Do Good and Do No Harm

October 20, 2009

When I read “Dark Star Safari,” I remember being particularly struck by Paul Theroux‘s description of self-serving aid agencies that do more harm than good.

And as I embarked on creating my nonprofit, I realized that sometimes good intentions can have unintended consequences. So, how to do good and do no harm? Is it possible? Is it a worthy goal?

A big Star Trek fan, I think the Prime Directive is probably a good model and a noble idea, yet it lives in fiction, science fiction.

Here’s my most recent case in point and conundrum: Marethel, our scholarship recipient, has asked for more money. She’s asked for a daily allowance to cover her food while she’s in the boarding house.

Our intention is to offer financial assistance to young women  who have the desire but not the resources to go to college. It’s also important to us that the women invest something, too. In this case, Leah proposed that since we’re providing housing, Marethel would cover her food expenses. And since we’re providing uniforms, Marethel would buy her school shoes.

I trust Leah. She comes from a background similar to those of the young women we seek to help. She has solid common sense and a good heart. At 31, she went back to school and worked hard to achieve the grades she needed to reach her dream of a college diploma and a career as an elementary school teacher.

By contributing a small portion to her education, Marethel would not be relying totally on charity. She’d be invested. Leah supports this approach.

It’s not a question of money; it’s a question of principle and purpose. The amount of money she would need is small;  the dilemma giving it creates is large.

We have a board meeting tomorrow night and we’ll discuss this dilemma. It some ways it seems like a petty issue. Give the girl the money. It’s no big deal. And in other ways, it is a big deal. So many trite phrases come to mind: Give a helping hand not a handout. For example.

Then again, perhaps the young woman has so few resources that she cannot pay for her food. Or perhaps, and I hate to think it, she’s playing us. A friend or a family member has seen her opportunity and has crawled on her back, seeking a handout.

I’ve been influenced by the stories I’ve read in “Half the Sky.” Stories where women have overcome enormous challenges, vicious crimes and crippling poverty. They received some assistance; yet they showed resourcefulness and discipline in helping contribute to their success.

I knew when I started this nonprofit that I would learn a lot. I knew I’d make some mistakes. It comes with the territory: venturing into other countries and cultures, with good intentions and donations to make a difference. It requires vigilance, compassion, clarity and an ongoing conversation about our approach to ensure we do our best to do more good than harm.

That’s a clever twist of a phrase–do more good than harm–and I like the way it sounds. In truth, I don’t want to do any harm at all. Even that statement seems far too lofty and unrealistic. We can never know all the consequences of our actions. We can simply do our best to do good.


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