Shut up and listen!

I keep my mouth shut when I’m around soft-hearted, pro-active and well-meaning Australian friends who bemoan world poverty and have all the answers to the problems of the Third World.

Having grown up in the third world, I’m afraid that my comments and input would strike them as cynical. How can I explain the way growing up among individuals from the very communities being planned for—among neighbors, with names and faces, not statistics or text book profiles of “poor” people—has turned me against charity, against the bright-eyed and bushy-tailed young foreigners who’ve come to take their ‘holidays’ in poverty, who glow with pride in the selfless and noble way they have been ‘slumming it’ among these people (in much that same way a boy scout is proud of a badge for surviving summer camp).

It’s annoying, the way the do-gooders smile at everyone…the look of sadness and pity in their eyes every time some mother and her kids come into view, the gentle, almost commiserating, way that they talk to locals about what they perceive to be the hardships of this life. Most of all, it’s annoying that they often turn up uninvited, announcing that they are going to help these poor people out of their wretched lives…when, up until that very moment, it never occurred to them that their lives were wretched, and the fact the young NGO worker thinks so is a knife in the heart of everything you’ve ever been content with or quietly proud of.

My friend Kat and I had short exchange on some event that was very similar in circumstances, and she popinted me to this TED talk, which had me laughing and cheering till the end. It is wonderful, just so wonderful, that Ernesto Sirolli—who has been deeply involved with these sort of foreign aid projects for developing countries—came out in September last year and finally called the bullshit that has been going on in the name of charity and altruism.

This is an amazing TED talk…the bravest I’ve seen and not as self-congratulatory as so many of the TED talks are.


13 thoughts on “Shut up and listen!

  1. I really like this. I just finished reading a text on compassion. I really believe that altruism is evil. There might be a more favorable way…

    Some can’t focus on a starving neighbor, and yet get all feel-good about doing something for some poor person in Africa. People(including myself) do not understand what it is like in other people’s shoes, they just tend to compare and then decide more than/less than, and push their own ideas.

    What does helping mean, for others, and for ourselves? What is the reward? the intent?

    After reading the above mentioned text, I have a wish to locate and to understand how the organization BRAC works. Maybe, I can get to change my mind and my annoyance at the potential for damage from our insertion of work ethic and aspirations into a culture that contains those things in differing measures from our own–without being wrong.


  2. Ok, I sent this response on faceplace too but anyhow. here it goes:

    I remember talking to a half-Filipino from the US (while in Manila) and he talked to me in perfect Tagalog and I would respond in my attempt at it + english. And like I didn’t notice already, he expressed how appalled he was that I, born and raised in the Philippines, could be so poor at my own language. I listened to him and his story of going back to his roots, reconnecting (maybe suggesting I should do the same). That is good, awesome actually.

    What he failed to see was the fact that I am from another island and we speak Bisaya primarily and not Tagalog. and despite the pictures/stories depicted of where I’m from, we had a tv and I grew up knowing about MTV, Oprah, Twilight Zone, Sailor Moon, beside the beaches, volcanoes, coconuts, bananas – the Filipinoness around me. I don’t find it charming to pretend to be something exotic/tribal and think that is being authentic. anyway, here’s my “yeah that” response to Nat’s convo.


    1. PC! Long time no hear! I visited yur blog a few days ago, though, and admired the bento boxes—what lucky kids those girls are, mom seems to spend all her time preparing their fancy lunches! 🙂 Miss you. So frustrated, no money to go anywhere this year…my parents health went down, so I have to help them more. I really crave a Penang laksa with blood tofu, or an ais kacang/cendol! 😦


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