On this day one year ago, I was on a plane headed westbound for a town I had never been to in a country I knew little about. Though my expectations were high for the work and cultural immersion I had ahead of me, I also didn’t truly understand what I was getting into. I didn’t know what I would be accomplishing, who I would be meeting, or even if I was ready for such a task. I was going in blind.
Now, everyone says that hindsight is 20/20; you never know what you could have changed or done differently until after that event occurs. As great as it would be to know what we would go through or accomplish tomorrow, a week from now, a year from now… we just can’t. I didn’t know how little my impact would be in China. I didn’t realize how nieve I was to what I was really doing. I painted a fantasy of change and impact that I could have never achieved. However, that is not to say that this trip was for nothing, that I gained no knowledge, that I stayed unchanged. So then, what did I learn and how did I get to this conclusion?
About a week ago I was driving home from Connecticut with a friend of mine. After a day out in the woods, we were conversing about what we would be doing for the rest of the summer. I had known for a while now that he was going back to Asia for a month to stay in Cambodia, but I had never asked what he would be doing there. Questioning him about what he would be doing and where he would be staying while in Cambodia, I asked him if he would be doing any service work while there.
“No,” he said.
Of course, I was perplexed with this response, how could he go to another country for a month for the purpose of cultural immersion and change and not want to participate in service work? Upon talking about it, and listening to what he had to say, I came to a very hard truth that I should have learned much, much earlier. Service work doesn’t help, it hurts. Now, that must sound odd. To anyone reading, you must be asking yourself how something that is designed to aid a community hurt it? Well, if you choose to listen to me as I listened to my friend, I will explain.
There are two fundamental issues with international service work; fiction and dependence. When we think of fiction, we often think of made up stories in books that tell a tale that differs from reality. This is as true with service work as it is with a book. When we travel abroad to do work, we tell ourselves that we are making an impact; we write our own fiction of impact and change. In reality, we are putting a small bandaid on a very large wound. To put this concept into perspective, let me make an analogy. Service work is comparable to anti-depressants. While anti-depressants will certainly alter the chemicals in your brain to aid your mood short term, they don’t solve the underlying problems which created the need for them in the first place. Service work is the same. While it can be a great tool to jumpstart a change in a city, province or country anywhere in the world (especially when performed by a large organization), it doesn’t solve the underlying issues. Yet, we take pride in the work we do, and we then convince ourselves that we have solved the problem, that we somehow made a difference. This is the fiction of service work, and one of the reasons why it often fails.
The second issue with service work can be dependence. Much like someone who relies on a drug such as caffeine to function, towns can often fall victim to dependence on international help. For instance, as I had seen in Shaxi, there was not much that had been done to restore the local temples by the community. There was budgeting for infrastructure, there were new buildings form the global era of communism in Asia, but little had been done to restore the temples that had been destroyed in Mao Zedong’s great leap forward? Why was this? Could it be lack of religion? Probably not, the majority of the country practices some form or religion and shrines are present in every town. Could it be a lack of funding? Possibly, but I doubt it. In reality, it was probably a dependence on external help. Why pay to have something done when willing Americans will come three times or more a year to do it for you?
This concept of dependence isn’t a new either, and it has been seen on a global scale. Have you ever wondered why the economy of South Africa is so bad, why they have so many issues? They were so dependant on Britain that their economy collapsed when they were no longer a colony and had to govern and run themselves. This has been seen time and time again all through areas on Africa, South America, and Asia throughout history. The same still occurs today. Why would North Korea focus on agriculture and production for their citizens when they know they will continue to receive aid from the United States and other members of the UN? International aid can create dependence.
So, is that to say then that this trip was for nothing, that my contributions mean nothing and that there is little a single person can do to help? No. While it is true that there is often a little a person can do on their own (unless they are extremely dedicated to a single issue) to make an astronomical impact, that is not to say that they cannot help. Often times, it is knowledge that makes the biggest impact in most situations. For instance, while it would be very hard for a single person to fix the issues facing the citizens of Hong Kong, the effort of every man, woman, and child around the world, spreading the word of their struggle does. Even if you choose to take the path that my friend or I took of visiting a country to learn about its culture and issues, you can make a huge impact. By recognizing a problem, thinking critically about it, searching for solutions and then sharing those with the world in an effort to create large scale awareness, you can make a huge change. That’s why I would say that even now knowing everything that I do about my trip, I would consider it a success. Even if my individual contributions to the people of Shaxi did not make a long term difference, my knowledge of their financial situations, of their struggles, of their needs does. That’s the true impact of service work.