Helping without Hierarchy

White Man's BurdenThe past couple weeks have brought a lot of discussion about the role of Western society in helping African nations. While I found the recent “Kony 2012” campaign problematic and misguided right from the get-go, one positive aspect is that it has sparked some discussion (though never enough) about the “White man’s burden” and the “White Savior Industrial Complex.” This issue, as with others, has raised once again the question of what part the Western world should play in these issues. Should we step into a conflict that does not affect us, merely because it offends our moral senses? Should we give our money to the first organization that puts forward a simple, clear plan of action, regardless of our own knowledge of the situation? Should we let the people of Uganda (and the neighbouring countries) fix their own problems?

White people (and people of privilege, more generally) often walk a fine line when it comes to aid and development. Surely ethics do not allow us to turn a blind eye to clear wrongdoing and tragedy. If we do not help, we are branded as selfish and uncaring, apathetic to the plight of the disadvantaged. But if we step in to help, we are taking part in the rich history of White people playing saviour to the world. This is not a plea to have pity on the White man’s burden. But at times it can seem as though we are trapped in a “damned if you do, damned if you don’t” situation. Is there a middle path? Is there a way to help people who truly face tragedy and trauma without inserting one’s nose where it doesn’t belong? Is there a way to offer assistance without imposing a hierarchical “rescuer and victim” construction on the situation?1

Helping and Harming

Nike plant sweatshopOf course, the critical ingredient involves a healthy deal of respect for the autonomy of others. Those of us in Western society do an excellent job of embracing our own autonomy with our rugged individualism, yet we often fail to offer it to others. This has resulted in all manner of atrocities both locally and abroad—from residential schools foisted on Native peoples to puppet dictators propped up in African nations. Even in the interest of “helping”, we often do more harm than good. Like sending free food to foreign countries, which ends up driving local farmers out of business, unable to compete. Like closing sweatshops, which eliminates even the meager wages that workers had with which to sustain themselves and their families. Like distributing thousands of bed nets without checking to see whether people actually understood how to use them properly or if they would use them at all. We, as the “civilized society” we are, are notorious for supporting short-sighted missions that appeal to our efforts to reduce our own guilt at the expense of actually making a positive difference for others. In light of this, doesn’t it seem better to just take our hands out of the matter entirely and leave people to resolve their own issues?

And yet, such a course of action would neglect our ethical duties as people with abundance. To turn a blind eye to tragedy and trauma, or even to watch passively as they occur, would be a terrible wrong. It is just crucially important to realize this: Just as neglecting to help others in need is an egregious moral transgression, an equally egregious transgression is neglecting to do our due diligence in understanding the problem first before helping. Our ethical responsibilities require us to refrain from helping until we adequately understand the problem, and only then to support solutions which actually address the problem with the purpose of eliminating it. To do otherwise is to risk having a detrimental impact on others rather than benefiting them—and I shouldn’t have to explain why that is unethical.

Expertise and Autonomy

Board of directors: White men

Pictured here: Not experts on poverty.

But of course, such a strategy is a tall order. It would be impossible to truly understand every social issue that exists in the world today. So of course, we must rely to some extent on experts who have devoted the time and effort to understanding such issues. Such a tactic is eminently reasonable, and yet there is one important caveat: In most cases, the experts of any given social issue are not likely to be White men who sit comfortably in their armchairs, or even White men who fly to a country to survey the problem—the experts are going to be the people who live within and experience the social issue themselves. The true experts of poverty, of discrimination, of violence are the poor, the stigmatized, and the victims of violence. Even a researcher who takes years to study an issue cannot compete with a community of people who grew up and live within the issue. To do one’s ethical due diligence regarding social issues involves listening to these people. It involves eliciting their solutions.

Of course, there are some cases where the input of privileged people can be useful. Sometimes we can offer best practices. For instance, when establishing a distribution network for medicine in a developing nation, it may be helpful to draw from past research and experience developing similar networks in other regions. However, such practices must be offered as input to be integrated with local customs and practices. Many an attempt to help has fallen victim to local situations that were incompatible with the way the attempt was implemented, which would have been obvious had the “helpers” bothered to listen to the people who were intimately aware of the way things worked. The most valuable way to help is to offer input which respects the autonomy of the people that one is trying to help.

There are many ways to respect autonomy, and many ways to disrespect it, but the crucial aspect is that assistance is not a trickle-down phenomenon. There is no appropriate way to help others in a hierarchical fashion, with helpers positioned above the “victims”. Autonomy is about sharing solutions as a network of equals, while keeping in mind that an individual is always the best expert on his or her own life. Alongside this, it is also crucial to remember that a solution is not a solution unless the people being helped are on board with it (consent). These principles more generally form the basis of relating to others in a way which respects their right to govern the situations which affect their own lives. It is clear from the way that Western societies value “freedom” and “liberty” that we place a high priority on our own autonomy, and as such it seems imperative that the same level of autonomy be afforded to others in equal measure.

In the Interest of Investment

Giving MoneySo what is the proper role for the Western world to play in terms of solving the real problems that exist? Primarily, it is one of providing resources. Virtually every community plagued by poverty, starvation, disease, or discrimination has nascent leaders with viable solutions to raise up their community, yet these leaders are (sometimes) stifled by lack of resources. We, as the rich ones (relative to the rest of the world) have those resources—and much more than our fair share of them, I might add. Our job, then, is not to impose our own solutions on others, but to offer support for those solutions that are welling up from even the deepest springs. We must take a hands-off approach, without making a fuss about “waste” or “abuse”. Certainly that doesn’t mean that we just throw money around, but we must not provide our resources with conditions about how exactly the money must be used. Such conditions are merely an excuse to ensure that our solutions take precedence—because we can accept it when we make mistakes about funding projects, but we can’t accept it when poor people make mistakes with our money.

It is a fact of life that respecting autonomy comes with a great risk. When we cede control over other people’s lives, these people may make decisions with which we do not agree. This can be frightening, especially when we still feel as though our donations are “ours”. But such a risk is a necessary one, both for ethical and practical reasons. Ethically, we should offer others autonomy, as I’ve mentioned. But practically speaking, as I’ve also mentioned, assistance which respects autonomy is the only way to have assistance which actually works. Not every project started by those within the community will be a good one, but investing some money in projects with a chance of success and some without is still much better in the long run than investing a lot of money in projects with no chance of success (and which only fuel Western imperialism). For those who want a chance to feel a sense of superiority, or an opportunity to appease their guilt, the second option is a wise investment. Respecting the autonomy of others is not necessary when one’s concern for others is only instrumental to one’s concern for oneself. And indeed, investing in projects which take a lot of time, money, and effort but don’t meaningfully change the status of under-privileged groups simply ensures that future opportunities for guilt-reduction will always be available. But for those of us who truly wish to find ways to reduce human suffering (and I hope that most of us have this wish), respecting autonomy is the only way to meaningfully do this over the long term.

A Way Forward

AutonomySuch respect for autonomy should include, at the very least, these properties:

  1. Recognition of the lived experiences of individuals and communities that one is trying to help;
  2. A meaningful sense of collaboration and integrating solutions, not just “taking suggestions;”
  3. Cognizance of the structural factors that create and maintain inequality and human suffering;
  4. A hands-off approach, providing support and resources for local leaders and networks to establish local solutions; and
  5. Seeking and ensuring that the consent of those one is trying to help is established before taking action.

This list is likely far from comprehensive, but it provides a starting point for meaningful change in a non-hierarchical “saviour and victim” framework. And yes, it means that more time and effort must be taken to assess the qualities of the charities one wishes to support. More than assessing short-term effectiveness (e.g., “10,000 children fed this year!”), we as resource-holders must determine the degree to which a given organization respects the local community. How valued are their opinions? How well are local leaders and local solutions being supported? How much effort is being targeted at structural factors that will produce meaningful, long-term change, and how much effort is being spent on window-dressing? These are difficult questions to answer, especially from afar. But remember that it is our ethical duty to be informed before intervening. To dismiss this as irrelevant would suggest that one is less interested in helping and more interested in feeling as though one is helping. One produces change. The other produces only comfort for the already-comfortable.


  1. As with most of the content on this blog, what I have to say here is nothing that has not been said before by others. My lack of references here is a result of my source amnesia, not my originality. However, in general, the thoughts presented here draw haphazardly from feminist ideas about consent, Deci & Ryan’s theory regarding autonomy as part of self-determination, and anarchist ideas about hierarchy and self-government, among other sources. []

2 responses to “Helping without Hierarchy”


‘Sup Bro

Just came by to wish you and yours a happy Easter. Hope you will be surrounded by family and friends and other loved ones. Maybe even go to church with your parents? Talk to ya soon. Shalom