Being in a third world country, you begin to notice a few key things about it. Mostly, it’s terrible. Extreme examples of poverty, apathy towards human life, sickness and malnutrition, whole loads of things that really just suck pretty hard. And if you’re anything like me, as an armchair pseudo-intellectual, you tend to think about how one might be able to make a difference over there while sitting in a comfy chair, in a relatively large, environmentally-controlled room.

I had been to India, and I was speaking to someone who had been doing relief work in Haiti, and I asked them if they had thought about improving Haiti as I had thought about improving India. How do you make a country less shitty? The answers are fairly obvious. In no particular order: sanitation, better infrastructure, education for women, education overall, better healthcare, better safety nets for the poor, less corruption, better heath and safety standards, and so on and so on and so on. Easy, right? Well how do you implement them? Where do you even start?

A lot of people immediately go for education as the number one. Educate people, and they’ll see how crummy life is by themselves, and then they’ll take steps to fix it. Ideal, really. But then I heard a few stories, one of which stood out in particular. My tour guide was telling our group of an instance where the Indian federal government had set up this program where students would be given free lunches. It’s great, right? For children who might not be getting even a single meal a day, having a free one waiting for them at school is a great incentive to go and educate themselves. Problem solved; India begins the long road to rehabilitation. Unfortunately for India, one of the main rules there is that nothing is allowed to go right. What ended up happening is that by the time the money for the lunches had made it to schools, it had been skimmed from so much that there was hardly any money left for the food, and what ended up being served was so unsanitary that a bunch of school kids died.

So is fixing the corruption the first step? It’s really difficult to say. When issues like women’s rights, unsafe drinking water, and poverty are staring you in the face, it’s almost impossible to say which one needs the most attention.

Even if you do decide to which to address first, and I do mean you, the reader, in this instance, the one who obviously wants to make a difference in the world, what can you actually do? It’s not like you can go up to the leader of a country and be like, “Hey mister president, you should stop being corrupt. Listen to me, for I am white and privileged!” Even if you could, having the Great White Saviour solve all the world’s woes is a problem unto itself. Countries should have the right to fix their problems for themselves. For one, those problems are more likely to stay fixed that way, and for two, there won’t ever be the niggling feeling that ol’ whitey is only after oil or out to influence the local culture.

So do you just sit around, ignoring the world’s problems while they either solve themselves or spiral out of control into a fiery inferno? I suppose you could if you really wanted to. I am merely text on a page, with no influence over you save for my reason, charm, and the dashing good looks which I assure you I possess.

There are charity donations, but charity is a fickle concept. Charity cannot fix problems. It is the “giving a man a fish” scenario. You might help a person out of a bind, but they are still stuck in a place where that bind is the norm. On top of that, there are questions as to where that money you donate actually goes. Suspicious administration fees are one thing, but there is also the question of whether or not what you’re donating to is good for the community. Are you buying food for them? Is the food you are buying in direct competition with local farmers, who now have to compete in a market where their competition offers free products? I’m not saying don’t donate to charity. It can be a powerful tool, but you have to make sure that your donation isn’t going to be a tragic waste of money.

Volunteering is another possible solution for the average idiot to help out those less fortunate. There are issues here too though; those similar to the issues with charity. Is your volunteer work something that a local could do? If you have a special skill or knowledge that just simply isn’t available in bulk in whatever country you’re volunteering in, then yes, you are an asset to that community. But if you’re helping out for free where a local could be doing the work and getting paid, then maybe think twice about the volunteer work that you’re doing.

Then of course there’s just talking about it. Who knows what solutions you might come up with?

None of the things you do will fix a country. That is up to its people. But you can make a difference on a more community-based level. And if you want to, then nothing is stopping you and you should definitely go for it. If you don’t want to, don’t feel bad because you are one among many. You’re reading this though, so  you’re at least being forced to think about it, and maybe that’s enough.



Post-script: I am not getting into local help versus international help. This article is only about international because that’s what the conversation that sparked this was about. I personally prefer local charity over international charity, and if you want to talk to me about my reasons why feel free.