I love a good metaphor, a clever analogy, a simple yet poignant story that has a profound meaning. I’m always looking for stories and illustrations that can help an audience quickly grasp a point that is central to what I’m trying to say. When it comes to convincing people that they CAN make a difference, despite the enormity of the problems, there’s a story about a little boy who patiently throws starfish back into the ocean.
The scene is an expansive beach. The tide is going out and thousands – perhaps hundreds of thousands – of starfish have been stranded and will soon die. The boy is patiently picking up starfish, one by one, and tossing them back into the water. The little boy is challenged by someone with considerably less vision – perhaps an older man, or maybe a woman – who asks him why he is bothering with this impossible task since there are SO MANY starfish and he can’t possibly save them all. In fact, the skeptic says, “Why do you bother? You can’t make a difference because there are so many of them that need to be rescued”, to which the little boy replies, as he gently lifts another starfish and returns it to the ocean, that what he is doing has made a difference to THAT ONE. The obvious lesson is that we CAN make a difference, even if we can’t do it all.
We can save some, though many will perish. We need to be persistent in the face of cynicism and misunderstanding and outright opposition. We can make a difference. It’s an inspiring story. Simple, yet powerful. We identify with the little boy, with his innocence and clarity of purpose. We’re reminded of the profound truth that “a little child shall lead them.”
I’ve just returned from the World Religions Summit in Winnipeg, where some 80 religious leaders came as official delegates from a variety of faith traditions and from all corners of the world (as well as a dozen or so youth delegates from Canada), to gather together for a few days to talk about three of the critical issues facing humanity - poverty, the environment and peace – and to finalize a “statement” to be presented to the political leaders of the G8 and G20 countries who have now commenced their meetings in Ontario.
It was a tremendous privilege for me to be there and to participate in the deliberations and discussions. There was really something incredibly moving about being in a room of such diversity and to realize that despite our differences – and they are MANY! – spiritual, ethnic, national, economic and political - we are ALL motivated by our faith traditions and by our own personal faith professions to imagine a future that is different than the present and different than the future towards which our current path is stubbornly leading us.
We had an opportunity to hear various guest speakers who each brought to the table a degree of experience and expertise which would help inform our understanding and our “statement”. It was a truly positive experience…
And yet, I find myself now thinking about the boy and the starfish and asking myself some disturbing questions. See – I’ve always accepted the story at face value. I can picture the beach and the poor, helpless starfish. Since I live on the ocean, the scene is complete with the feel of the ocean breeze and the cry of gulls. The gentle swell of the waves as they wash onto the beach and then recede, each time further and further from the immobilized starfish. I can picture the thin line of rockweed which marks the high water aspiration of the next cycle of the tide. And I believe the narrator who states that these starfish will inevitably die without this one little boy’s intervention.
I’ve also been to the so-called developing countries and it’s not hard for me to understand the intended transfer in this illustration to young children, who, like the starfish, are stranded - but by a tide of indifference and callous exploitation. I am inspired to help as many as I can.
But – and here’s the thing that is now bothering me – what if it’s even more complicated? What if some of our assumptions are a little off? What if there is actually a deeper reality that we have not seen?What if our efforts at aid and development are actually more like a new form of colonialism - despite our truly good intentions?
One of our speakers was John W. MacArthur, the Executive Director of Millennium Promise (see http://www.millenniumpromise.org/). This man has worked tirelessly with a vision of ending extreme poverty and addressing all of the issues defined by the Millennium Development Goals. As evidence of the impact this organization is making, John spoke of the number of mosquito nets that his organization have provided in the fight against malaria. He spoke with passion and conviction and I could picture the distribution of these nets to people in malaria ridden countries and the humble gratitude with which many people would receive these nets.
But in the back of my mind was something that I had heard or read once about the fact that these nets provide only temporary relief – the pesticide coating wears off, the nets become torn, nets are used for all kinds of other purposes and of course, the mosquitoes still carry the deadly virus. In short, the nets help some for a time, but they are perhaps OUR solution to a problem that we don’t totally understand.
As John was speaking, I thought to look to the small African delegation to gauge their response to his words. My eyes fell especially on a woman from Zambia – I watched her and suspected by her body language, that she was uncomfortable with what she was hearing. So, during the next coffee break, I sought her out and asked her to tell me what she was thinking. Basically, she affirmed that it is true that many people in African countries die of malaria and it is true that the mosquito nets provide some protection for a time.
But, she said, it is not a sustainable solution and they do not take into account traditional knowledge or methods. The mosquito nets are bought elsewhere and brought into African countries. They do not contribute to the local economy. They are not an African solution.
Malaria has been an issue in Africa for a long time, and little consideration is given to traditional methods for dealing with mosquitoes. We ASSUME that our solution – our method – is better. After all, we have the advantage of science and technology and modern pesticides. We are HELPING the immobilized and stranded and helpless Africans. We are saving the children. For the first time, it’s occurring to me that we may be so focused on outcomes, that we may have lacked a good deal of sensitivity in terms of approach. Are African children going to grow up thinking that their own parents and communities and governments cannot protect them? That their survival is in the hands of foreign agencies?
I’m sure some of you will be thinking, “well at least with our help they WILL grow up. They won’t die of malaria – or hunger, or some water borne disease, or lack of basic access to food – if they’re fortunate enough to have our help.” I know what you’re saying. But I’m increasingly uneasy with it. I hear youth and young adults utter the mantra of wanting to “help”, wanting to “make a difference” and I commend them for their commitment to get involved. But I think we have to think more deeply.
Maybe in our planning and strategizing we should pay more attention to the "dignity factor" and to the way our actions affect not just our intended outcome, but the less tangible impact on the capacity of a country to care for it's people in the long term. I know that this may sound simplistic and may be overestimating the capacity of leaders in these countries to overcome corruption, not to mention other forces that are far beyond their control. But still, I can't help thinking...
And just to be totally clear, I'm NOT suggesting that there is nothing we can do to make an effective and positive difference. I'm not criticizing anyone who is sincerely trying to make a difference in the lives of the millions of people who have been stranded and are in peril through lack of access to things like safe and nutritious food, water, health care, etc. I'm just thinking that we need to make sure that our contribution is sensitive and empowering and that it is sustainable and builds dignity and doesn't erode it. After all, a starfish is NOT a human.