I once worked for an aid agency that — for reasons lost to logic and the need to raise funds — decided to send a celebrity delegation to visit our country office in Afghanistan. The delegation included a German TV personality, a little known German actress whose main claim to fame was that she was once a Playboy Playmate.
Part of me was appalled — cultural sensitivity and all the rest — and part of me was thrilled. Absolutely thrilled. Needless to say, I completely failed to get her attention over the first few days of her visit. Undaunted, I decided to try and make an impression when the delegation visited a widows’ feeding program that my agency ran in a particularly destitute district of Kabul. The distribution site was out beyond the edge of nowhere, an urban wasteland of destroyed, bombed-out buildings and hard, frozen mud. Over 150 widows in blue burqas milled around in front of an abandoned, graffitied apartment building. Children ran through the crowd.
As we stood around, waiting for the distribution to begin, I couldn’t stop staring at the kids, bundled against the cold in old clothes and jackets and rags. I saw a child selling candy, and on a whim decided to buy all the candy and hand it out for free — visions of a tall, Jewish Santa Claus danced in my head, mixed with hopes that this might just win the playmate’s attention and admiration.
I paid the child the equivalent of $3 for his entire carton of candy, and handed out the first piece. There was a moment of beatific calm, and then a wild scrum erupted — kids coming in from all over, pushing over each other, fighting to reach the carton. I belatedly realized that street urchins would not, in fact, spontaneously form a line when confronted with free candy. I stood there, stunned for a moment, and then a particularly enterprising child hit the carton from underneath, sending candy flying everywhere.
Pandemonium. A wild, sprawling mob of kids kicking and pushing and screaming for candy, while Gulliver-like I stood shocked above the fray.
In an attempt to impose a little order I held the box above my head and yelled — in English, and hence in vain — for everyone to settle down. Unfortunately, I can’t do two things at once, so as I screamed I also inadvertently lowered the box, at which point another child hit it from underneath, knocking the rest of the candy into the air. All hell truly broke loose — kids fighting each other for the candy, and in the distance I saw a widow knocked to the ground. (The limited visibility offered by a burqa being a definite drawback in a melee.)
I had another moment to savor the mess I’d created before an energetic 8-year-old took out my knees. I went down like a stone, children stepping on my chest, on my face in the mad rush for candy. At which point what little instinct I possess took over, and I grabbed at kids, trying to use them to lever myself back up.
A few seconds later I was dragged to freedom by one of our drivers.
Needless to say, the playmate was not impressed.
It took me years longer to realize the true moral of the story — well, beyond the rather obvious “don’t be a schmuck.” When confronted with those in need, it’s a natural human instinct to help, or to try and help, whether motivated by the most elevated or self-interested of reasons.
Yet trying to help without a sense of what you’re doing will — more often than not — make things worse.
Michael Bear Kleinman worked for NGOs in Afghanistan, across east and central Africa and in Iraq. He was then director of investments for Humanity United, a foundation based in San Francisco. He is currently working on a mobile polling venture. He is a graduate of Yale University and Harvard Law School.
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