Why You Shouldn’t Be a Hero: How Good Intentions Can Lead to Hurt

“When Helping Hurts…” is a book I read a few years ago by Brian Fikkert and Steve Corbett, and it looks at the idea of “Toxic Charity”. The idea that charity could be toxic was startling to me- any help should be good help, right? But this book, and others, highlighted to me how the well-meaning but misguided ‘charity’ of those with money and time to spend can hurt those they are trying to help. Taking a step back and looking at the bigger picture reveals where good intentions are going so wrong.

Volunteering is at an all-time high within Western countries, with more money and time than ever before being spent on charity. Billions of dollars are being poured into aid work across the world, and every year many people-adults, teenagers, even kids- are being shipped off to one end of the world to the other, ready to volunteer and help. This should be a good thing, but it often isn’t. These people may be volunteering, but few of these people are serving.

Most people want to be a hero, to have a positive impact on the world. And this isn’t a bad thing- wanting to help is the first place to start. But when we come into a community as the conquering hero, prepared to put things to rights and ‘save’ these poor souls, we run into trouble. We build houses that could have been built by local carpenters. We pour money into an economy that is fragile. We give children free Christmas gifts without realizing how humiliating it is for their parents. We expect an easy answer to a complicated problem, tied up in a nice neat bow. We ignore alternatives that are better for native communities. We treat other human beings as something we must ‘fix’ or ‘save’ instead of a person who has dignity, passions, and dreams.

Saying this is easier than practicing it. At my own service-learning placement, I have found myself wanting to step out, tell the women running my organization how things should be done. I learn and serve at a family center where there is almost no structure, and the children are told “you are the boss”. This was a bit shocking for me, as most of my experiences caring for children involved very different circumstances. But I kept my mouth shut and watched how the women interacted with the children in their care. And it worked. Not always perfectly. There is no easy fix. But I learned, not just about them, but about me.

This is not an essay on why volunteering by itself is horrible. This is not a plea for you to stop volunteering. Wanting to help others could never be a bad thing. This is only a reminder to be thoughtful. To reflect on yourself and your actions. Why are you doing this? Are you insisting and commanding, or are you learning and listening? Instead of having the mind of a hero, have the mind of a servant.

My first look at Galway

Lily Mowery is a student at University of Alabama, Birmingham and is an ISA Featured Blogger. She served abroad with ISA Service Learning in Galway, Ireland.

Your Discovery. Our People… The World Awaits.

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