The heroic narrative is almost irresistable as a storytelling strategy.
But many in the aid and development community think it frequently does more harm than good:
- By implying individual, private efforts (i.e., DIY or “Do-It-Yourself” aid) are somehow superior to large-scale organizational or government-run programs when the evidence (one rebuttal to DIY aid) suggests otherwise;
- By disguising a poorly functioning program (e.g., Greg Mortenson’s Three Cups of Tea scandal) or perhaps advancing a commercial interest (e.g.,TOMS shoes) through compelling personal stories that may do more for the hero than those he/she is supposed to be helping;
- Or by simplistically glossing over the complex political, economic and social problems that often contribute to the problems of poverty, disease or inequities these humanitarians say they are trying to solve.
It is the dog days of August, but I wouldn’t be surprised to see a fairly strong negative reaction based on these kind of concerns to a recent column by the New York Times’ David Brooks. Other such tales — though usually well-intended — tend to really irritate those working out there in poor countries for humanitarian organizations actually trying to help poor people.
Brooks, who is traveling in East Africa, wrote about The Rugged Altruists in which he — perhaps taking a cue from his NYT colleague Nick Kristof, champion of DIY aid — celebrates the good work of some individuals he’s encountered on his trip. Brooks opens by saying:
Many Americans go to the developing world to serve others. A smaller percentage actually end up being useful. Those that (sic) do have often climbed a moral ladder. They start out with certain virtues but then develop more tenacious ones.