Thursday, July 23, 2009

unlearning the basics.

The basics. As an American, I learned from an early age the assumption that clean water, healthy food and safe shelter would always be accessible. Water was clean, food you buy from the grocery store is fresh, and Walmart was down the street if you needed anything. When you are done with something, you throw it away. Not a thought about where it goes once it is in the trash. I was raised in a modest home, with a single mother who worked 3 jobs to make ends meet. But I still had more than most in a developing country would. I still learned to be wasteful and take my wealth for granted, even though by American standards we were anything but wealthy.

I have this urgent desire to contribute somehow in the developing world. I often feel I should be somewhere in Africa or Latin America, building latrines or working in a health clinic. And someday I hopefully will be. But in all my research, discussions and experience, I am realizing that too many people jump into these contexts with both feet hoping to help and in the long run their efforts are not efficacious or sustainable, and sometimes are even harmful. Maybe a few people benefit, a bundle of money is spent and often the volunteer finds growth and fulfillment through their experience and then they leave. And the water filtration system is not maintained, the latrines they built are not utilized, or the thousands of trees they planted are chopped down and used for producing charcoal. So what went wrong? Why were millions of US dollars funneled into the construction of the PĂ©ligre Dam in Haiti, which appeared to be a great development opportunity for the country, but left thousands homeless and without farmland? Why is flooding of perfectly usable farmland acceptable? Why now has the dam fallen into disrepair, only providing around half of its potential energy? Why does poor water quality, sanitation and hygiene account for some 1.7 million deaths annually around the world? -- 90% children, and yet Americans cannot find the time to fix a leaky faucet. Politics aside, there has to be a better way to solve these issues.

My theory is that we need to unlearn the basics if we are to truly contribute to change. We need to realize how much we take for granted and STOP taking it for granted, that throwing money at something does not always solve the problem, and that first learning how to approach things from an intelligent and sustainable perspective is necessary. I may be impatient about contributing to health and sustainability in developing countries, but I cannot be in a hurry to do so. I must first take in all this MPH program has to offer, so that when I contribute to development it will be productive. I know there is never a guarantee, sometimes you have to choose the lesser of two evils, and development takes sacrifice. I know it is all easier said than done. I think being willing to drop the comfortable lifestyle and go serve in the Peace Corps or some other organization is quite honorable and I hope to do so someday. But for now, I am going to challenge myself to unlearn the American ways of waste, materialism and laziness. If I cannot start to change my own perspective on what is acceptable in our culture and what is not, how will I truly make a difference with others?

Unlearn it:
"The world is full of miserable places. One way of living confortably is not to think about them or, when you do, to send money." - Tracey Kidder

Consider it:
in a new form or manner. ethos: the fundamental character or spirit of a culture; the underlying sentiment that informs the beliefs, customs, or practices of a group or society; dominant assumptions of a people or period.

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