How to help without unintentionally hurting

Part 1 and Part 2 of this series covered two important mistakes that people make when helping other cultures (if you haven’t already read them, please do!); in Part 3, I’m going to discuss one that I personally consider to be much more dangerous and insidious

Mistake #3 —Ideology Above People

In the late 1990’s, I was friends with an American businessman who was responsible for the Chinese operations of an American clothing brand. Most of their clothing was manufactured in China, and he oversaw those operations. He’s a great guy…hard-working, and committed to making his company profitable, but also with a real passion for China and the Chinese people. He married a Chinese woman from Yunnan province, whose family lived in one of the more impoverished areas of China.

Image courtesy of Unsplash

After seven years in China, he decided that since his company was profiting from the lower manufacturing costs in China, they should give something back to the country, too. So after a lot of discussion and negotiation with both his company, and the Chinese government, he got permission to open a new factory in his wife’s home town. More than that, he also provided money to build a school and hire teachers, and set up a job training program that enabled them to not only recruit unskilled factory workers, but to give those workers training in various other skills and knowledge so that the more ambitious ones could get higher positions, better opportunities, etc.

It was the best thing that ever happened to that village, he was a hero to the local people.

But then the problems began. The wages that they paid the workers in that factory were less than they paid in larger cities, and about 20% of what they would pay to workers in the U.S. Some human rights advocacy groups started researching his company, looking for abuses, and when they discovered that they were operating this factory at what they called “slave wages”, they launched a huge campaign, accusing the company of running a sweat shop, and calling on customers to boycott their products.

They were, ultimately, successful. The head office decided that the bad publicity wasn’t worth the trouble, and they shut down the factory. The activists responsible trumpeted their victory, a great accomplishment for human rights.

But what about the people they were supposedly “protecting”? Those salaries, while low by Western standards, were two to three times higher than what most of them made working in the fields, or laboring in local Chinese factories. They not only lost those jobs, but also lost the opportunity to get additional training that could enable them to be something more than unskilled labor. Without the financial support for the school, they had to let some of the teachers go, and were unable to provide the same standard of education to the students.

[EDIT — Some people may legitimately ask why my friend didn’t simply raise the wages to the same level as in larger cities. It is because the costs for operating the factory in that area were much higher. They had to pay more to ship materials to the factory; more to ship the products to ports; building a factory and developing the infrastructure in a remote area; etc. But the wages he paid were, by local standards, quite high.]

This is far from an isolated story. Now, I want to emphasize, abusive practices do exist in China, and are a problem that absolutely needs to be confronted and combated. People forced to work in unsafe conditions. People paid illegal wages that are lower than the mandated minimum wage. People forced to labor12, 14, or 16 hour work days, with no extra pay. Or the use of child labor.

But in many other cases, what may seem according to Western standards to be ‘abusive’ are actually, for the local people, a major blessing. Jobs that let them make more money, get better training and opportunities, etc.

Activists like the one in this story, while claiming to be fighting for these Chinese ‘victims’, don’t actually care about them at all. They publicly proclaim their ‘victory’, while doing absolutely nothing to help the people who’ve lost jobs as a result of their actions. Let me be very clear about this — it was not my friend’s factory that was exploiting or abusing those people; it was the human rights activists who exploited them for their own political agenda, and it was the human rights activists who did the greatest harm to them.

I have myself been involved in fighting against abusive and exploitative practices in China; but when I do so, my first focus is on the actual people involved, not on some political agenda, or on making myself a ‘hero’. I will do research to be sure that I fully understand the situation. In particular, what will the impact on the actual people involved be, if we are successful?

If my actions will help them, then absolutely I will do my best to do something. But if my actions will hurt them, I have two choices: either do nothing, or invest additional time and resources to help those people to address whatever problems will result from taking action.

Unfortunately, in my experience, far too many activists aren’t interested in taking the time and energy necessary to fully understand the situation. It means spending time and money to travel to other countries, meet the people, study the situation, analyze the impact, etc. They’d far rather just start a Facebook page, send out some Tweets, get everyone angry and upset, then proclaim their ‘victory’ when their target caves in. They get to look like heroes, without ever taking any risk, or making any real investment.

If you don’t care enough about the people you are ‘fighting for’ to come over here, meet them in person, understand their situation, and invest yourself in a solution that actually benefits them, then you shouldn’t be doing a thing. Sit on your couch at home and trumpet your outrage at some other issue, one that doesn’t damage the lives of people half a world away from you.

On the other hand, if you do want to be a hero, if you do care about those people, then invest yourself. Take a risk. Spend time. Meet the people you say you want to help. Take time to understand their situation. Figure out what is actually the best solution for them, rather than the solution that will give you the most publicity.

People with low Cultural Intelligence leap to conclusions and take actions based on ignorance; they interpret everything within their own frame of reference, essentially assuming that it applies to everyone else. Whereas those with high Cultural Intelligence recognize that there may be significant differences, that was is ‘bad’ in their context may be ‘good’ in another; and that before reaching conclusions, they need to first be sure they understand the situation from the perspective of the other people involved.

If you’ve enjoyed this article, please let more people know about it by sharing it on your own social networks; and you can check out other articles that I’ve written here. If you’d like to learn more about Cultural Intelligence, please check out “The Language of Culture”. If you have questions or comments, please put them here, and I’ll do my best to respond. I’d love to have an ongoing dialogue and hear what others think, too!

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