by Kyle Fish
The local builder leading our work team in rural Guatemala resisted help from a group of volunteers. He took pride in the quality of his work, and he knew these volunteers didn’t have the experience or precision necessary to complete the water filter system correctly. One volunteer was angry: “What is this? I didn’t pay all this money and come all this way to stand by and watch someone else do the work.”
Another volunteer stayed out of the way. She busied herself pounding bent nails out of old boards, and calmly remarked how great it felt to be hammering out the injustice in the world.
These comments illustrate the attitude so many of us carry: we think that our money, effort, and good intentions earn us the right to help people we don’t know in a place we don’t understand.
That’s not how it works.
With smiles and caring hearts, volunteers can undermine local development programs, incite or contribute to political unrest, encourage dependency, create confusion, and then leave without looking back. They often return home feeling great about their work with no knowledge of the damage left in their wake.
This happens over and over, even when we know it’s not right. The allure of quick solutions for simple problems is hard to resist. But the problems aren’t as simple as we think they are (or as we want them to be).
We try to solve hunger by providing food or planting gardens, reduce homelessness by building houses, fix water quality by installing filters, and cure illnesses by offering medicine. The reality is that these seemingly simple problems are almost always complex problems misunderstood. They look simple and solvable because they are not our own, and we do harm when we try to fix them without understanding.
Fortunately, it doesn’t have to be this way.
When we think of serving in any context, we should consider carefully whether we’ll be patient enough to learn the whole story, and whether we’ve come to terms with the possibility that our presence and work may do nothing to help. Because making a difference isn’t easy or quick. It’s often a messy process, rife with setbacks and difficulty.
Doing good anywhere requires accepting this reality. It requires humility to understand the challenges. It requires creativity and diligence to find ways around them. It requires sticking around long enough to see what kind of fruit is borne by our work.