It’s a disturbing but common refrain these days: Why should we help those who can’t help themselves?
Financial insecurity in the world’s richest countries, unemployment, frustration and mounting government debt have increased the frequency of this question, particularly on the internet.
“What\’s happening there is absolutely heartbreaking. But why should we care about people who obviously don\’t care about their own?” one writer commented on an online chat page.
David Eller, President of Worldconcern.org, which provides emergency services and education in the Horn of Africa, tried to answer this question in a recent blog .
“We do so because there are innocent children and families who are caught in the middle and need help,” said Eller on One.org, a grassroots advocacy organization working to combat the unprecedented famine in Somalia.
He went on to explain that the victims literally have no government to turn to. “It doesn’t exist. Their crops have failed, their animals have died, and they have left their homes in search of survival.”
But his answer, while true, does not seem to reach to the depth of the incongruity of Somalia’s tragedy: Members of the world’s richest countries are asking this question and armed with their own ill-informed impressions, are beginning to turn away.
“Like you say it is heart breaking,” responds another writer, “but they really do need to stop having so many children.”
No example better illustrates the disparity between the expectations for life in industrialized western nations and that of struggling impoverished nations, than the issue of childbearing.
For many families in countries like the United States, Canada and Australia, access to pre-natal and post-natal care are a given. So is the expectation that our children will outlive us. Most western-nation families base the number of children they decide to have on preference and personal economic circumstances, not on the community or national mortality rate. We assume that most, if not all of our children will outlive us and be present in our old age to care and provide support, as well as to carry on the family name.
In the poorest third-world countries however, where infant mortality rate hovers above 50/1000 live births, (compared to 4 to 7/l000 live births in most industrialized nations) having more than one child is a bid for sheer human survival. In countries where there is no Social Security, Social Insurance or pension plan, having more than one child is an insurance policy for later years when the parents are elderly, sick or in need of help. It is a way of ensuring that against the staggering odds presented by poverty, disease, famine and mortality rates, one or more of your children will survive childhood to outlive you.
And unfortunately, no example better illustrates this point than Somalia, where infant mortality is over 225/1000 live births, and is quickly on the rise. Somalia’s “children’s famine,” which has already resulted in the death of more than 29,000 children in less than four months, serves as the tragic affirmation for this way of life, where impoverished parents, who have no one to rely upon for survival than their own family members, have “so many children.”
But the question at the heart of this dilemma is really not whether the Somali refugees deserve our help, but why charitable support for the needy has been waning.
Blogger Shannon M. has tried to answer this question in her Care2.com blog, by noting that even in Canada, where humanitarian causes are championed, donations to combat the Somalia famine this year have amounted to less than a third of what Canadians committed to tsunami and earthquake victims in Japan.
“The issues are complex,” said Shannon. She points out that corruption, a lack of government transparency and access by aid agencies has complicated an already troubled relationship with Somalia for many Canadians. Canada’s 1993 peacekeeping mission led to the death of a Somali teenager, and a national wariness toward renewing a political relationship in such troubled waters.
But while it is hard not to let Somalia’s troubled political crisis colour our generosity, the uncomfortable truth is that the outcome of today’s famine crisis is as much a test of our own humanity as that of the individuals who have manipulated the drought to their corrupt benefit. The question of how the 3.2 million men, women and children who are without food ultimately fare is as much a global responsibility as an ethical one for those who control Somalia’s streets and roads.
In the Jewish culture, the act of giving to the poor is an obligation, a mitzvah that transcends personal issues of ambivalence, financial and social standing. Tzedakah (giving, or surrendering a portion of one’s benefits for the needs of another) is a fundamental principal that is reflected at the very core of one’s identity as a Jew.
Other religions and cultures also consider this principal to be sacred, and the reason why is clear: Strip away this measure of kindness, and we strip away our humanity. Strip away our ability to care and to respond to another’s pain and we lose who we, as a community, become. It is our generosity, our regard for the other – including the stranger – that defines how we ultimately, are transformed by life.
“It is not enough to point fingers at the oppressors. We must help those that are oppressed. We must reach out to those who cannot repay us and will never know our names,” writes Eller.
That action is, in its starkest, and most painful terms, what separates Somalia’s future from genocide. Our resolve to not let the depravation continue – whether it is brought on by war, drought, societal dysfunction or moral corruption – will become the pivotal inspiration for change.
As Eller so aptly points out, “This is what compassion is about. This is what makes us different from those who oppress.”