When help doesn’t help

DSCN7505I love the bike path in town.  If this wasn’t obvious from the dozen or so positive mentions of it in previous posts (like this one), let me state it now: The Bruce Freeman Rail Trail is great!  It’s has been a literal (yes, I mean literal, not virtual) life-saver for me.  Every chance I get, I’m there, enjoying nature (today I saw three rabbits, last week a deer) and my fellow trailblazers, be they kids on skateboards, adults jogging, or babies in carriages.  Especially babies in carriages.

Keep the above sentiments in mind as I embark on a brief rant about one “feature” of the trail.  It’s not the fault of the trail itself or the caretakers thereof.

The BFRT, as its name implies, was built on an old rail bed.  That keeps it straight, flat, and wide – just the way I like it.  The old mileposts from the train track are still there marking every mile – kinda cool.  After construction, the builders stenciled 1/4 mile markers on the path surface.  All very nice.

In the past year, some unwelcome growths have sprung up along the path.  Wooden 2 x 2 posts, about four feet high with yellow tops now mark every .2 miles.  Talk about overkill.  I’m waiting for the flashing overhead signs showing distances every meter.

As I understand it, the posts were an Eagle Scout project by some well-meaning local scout.  (Someone correct me if my information is wrong.)  The kid no doubt wanted to do a good deed, probably got the go-ahead from whoever gives that kind of thing the go-ahead, then he went-ahead.  The only problem is, these posts are certainly not needed, and in fact might not be wanted.  (Well, I don’t want them anyway.)

OK, so it’s not a big deal.  It occurred to me, though, this is precisely the model American foreign aid – government or private NGO – uses, at least with respect to what I know about it in Haiti.

We come into a place like Haiti.  We have an idea what would help and we do it.  The problem is we have no idea whether what we are doing actually helps anyone because we don’t ask.  In too many cases, we do it because it serves our best interests, not the recipient’s.

So we give Haiti cheap rice.  More people get more food for less money, right?  Wrong.  All we do is drive the entire country’s rice industry into the ground.

We bring down stuff to give to the poor folks.  Isn’t that nice of us?  Well, not really.  We feel better about it and a few people may benefit from it, but long term we’re turning the populace into beggars with no chance of ever creating self-sustaining businesses that can compete with our castoffs.

I dedicated a whole article to this subject on the “Servants for Haiti” web site a couple of years ago.

AmerWayThere’s a problem when we do things to make ourselves feel good rather than do what’s best for the long term good of the recipient.  That’s most likely to happen when we think we know what’s best for someone else.  That’s rarely the case.  Americans like to think we have the best way of doing everything, so we bull into a place, do what we want, then leave.  Often we leave things worse off than they were when we started.

It’s nice to know we’re teaching our Scouts the American Way.

I prefer Kid President’s way:


Addendum: In recent days, I’ve been made aware of the fact that the posts were installed at the request of local law enforcement.  It seems the painted marks on the path were insufficient for locating emergencies on the trail.  I apologize for the slight to the scout in question, whoever that might be.  I stand by the overall commentary, however, that the help we give is often what we want rather than what is needed.


About rickconti

It's not about me, remember?
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