There’s a scene in the film The Constant Gardener (can’t recall if it’s also in the book) wherein the protagonist Justin is trying to smuggle a Sudanese child onto a UN airlift plane in the face of a janjaweed raid. “There are thousands of kids out there just like her, we can’t save all of them!” exclaims the pilot with marked exasperation. “Yes,” Justin replies, “But we CAN help THIS one!”

It was this line that played through my head as I stood in the grocery store the other day, staring blankly at a dimly-lit display of soaps and disinfectants. A 500ml bottle of hydrogen peroxide was priced at 200 shillings, or less than $3 USD. The contents of this bottle, when applied fastidiously, could begin healing a child infected with the chigoe flea, or “chiggers,” a seemingly minor parasite that wreaks havoc on primary schoolers in sandy areas. If treated, it’s a brief nuisance. If untreated, it can cause itching, lesions, infection, gangrene, and possible limb loss or even death. I had just seen a child at the school near my house with a starting case of chiggers. However, he was an orphan, so there was no one at home to treat it. He had no money to cross the street and pay to have them treated at the government clinic. Could I spare 200 shillings, just this once? What’s to keep me from placing the bottle in my shop basket, and ensuring the child is healthy enough to take his national exams in December?

It’s a common urge – to do what you can for who you can, heedless of the consequences – among compassionate people who venture to places where extreme need is present. Tour groups (yes, they come through my clinic) are forever dropping off boxes of bandaids and aspirin, or asking how much it would cost to sponsor a school child’s lunch for a week. The intentions are good. But of course, it’s never that simple. On the small scale, you might help someone today, but what are they going to do after your visit/vacation/term of service ends and they’re on their own again? Have you really helped, or just delayed the inevitable? Or have you even made things worse?

What tends to result in high-traffic areas is “donor syndrome,” or the creation of an unsustainable reliance on the dream of outside funding. I’m not going to make this a wordy treatise about donor syndrome – I spent countless hours on the topic as an undergraduate and will save it for an entry when I have, oh, 40 pages or so to spare. However, suffice to say that this is NOT the job of Peace Corps: we are here to empower the community to make their own long-term sustainable solutions. Rather than the “quick fix,” we’re here to jumpstart the “long haul.”

By the end of the day, I had talked to the clinic and made arrangements for the treatment of sever chigger cases in orphans from the primary school under special circumstances. I had also started the ball rolling on developing regular outreach clinics to screen for and treat chiggers at local schools with qualified medical staff. I then returned to the school, spoke to the headmaster about the pupil in question, and passed along some information for him (the headmaster) to pass along to his faculty (thus “training the trainers”) about chigger prevention and detection. I met with the head of the school’s health club, still in its infancy, and arranged to do a seminar about chigger prevention and basic hygiene to them. In turn, each of these 30 specially-selected students will return to their classrooms and present an age-appropriate talk on the topic. Ideally, this will make it back to the parents, then the villages, then the wider community.

Both from a practical standpoint and with regard to Peace Corps procedure, this is the far better option. It empowers the community with information to take ownership of its own health. It doesn’t require anything from the outside to keep it going. Yet it’s also a delayed gratification that takes training and commitment. This is what development work is, at the very core, that separates it from the troubled systems of “global giving.” It’s the difference between immediate action to right a tangible wrong and delayed action in the amorphous hope of invisibly repairing the system that creates the wrong to begin with. It’s the difference between William Easterly’s “Planners” and “Searchers.” It’s the difference between external charity and inner strength. But in every person who witnesses hardship on a daily basis, or works in development, or finds employment in the field of responsible aid application, it takes that extra millisecond of impulse control not to move three muscles a mere eighteen inches to just buy the bottle of hydrogen peroxide.

Advertisements