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Why We Need 'Intelligent Compassion' Overseas

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Too much aid, and volunteering in particular, is directed by simplistic sympathy and not enough intelligent compassion, argues charity boss Mark Topley

Time and again in the NGO world we face problems which seem to demand instant action - an "I must do something!" moment. All too often we rush headlong in and don't consider the long-term consequences of our actions.

I was reminded of this dilemma a few weeks ago. I travelled to Dodoma in central Tanzania to host an emergency dental treatment training programme. It was the first that our organisation, Bridge2Aid - a dental health charity - was providing for local health workers outside of our base in the north of the country.

Whenever you first arrive in a new area, you're confronted by immediate need: queues of people coming in from remote rural areas, many of whom have never seen a dentist. Most will suffer for months, even years, with serious conditions like abscesses, some of which can be life-threatening.

In Dodoma, it was local district dental officer Sabrina's job to minister to 400,000 people. A simply impossible task. We trained five additional health workers during our time there. What are five people in the face of such enormity, you may ask? But, in fact, those five people are the start of a process which can make all the difference.

Sympathy... or Compassion?

I often find that the first stage when faced with people in pain is sympathy: "That's awful, I have to do something".

You might be moved to give a donation. This reaction is usually fairly short lived (which is OK), and often more about alleviating our feelings (which is also OK).

After sympathy comes compassion. We feel an injustice, forcing us to go beyond mere sympathy. For most people in the dental profession this will involve wanting to do something practical, like volunteering time to go overseas to treat people in need.

But to really make a difference, we have to go beyond that compassion. We have to learn, understand, engage at a far deeper level than simply trying to fix a problem. We need what I somewhat clumsily term 'intelligent compassion'.

Intelligent Compassion

Intelligent compassion resists the temptation to try and fix things. Quick fixes just don't exist.

Travelling to a developing country and treating as many people as possible, and then leaving, may seem like a small solution, but it isn't. It just doesn't change the long-term situation: after you've gone, locals may wait another year for treatment - knowing the foreigners are coming again next year - and ignoring their own health workers. I know of health workers who've actually lost their jobs because villagers waited for outside NGOs to come back and treat them. Bad aid is worse than no aid.

Two hundred thousand (200,000) people a day suffer oral pain in East Africa. To treat even this small part of the world, EVERY dentist in the UK would need to treat six patients a day, every day, 365 days a year, in order to serve the need.

We simply can't solve every problem. Intelligent compassion instead demands that we help educate, and build capacity with others, so that they can get on with solving their own problems. It requires humility, engagement and sustainability. I know those sound like buzzwords, but they have practical meaning.

We must accept that we don't know everything, and that in a developing country our world views may not (won't) actually apply.

We must resist the temptation to parachute in, as too many NGOs have done in the past, as all conquering westerners with all the answers and lots of money. That means partnering with a government, and probably working through the slow wheels of bureaucracy to get lasting change.

And we have to plan for succession: a time when we are redundant and hand over the reins. We need to look beyond ourselves, because this is not (and should not be) about us.

Real Change

For Sabrina in Dodoma, that means reducing her day-to-day burden so that she can manage a team, which in turn will treat thousands of people a year, not just the hundreds she would be able to do alone. Our role has to be to support someone like that, rather than try and solve the problem ourselves (and disregard her position).

Such an approach will require humility, engagement, time and sacrifice, but the results will help genuinely change things for the better.

Mark Topley is CEO of Bridge2Aid, a dental health charity operating in Tanzania and soon other areas of Africa www.bridge2aid.org