Paul's Internet Landfill/ 2016/ Soccer Ball

Soccer Ball

I was hoping this entry would be short, but I can tell it will turn into a rant.

Say you are in some poor rural area. You see a bunch of barefoot children playing soccer in a field. Instead of a soccer ball, they are kicking around some ad-hoc thing made of plastic and twine and shipping containers and whatever else children in poor countries use to put together ad-hoc soccer balls.

Your heart breaks. Those poor kids! Fortunately, you have disposable income, so to fix the problem, you buy them a soccer ball. (We will refrain from exploring why you have disposable income and they don't.) Hooray! They have a real soccer ball! What happens when that soccer ball deflates? Do they have a pump? Do they have access to a pump? Do you expect these kids to purchase a pump of their own? What happens if somebody steals the ball, or it is lost, or some vandal slashes it with a knife?

There are other ways in which you might end up discouraged in spite of your generosity. Maybe the children receiving the ball are not as grateful as you were hoping. Maybe they continue using their ad-hoc ball and not the one you gave them. Maybe they sell your soccer ball for money. Maybe they cut up your soccer ball and use it for shoe leather. Would these outcomes be okay? Or would you feel your heart harden against these kids, because you offered them a solution to their problem and they did not follow your script?

Uh oh. Maybe I am misrepresenting you. There are other ways people in your situation might deal with this problem:

So what do you do? Am I arguing that giving away soccer balls is useless or worse? Not necessarily. However, in these situations I find it helpful to distiguish actions intended for your benefit (in particular, gratifying your ego) and actions intended to actually solve a problem.

If you expect praise and gratitude, you are trying to gratify your ego. Watching kids play with a shiny new soccer ball you donated gratifies the ego in a way that giving them a boring old air pump does not. Going on a four month internship that looks good on your resume (or doing so because it will be "good experience") is intended to gratify your ego. Forcing people to adhere to your metrics to keep their funding because it is your job and "people need to be held accountable" is intended to gratify your ego, and the ego of your funding organization.

How do you actually solve problems? I don't know. If I did, maybe I could get rich solving poverty too. But over the years a I have noticed a few strategies keep coming up. You won't like them, though. They are lots of work, and not easily measured into easily-optimized metrics.

The first strategy is to recognise the ways you are trying to gratify your ego, and not let those ways interfere with solving the problem.

The second is to keep your eyes open.

The third is to play soccer with the kids, and keep playing soccer with them even when it is not so fun.

By playing soccer with them you become present in their lives, and by keeping your eyes open you use your middle-class sensibilities to see what is working and what is not. Maybe these kids don't need a soccer ball at all, even though it pains your heart to see them without one. You won't know this without spending time with them, observing carefully, and putting your ego aside.

People with middle-class sensibilities tend to be good at complaining articulately and good at navigating bureaucracies in a way that many (although not all!) poor people are not. As you play soccer with these children, you can watch for the ways that they are struggling (expressed verbally or otherwise) and work with them to identify, articulate, and address those problems.

Maybe you think that a new soccer ball really would be helpful, and you go ahead and purchase one. By continuing to play soccer with the children, the problem of air pumps will make itself apparent soon enough. At least then you will be under no illusions that you solved their problem by giving them a ball with no way to keep it inflated.

Many soccer games will be difficult. The children might well have different values and cultural norms than you do, which will grate against your sensibilities. Some days you will not play soccer at all; something else will come up and you will deal with that instead. That will make your funders mad because it means you are less efficient at adhering to their metrics. Sometimes the funders will be justified, and your diversion will be a total waste of time. But sometimes diverging from your official goals gets you closer to solving problems, and might improve your metrics in the long run. Sometimes you just learn an additional way in which poverty is complicated, which can be useful as well.

At some point you might become burnt out and cynical. Then maybe it is time to stop. Just remember that poor people are used to being abandoned when the four-month internship is over, or the project funding is up, or the data collection phase of the study is done, or the saviors get bored or find a better job. Being abandoned has consequences as well.

What if you are honest enough with yourself to admit you want to gratify your ego more than you want to solve problems? Fair enough: then you are embarking on a hobby. Try to make sure your hobby doesn't do more harm than good, and don't confuse your hobby with solving problems. Giving away a soccer ball to assuage your guilt is a hobby. Maybe that hobby does some good (a soccer ball that is useful for a few weeks before being deflated might be a nice respite from the ad-hoc ball, after all) but it is still a hobby, not a solution.

I am surprised you made it this far. No doubt you found all of this boring and obvious, and not just because I am a bad writer. Why would I even bring this up? Who would go around giving away soccer balls with no way to keep them inflated, and with no replacement strategy? Surely this never happens in real life? Surely not.