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The Inverse Law of Good Intention

An important pillar of Escape Artist Colombia is the concept of Giving Back. In the article on Maureen Orth we have proposed the idea that one person, even you or I can make a difference. We encourage you to give at least your time and experience to some organized group seeking to improve the lives  or opportunities for the residents of this beautiful country.

Abject poverty is a fact in Latin America. On my first real trip to this part of the world, I was exposed to this in a way that profoundly affected me for weeks and weeks after I returned home.  I devised all kinds of means that I could help based on my North American way of thinking. This was my first error.

We as North Americans or Europeans often wish to do good.  Certainly, at one point charity was encouraged within our societies. Now there are big fundraising machines that spend large sums of money just to raise funds. I recall working for a charitable organization that paid out 50 % of the funds collected just as fundraising costs.

In some cases, our charitable notions are not as well-received or practical, especially in other countries. I have observed parabolic cookers, water treatment facilities, Canadian tractors rusting in lots, all well-intentioned contributions to needy societies, but totally impractical or incomprehensible to the people they were intended to assist. Hundreds of millions of dollars worldwide must have been lost to these well-meaning efforts and who knows how much money funnelled into the pockets of less than scrupulous individuals.

It would appear that often when we intend to impose our good intention on someone else, the result may be completely opposite of what we desire. Most of the people likely to be reading this piece, will have or have had to deal with the well being of their parents. At what point do we step in and tell them what they must do? Certainly, if they have Alzheimer’s then we must ensure their safety but we walk a fine line as will our own children.

My father drove for 70 years. When he was about 88 years old he decided that he needed a new car.  He indicated what he would like and so my sister and I diligently researched makes and models.  We found a lovely used sedan that had an excellent history for service and safety. Our father liked a smaller model but we convinced him that the used sedan was safer and besides, it was less money than the newer smaller model. In the end, my father did not enjoy his last two years of driving. The car was too big and too heavy and he was uncomfortable behind the wheel.  Our good intent had the complete reverse effect than we had hoped.

History abounds with examples of the effects of these good intentions. In the late 1980’s I recall sitting with the granddaughter of the great Sarcee/ T’suu T’ina, chief David Crowchild. She described to my colleague and I the abuses that her people had suffered in the hands of the Native Residential School program.  This was years before this became a public issue. For 150 years the First Nations people had been removed from their families, deprived of their ancestral languages, exposed to illness, death, physical and sexual abuse at the hands of staff and other students. All this occurred under the watch of the Canadian government in association with the Catholic and the Anglican Churches. In 2008, the Prime Minister of Canada apologized to the First Nations but how could this have carried on for a century and one half?

Shortly after we bought our first home in Cartagena,  one of the men who was doing some repairs to our house did not show up for work. Now it wasn’t raining, which is a deterrent for many workers on the coast. When we inquired as to where he was it turned out he was having trouble with his neighbours.  This fellow (let’s called him Jose) was one of the many millions of people displaced by the violence in Colombia. He left his home and moved to the city with his wife and 6 children.  They lived at the end of a dead-end street, where he constructed a ”hovel” for them to live in – no water, no toilets – nada.  Even though he was living in an area where the locals were dumping garbage, they wanted him out. The photo above was their home.

As a result, we provided Jose with a home and he continued to work with us for a couple of years when we needed odd jobs done around the house.  On the coast in Colombia, this is often, as the sun and the salt take their toll on a building very quickly and there is regular maintenance to be done.

Cartagena is an amazing city and I lived there happily but 8 months of the year, it is very hot and humid.  After 2 years my wife decided that the city was unbearably hot and that we had to move to somewhere much more temperate. Eventually, we found a home outside of Medellin and decided to offer Jose the opportunity to come and work for us. His wife would help us in our home and he would work outside half days. We wanted him to finish his studies as he had not completed high school. It was our desire (and his) to go to university to study engineering. He is an accomplished builder but his education was gained simply, from the ground up.  We offered to buy him a modest home which after a certain period he would own.

All of this was with the best intention. His six children called me ”Tio”  (uncle) and we felt what we were doing was correct. Jose came to Medellin and found a home near El Carmen de Viboral. He (we) made an offer and a deal was struck. On the morning of their move, two hours before the movers were to arrive, I suggested to my wife that she should phone him. I had a strange feeling that  Jose’s wife was not ”onboard” and I was correct.

We cancelled the movers and the deal for the house. Jose and his wife had a severe conflict and in the end they moved to the poorest, most dangerous and violent barrio/neighbourhood in Colombia.

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What we had conceived to be a completely well-intentioned action for the benefit of Jose and his family (and he even agreed) was not. What we indirectly tried to impose on them, something that we thought was for their own good, in the end turned out to be the worst thing that could have ever happened to their family.

None of this is intended to discourage you from doing good.  The challenge in good intentions in a foreign country is that while we wish to do something positive, it is important to understand the culture. Having people with boots on the ground and experience in the community is extremely important.

It is essential to understand the concept of ”No dar papaya”.  If you are intending to give money, know for certain where the money is going.  Some of the best charities I know are simply that – charities. They don’t support Executive Directors with $75,000 US plus salaries.  Here is an excellent charity run completely by volunteers. While they do not service Colombia, they do other parts of Latin America.

To the best of my knowledge the ”Inverse Law of Good Intentions” is a personal theory. While it is not a formal ”law” and at this point only substantiated by a few personal anecdotes and historical references, I believe it is a valid principle. Research on the internet has never turned up this concept although the ”universe” seems to have other inverse laws.  Nonetheless, the idea is certainly not unfamiliar.  Henry David Thoreau wrote in Walden (1854),

If I knew for a certainty that a man was coming to my house with the conscious design of doing me good, I should run for my life.


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