Content-type: text/html ~ Stephen's Web ~ Help

Stephen Downes

Knowledge, Learning, Community

May 28, 2005

David Wiley struggles with these words from Teemu, "The aim of reaching everyone is immoral. It seems to be a project of expanding the banking concept of education where "knowledge is a gift bestowed by those who consider themselves knowledgeable upon those whom they consider to know nothing."

The crux of the matter: "Envisioning true help as a one way power relation and 'deposit' mechanism seems wrong to me."


There are three ways 'help' can become immoral:

- By attaching conditions to help. "I will help you, but you have to..." changes the 'help' relation to something else. Donors of help often ask for recognition, preferential treatment, payment in kind, or some such thing. This is no longer 'help' per se; it is a commercial transaction imposed under conditions of duress.

- By imposing help. Even if the help is genuine, the imposition of help creates or reveals an imbalance of power between the helper and the recipient. By imposing help, one is being clear that he could impose other measures as well - payment, performance or whatever. Imposed help is a sort of commercial transaction in which the possibility of payment is deferred. (p.s. forced piano lessons are not 'help' no matter how helpful they are).

- By creating the need for help. I suspect this concept lies behind the 'banking' argument. The need for help in the developing world arises as a result of the hoarding of wealth and resources by the wealthier world, and even the extraction of wealth and resources from the poor communities to the benefit of wealthy communities. The reason we need to 'provide' an education to such nations is that the conditions that would have otherwise enabled an education have been blocked by prior actions. What ought to happen, it would be argued, is that instead of a sort of 'help' being provided, rather, a 'repayment' for the hindrance we have already caused ought to be provided.

Frankly, I believe that much 'help' we provide the poor, either in our own countries or in developing countries, falls under one of these three categories. I met with someone in Nova Scotia recently who, through the best of intentions, is providing computer access and training to people on welfare in the United States. But in order to qualify for this help, the recipient must satisfy certain conditions - taking a course in computing, for example. At this point is ceases to be 'help' - it becomes a commercial transaction whereby one person is using his position of economic advantage to steer the development of another into a certain direction.

Foreigh aid routinely violates at least one of these conditions. Most aid programs, for example, require that the materials purchased for the provision of aid be purchased from the donor nation. Moreover, such aid very often carries significant obligations on the part of the recipient (these days, the obligation is to 'respect human rights', to 'promote democracy' or to 'fight terrorism'). No matter how beneficial the obligations, it is no longer 'help' but rather a commercial transaction - even if the donors don't see it that way (the recipients certainly do, though, which is why they express rather less gratitude than you might thing (just as you are somewhat less than effusive in your thanks to a grocery store clerk)).

To take another snippet from the post: "It has been my experience (both in everyday life and in multi-year service opportunities overseas) that the one who 'gives help' always receives greatly in return, and the one who 'receives help' always gives greatly in return." This may be true - it probably is true, and forms the heart and core of Taoism, but if this is the expectation and motivation for undertaking to help someone, then what is provided is not 'help' properly so called but rather an vendor-initiated transaction with deferred terms and conditions.
So what is help? 'Help' - properly so-called - is aid given, at the request or initiation of the recipient, without conditions or expectations of future gains, and where the helper is not the cause of the conditions necessitating help in the first place.

You find a wallet. You pick it up and return it to the person. This is 'help' if and only if:

- the person actually wants the wallet back,
- there is no expectation of reward for your honesty, and
- you didn't steal the wallet in the first place.

Finally, help in the instructional context. What would qualify as help?

- we make the materials and services for an education available for use by people who need it, but with no requirement that they do, and no expressions of anger or disappointment if they don't

- these materials and services are offered without conditions - we don't ask for recognition, money, links, thanks, or any other sort of recompense (this is not as easy as you think - people who support causes you genuinely detest will take advantage of your help, but it ceases being help the moment you restrict usage of your help to the 'good' people)

- these materials and services are genuinely new and creative enterprises, that is, they go over and above mere recompense for the wealth you have gained as a result of the exploitation of the developing world or the poor in your own country. What this, in practise, means, is that your help continues to be available even after they become as rich (or as well educated) as you are; there is not a condition of 'need' attached to your help. Help does not submit to a means test.
David is right. There is a great need for help in the world. What saddens me is that, despite so many ostentations pretensions of the offering of help, there is so very little genuine help in the world. Everybody, it seems, has an angle.

And it is that, I think, that Teemu was flagging - and while my advice would be most certainly not to take it personally, I think that his words serve as a healthy reminder how difficult genuinely moral behaviour can be.

Stephen Downes Stephen Downes, Casselman, Canada

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