We have a fascination with easy. Technology and service are encouraged to collaborate as closely as possible to provide a smooth, stress-free path through life. We praise experiences that are “intuitive” – where people don’t even really need to think too much to accomplish what it is they’re trying to achieve – whether it’s the weekly online supermarket shopping or travelling abroad.
More often than not there is very little value placed on the advantage of things being difficult. Difficulty tends to represent a lack of clarity, poor communication, or unsatisfactory experience. The very semantics of making something “difficult” for someone have negative, almost malicious connotations.
Recently, however, I have been wondering whether there are some things in life that should just stay difficult. Maybe some things we should have to work hard at to understand. Maybe the path to achieving our aim should not always be easy.
I was having this conversation with a colleague the other day. We were discussing the merits of the type of websites on which charities can advertize their work and state the donations and volunteers they need. I’m not a fan of these kinds of websites for a few reasons – and I won’t go into them all here – but the main thing that struck me was the conversation we ended up having about the benefits of “easy”. These websites aim to make things easier for the donor and the volunteer. To make it easier for people who want to help, to be able to do so.
That sounds perfectly logical, doesn’t it? If people want to help, that’s great – right? We should make it easy for them – in fact, as easy as possible. We should provide them with lots of different tools and services so they can find the charities they like and very easily donate, volunteer, visit. After all – if more people in the world helped then the world would be a better place. So let’s make it as easy as possible. So easy it’s intuitive. So easy that people don’t even really have to think…
And there’s the rub. It is already so easy to donate to charity. You can send a text message, or click a button online and donate. It can be a knee jerk response to a TV ad or a celebrity doing some exercise. It doesn’t require that much brain power. I know, I’ve done it. It’s also dangerously easy to volunteer. I know, because I’ve done that too – and learned a few key life lessons along the way that I really should have taken the time to learn beforehand. There are many organizations who will take underqualified people, who they would never hire otherwise, on a short-term basis just because they are willing to work for free.
Why on earth is it a good idea to try and make this easier?
Few people, when they donate to a charity, ask questions about how the money is being used, let alone thoroughly research the methodology and impact of the organization. Maybe this lack of attention sometimes means that more money is donated, but in my opinion, this is still not a good thing. Not only can it end up supporting ineffective development practice, it also encourages “armchair karma”: texting “donate” to 81155 to buy a mosquito net for someone in Africa to gratify your need that you are “socially conscious” and “giving back”. This isn’t giving back. This is just consuming dressed up slightly differently. You’re buying good feelings to support your good intentions. You’re not necessarily buying impact or any benefits for the people you think you might be helping. Maybe you’re lucky and you hit on an organization which actually is reputable, thoughtful, and delivers nets along with training and other malaria prevention methods. Equally, your text could donate to an organization that dumps 100 nets in a village and leaves. The nets sit there and are never used, or get used for something else altogether, because the local people never asked for them, had other priorities, or were skeptical of products left as charity.
Maybe we should not be making it easier for people. Maybe we should be making it harder.
Being a donor to an organization is like any other relationship. It’s best if you try and understand the person first. Learn about them. Recognize their successes and understand their failings. Then figure out where you might fit in, how your involvement together can create something mutually beneficial. Of course there’s nothing WRONG with wanting to feel good about helping. It’s normal. But why would you want to just buy the feeling good part, without knowing whether you’re actually making a difference? If you’re in a relationship, you know. You know and you care.
It’s the same with volunteering. A day at an orphanage painting a wall is a bit like those short-term connections that lack depth or understanding. You might get an instant sense of gratification out of it but you don’t know if the other person benefited equally from the experience since you’re not going to see them again anyway. We shouldn’t pretend this is “helping” anyone, or changing the world. (Check out this video from Aljazeera about the dangers of voluntourism).
Effective volunteering means learning, understanding, communicating, and perhaps, most importantly, committing. Give a time commitment that makes sense to the organization and doesn’t prove a drain on their resources. Make sure that it’s not all about getting your “experience” but also about the organization receiving some benefit other than training someone up just to watch them leave again in 2 months time. If you can’t commit the time, or don’t have the money, then don’t do it. You can still use that good
Helping shouldn’t be easy because it’s not. It’s difficult to help people – even if they want to be helped and even if they need it. Whether you’re talking about a friend in difficulty or a whole country, there are many things to learn and challenges to face. We’ve all been there when sometimes you just can’t help someone any more because it’s too hard. It’s too much of a drain on your time and energy. Well, that can apply to international helping too. It can be tough and confusing and it can make you wish you never tried to help in the first place.
We shouldn’t make it easy. We’re doing a disservice to ourselves. We’re encouraging each other not to think, not to explore, not to discover. We’re not challenging ourselves, our commitment, our perceptions, or our opinions. We’re promoting a life of ease where a sense of goodwill can be bought and not earned.
So let’s leave some things to be difficult. Difficulty helps us learn. It helps us discover more about the very thing we are trying to achieve. It can also mean that it feels even sweeter when we do succeed in our aims. And you know what? Even though “difficult” might be a harder sell, I still know enough people out there who are up for the challenge.