Friday, October 28, 2011

When Helping Does More Harm Than Good

A few weeks ago I was sitting in a meeting at the community center where I go to help out. One of the subjects that came up was about a call the center director received that week. There was a volunteer organization (we'll call them organization X) who was having a conference in town and wanted to get out and do some community service. They had heard about the center and wanted to come out and plant trees.

We all agreed that this would be a nice project and that the center could certainly use a few more trees. We finalized the date and time for them to come and figured we would just have to show up to help.

It turns out Organization X needed a lot more help than they initially let on. They later called the center coordinator and asked if he could arrange getting trees for them to plant. This is quite a task here because there are only a handful of plant nurseries and they charge more than 100 Pula ($15) per tree. It is asking a lot from them to donate trees, both in time and revenue lost. Between the local nurseries and the ministry of agriculture, the center coordinator was able to scrounge up around 50 trees. 

Then he gets another call from Organization X and they mention that they are going to be really pressed for time. They ask if he would mind digging a few of the holes for the trees himself to get the project started. He went out the day before the event and dug a row of holes for the trees. As I can attest after digging my garden, digging in the ground here is not easy task. The soil is sun baked and is practically as hard as concrete. 

So now the holes are dug, the trees have been donated, and all that remains to be done is for this group to show up and plant the trees.

I show up to the center the morning of the tree planting early because I figure I will need to help out. Members of Organization X begin to arrive in their personal cars. Some of them are even dressed in suits and other formal attire. This should have been the first sign that something was up.

The leadership of Organization X addresses the children and other people who have showed up and since the talk was entirely in Setswana, I am not sure of everything that they said. After going through the various formalities, a prayer, and several short speeches, it was time to plant the trees. 

The children were very excited by this and they run over to the pre-dug holes to watch. The members of Organization X bring a few trees out and then place one in the hole. Something didn't look right about and so I walked up closer. The tree sapling was still in the plastic sack it was grown in. The guy hadn't even bothered to take the root ball out and planted the tree in the ground. He just picked the whole thing up and set it in the hole. 

I was about to say something about it when a bunch of the other members picked up a shovel and gathered around for a picture. Then they gave their shovels to another set of members and that group got their picture taken. They had taken a bunch of pictures where it looked like they had done a lot of work, but they actually didn't do anything. 

Then they grabbed their organization's banner and invited everyone to gather in front for a picture. I politely declined and tried to figure out what was going on. After the group picture, they thanked the center coordinator, got back in their cars, and drove off. All we had to show for it was some holes in the ground and 50 tree saplings still in plastic.

I was beyond mad about this. Not only had they not done any actual community service, but they had dumped all of the work onto the center coordinator who would now have to plant or give away all those trees, not to mention all the work he had done digging the holes. It was almost too ridiculous to believe. 

I guess the road to hell really is paved with good intentions.