good option.

The problem with helping is that for the most part, it involves people being too assured of their ways to learn to do things differently and instead, just following status quo. There needs to be a better understanding of the problem, and purer motivations, with less religious ideology and more economics. But much condescension from colonizing countries towards the formerly colonized and sometimes, a racist mindset, may make people think otherwise.

I have often been in a position where I question myself: how am I going to change other people when I don’t exactly understand what is going on myself? What people tell you is usually not their immediate problem, because the problem is too complicated for someone external to understand immediately. They tell you what you want to hear and so they can get what they expect to get.

Change is difficult. Most people are difficult to change, and they sometimes do, but slowly and only slightly. They are not always grateful – some are resentful instead. Being too emotionally involved clouds judgement. On days when one is confronted with a devastating problem that cannot be fixed, the misery and helplessness rub off, perhaps making one feel angry and blaming systems and society for what one cannot fix.

Being angry does not solve the problem. Resilience is important and one needs to be tough, but not detached. Optimism, coupled with creativity and innovation may be a way to continuously look for solutions when encountering a dead end. Complaining does not help; only when the solution is found is the problem solved.


Long Excerpt


Many people mean well and want to contribute solutions to local and global needs. People often want to act for the sake of "doing something". Often, this means poorly thought-out ideas that are often unsustainable, or have little measurable social impact. Are these efforts actually helping? Are they solving problems or creating new ones? What pitfalls should a concerned giver watch for?

Rich People are Not the Solution

I’ve known many rich people who do not consider themselves rich. These people I know live in properties that cost in excess of US$25 million, run foundations or own businesses, and continue to generate a lot of income. Through my interactions with them, I have realized that most of them still have a lot of anxieties – anxieties relating to financial security.

Often, when I approach these people who run foundations, I’ve candidly asked them why they don’t do more for society personally, and I get the same answer all the time: “You know, the costs of education and necessities are getting more day by day, my businesses may be doing well now, but who knows what is going to happen tomorrow?” Sometimes, I do get puzzled as the small projects that I wish to be funded are under $10,000, and their response of financial insecurity in their Rolls Royce prompted me to follow up with another question: “So how much do you need to have in order to be financially secure?” The quick answer is often “$1 billion in the bank.”

Many people talk about doing social good, creating social impact, and many of them have the means to do it. Some who run foundations will get their foundation to be involved, but foundations usually do not spend time on small-scale prototypes, and many rich people do not seem to be financially secure enough to part with some money.

I’ve met public servants earning more than US$1 million dollars a year, refusing to support an educational project for local youths and who pointed me to government grants which either take too long to apply for, or simply are not the right match.

If you are in the business of fund-raising, you often get this common reply: “I’ll donate more next time when I have more money.” Boston College did a study on the Fears of the Super Rich, and found that even people with an average net worth of US$78 million are dissatisfied with their sizable fortunes.

So if you think that you will donate only when you are rich, the question you should ask yourself is, how much money do you need before you can consider yourself rich?

Social Enterprises – Really that Social?

When Social Entrepreneurship came along as a new and shiny concept, many people jumped on board. Many entrepreneurs like the idea of creating business that does well at the same time. Fundamentally, the very concept of a social enterprise is flawed. Companies pay taxes, and the taxes go to schools and roads. So, does that make all companies social enterprises? What's more, when examining these concepts in practice, flaws are even further exposed. At the bottom of the social pyramid, the needs of the more similar people's needs are similar. 

Poorer communities need basics like food, shelter and clean water. If you can sell to meet the needs of one community, you can also sell to others. As such, many enterprises that sell to one poor community will try to scale-up and sell to others. However, when a startup scales, it runs into problems. It can lose its ability to be nimble. It can become bureaucratic, and communication with the ground level can suffer. Social projects that scale too quickly often fail. When scaled too quickly, many social enterprises which may have seen success in the small scale may even lose their social impact and cause social harm.

Microfinance is a good social idea that allows poor people to have basic financial services. Recipients of microfinance could start a small business and are less likely to pull their kids out of school due to economic reasons.

However, many people take the simple idea of giving loans to the poor and twist it to make it very profitable. Payday lenders are getting popular in many poorer parts of the country and each year, about 12 million Americans incur long-term debt by taking out a short-term loan that is intended to cover borrowers' expenses until they receive their next paycheck. This causes many people to slip out of the middle class. Some of the lower income borrowers may pay up to 400% per annum in interest rates, causing up to 40% of them to default and push them closer to poverty.

Many people want to do well. Some want to help one person at a time, and others want to change the world. Helping one person at a time creates intimacy, but some fear that the blunder may get personal, and even when it succeeds, it does not change anything in the big picture. Trying to change the world may be ambitious, cleaner and more abstract. But success is distant and unlikely, so people who attempt this often taste a noble failure.

I’ve met many people and learnt from many mentors, some even younger than me, trying to do well. Learning from their experience, models and failures, I realize that many people may not know the best way of doing good. Some do it because of their religions; others may like the feeling of helping someone. Everyone has their reasons. As I look at the result of their project, I realize that many people doing the same thing and getting the same results may come up with different conclusion of success or failure. Nevertheless, what matters most is the real impact of the effort. Is it moving in the right direction?

I have worked on many projects in the past 15 years. It is interesting to me that my perspective has changed in these years, and some projects which I’ve considered a success in the past, are failures to me now. My failures taught me a lot, and even if I cannot convince you about what you should do, let me at least share what not to do.

Why We Fail at Helping

Charities and non-profits have been around for many years and charities seem to get bigger with record donations received almost every year. Yet, the problem of poverty seems to be getting worse.

There are many attempts at making charities more efficient after complains about how the bulk of money donated to the non-profits is going towards administrative costs and not to the beneficiaries. Some people think that applying for-profit business management techniques and using business matrices to measure efficiency is a good idea, but sometimes, it does cause other issues.

Traveling Overseas to Help? Whom are you helping?

“Voluntourism” is getting popular, but there are many ways to smell foul. All over the internet, you can find articles about how ineffective short-term voluntourism trips to developing nations are, but many people still engage in them.

I have been guilty of volunteering for some NGOs to organize some of these trips, and after visiting the location and looking at the actual activities the volunteers will do, I was appalled.

Yes, I’m talking about the short trips where professionals or students visit Nairobi to build orphanages, and up with a short trip to Rift Valley taking photos with the wildlife to prove it. There are too many examples where people visit Haiti to build schools, or visit communities in the rural communities in Latin America to teach English for a few days, and end up visiting exotic sites.

Even in local communities, people with the best intentions may visit orphanages or mentally challenged children, but after bonding with a child, their leaving may sometimes cause more harm to the child’s psychological growth. And when you bring such good intentions overseas, some organizations do exploit the people or communities they pretend to help and ending up doing more harm than good.

The idea of service learning is good, doing meaningful community service with instructions and reflection can enrich the learning experience. However, many people are ill-prepared and lack the necessary tools to be effective. Yet they would like to believe that their presence (not their money) would make a lifelong difference in a child’s life.

A common response after doing a voluntourism trip is: “I was heartbroken to see how life is there. It really makes me realize just how good we have it. My life will never be the same.” Many popular voluntourism trips cost a lot of money and are essentially self-fulfillment trips. It is about “you” and your experience, and giving you a different perspective. Let us not call it humanitarian work when the only person that benefits from it is “you”. 

As reported in Al Jazeera America, “As admirably altruistic as it sounds, the problem with voluntourism is its singular focus on the volunteer’s quest for experience, as opposed to the recipient community’s actual needs.” Calling a Spade – a Spade

Tourism does help the local economy, and the locals in that community do benefit in some form or other. After a disaster, visiting the disaster country, using local services, and buying local products do help the local economy. Go because the country is interesting, but do not call it altruism.

The Curse of Exclusion

There is much evidence that has shown that depression overcomes many survivors in the shelters when they have lost everything and have everything done for them. Helplessness sets in when they feel that even simple tasks such as cooking are being done for them. There are a lot of benefits to empowering survivors to participate in the relief and recovery, yet in most cases, they are being excluded.

The rebuilding process and planning is rarely done with any inputs from people living in the shelters, even though it is their homes and town that are being rebuilt.

While I do believe that NGOs are doing a good job providing shelter and food after a disaster, I feel that in many cases, volunteers can come from the shelters and these survivors can be engaged and consulted in the recovery of their own towns.

The curse of exclusion does not only apply to post-disaster recovery. In fact, this happens in many other cases when we fail to engage while we are trying to help a community.

The Power of Crowds

Communities have the ability to solve their problems.

  • They understand the problems they face better than anyone else.
  • They are not stupid and can solve many problems.
  • They don’t need pity, donations or continuous aid.
  • They must be allowed to try new ideas to get out of their bad situation and allowed to fail and learn from the experience.

Billions go into fighting poverty and yet more people fall into poverty every day. NGOs have provided food, medicine and shelter for people, but require more and more funding as it does not address the problem. Giving food to people today does not reduce their need for food tomorrow.

Social Enterprise and social business ideas have a lot of potential, but I’ve encountered many great businesses which seem to be doing well and expanding fast but which cease to exist within two years of expansion.

Never Help; Engage, Enable, Empower & Connect

Social intervention is a lot more complex than what people make it out to be. Over occasions such as Christmas, I see many people participate in giving. They donate money, warm clothes and many other things they do not need, and feel good about it.

I have asked a few of them when they donate about their stance on social welfare, minimum wage and redistribution of income. Consistent to my research, many of these people like giving, but do not like the idea of empowering others. They believe in the bootstrap theory where the poor should work harder and pull themselves out of poverty, and those who remain poor simply do not work hard enough.

Many people do not think it is a problem that there are people working full time, yet unable to support themselves and their families, because the wages are too low. They do not see the widening income gap causing more inequality. They think poor people are lazy and are not taking accountability for their actions.

After a few long discussions, my conclusion is that many people do not want to share power. They prefer to have all the power and give a little at a time under their total control. People feel they will lose power if they share it with others.

As far as the helping goes, much of the giving is for oneself to feel good, some give it out of pity, and others give to feel positive about them. As far as they are concerned, the impact of the giving is not important. They also do not care who it benefits and how it benefits the beneficiaries.

Giving has been going on for decades and few beneficiaries are now in a better position even after receiving aid for many years. This is because the current system of giving does not solve the root cause and people are content to continue to give.

This system is however not very sustainable. When the economy is bad, the giving stops while more people are in need of aid. The people requiring aid continue to require aid and it often form an endless cycle.

NGOs who want to continue their existence will continue to ask for donations and maintain status quo. They will show pitiful photos of human suffering to “guilt trip” people into giving. And over the years, the situation of those who suffer does not improve, it just remains the same.

Good Intentions are Not Enough book cover