What’s the difference between striving for social justice and patronizing the powerless? When does activism become slacktivism? When does helping the poor become an act of co-dependence?
So many questions and so little consensus. What I know is my own experience over the past twenty years in Tanzania.
I have shifted away from believing that it was important to take action in whatever way possible to alleviate someone’s suffering. Now I believe that unskilled and well-intentioned action may in fact exacerbate the situation of people who are desperate. Uninformed action may actually cause more harm. It may salve my conscience, but do little to help someone escape their circumstance.
When I was a girl in my twenties it seemed to me that providing services was all that was required; and if the Government wasn’t doing it then I would work with other volunteers to step in. I had the energy and motivation to commit myself fully to this cause. I could immerse myself in the cause of alleviating suffering because I could set aside petty much every other demand on my life. No family, no children, and no desire for professional advancement, created space for me to become the service provider.
Now I’m in my forties and maybe more cynical? Maybe more realistic? Maybe I’m just able to see the complexities of the system in which poverty arises? I also have a host of other commitments and aspirations. My children are now the centre of my life. My desire for professional recognition is new. I don’t want to work 70 hour weeks.
But also I see the futility and arrogance of me thinking that I and other do-gooders can step up in lieu of the Government. Now I want to hold the Government to account. I want to pay my taxes and to see public goods provided in return. And I am more than happy to lobby for this, to share my skills and to assist dutybearers. But I will not be the one providing the services.
How has this shift in my own stance occurred? I started out with good intentions. I fed, lived with and nurtured children on the streets. As a founder of Mkombozi we saw the best and the worst of people. Fifteen years later many of those children are now parents. Many are successes. A few are dead.
At some point on my journey I realized that the most innovative, compassionate and committed service providers could not prevail over a Government who does not prioritize children.They cannot compensate for a system that plans poorly, that does not invest in professional development and that erodes the social capital that used to underpin society. I learnt that if only I took responsibility for these children it was of no real sustained merit if their families and communities did not also step up.
My own moral imagination evolved from a concern with what I could do, to what the system could do. Now the question is whether I can be of service in helping Government actors and public servants to evolve their own moral imagination from a stance of “what’s in it for me?” to “how can I be of service to others?”