Three principles to helping people living in poverty

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Photo credit: Anna Bella Betts
Photo credit: Anna Bella Betts


The real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new landscapes but in having new eyes – Proust


In the number 1 New York Times bestseller, Principles, Ray Dalio explains some of the principles behind the investment firm he started, Bridgewater Associates. The book is the based on a document all employees would read, to help guide them in decision making. Dalio wanted his staff to firstly know their values, but secondly, to act them out.

Dalio writes:


Principles are what allow you to live a life consistent with those values. Principles connect your values to your actions; they are beacons that guide your actions, and help you successfully deal with the laws of reality.


After living, volunteering and working in Vietnam, China, India and Cambodia for over 8 years, it got me thinking– maybe we need a set of principles for these countries too. Wealthy people such as myself, we have a set of values, I believe, that implore us to help.

And yet, through all the long haul flights, volunteer hours logged and dollars donated, it’s sometimes hard to see true impact being created. It’s not that we have the wrong values. It’s not even that action isn’t being taken.

Perhaps it’s what connects the value to the action which is missing.

Here are three principles upon which we can base our work, to help others less fortunate than ourselves. It is by no means an exhaustive list.

1) Act, but act with a vision

In my last post, I explained how many people see poverty and think “it’s all too hard”. This is a trap, and it leads to wilful ignorance. We need to engage and be comfortable with complexity.

But our action needs to be well thought out.

All human beings are emotional. When you see a problem, like a starving child, our emotions implore us to act. But in between that moment of emotional connection, and action, lies a very critical moment. It determines whether the action you take is governed by emotion or rationality.

Unfortunately, many people and many charities never go past emotional action. And this is why well meaning, but ultimately meaningless, work happens.

If you were to see an abandoned child, your instinct might be to put that child in orphanage. But orphanages are often corrupt institutions, where more harm is done than good. Wouldn’t it be better to help reintegrate that child into a family, perhaps even their own?

Cambodian Children's Trust is a charity that integrates children back into the community, rather than putting them in orphanages.
Cambodian Children’s Trust is a charity that integrates children back into the community, rather than putting them in orphanages.

Our goal should be to take the action that creates the biggest and most meaningful impact.


2) Go to developing countries to learn and listen – not to empower, to rescue, or to save

There’s a story I heard a number of years ago, which illustrates the value of listening. In India, a particular international charity returned a year after digging wells in a particular village. They found that, despite a well being dug in the centre of town, the women were taking a 14km round trip to the river to fetch water.

When questioned why, they said (and I paraphrase):

“No one asked us what we wanted. You think that walking to the river is a waste of time. For us, it’s the only opportunity we have to complain about how useless the men in this village are!”

This single story illustrates why going to other countries to learn and listen is more important than thinking you have all the answers. Even after 5 years of living in Cambodia, I realised that I wasn’t fit to lead the organisation I started, as I wasn’t a local Cambodian.

So if we only have a couple of weeks, or even months, in another country, what’s more important? Acting or listening?


3) Consider not volunteering, but either just giving money or going as a tourist


International voluntourism (the combination of a holiday and volunteering) is an enormous industry.

Just how enormous is stunning.

According to one report, it may be as high as $173 billion annually.

That’s equivalent to the GDP of New Zealand.

This could be an acceptable figure if the impact of all of this money was significant. It could be a great return on investment. The problem is this – the companies providing these trips can’t tell you what the impact of all this money spent is. Their model is based upon servicing the needs of volunteers, not the people in the countries they’re working with.

Now ask yourself this simple question: who is really benefitting from all this volunteering? People in other countries, the owners of these companies, or us?

As a simple comparison, I often ask people if they would donate 10% of what they spend on a volunteering trip to a charity. In other words, if a company charges $4,000 to travel to South America to volunteer in an orphanage, would someone give $400?

The answer is often no.

To come back to point number 1, we feel an overwhelming need to help when we travel to a poorer country. That’s human. But acting on it through short term volunteering isn’t necessarily helping the right people.

Photo credit: Stefanie Loo/Reuters

These are just three principles which can connect our values to action. If we truly value compassion, empathy, and respect, this is a good start to ensuring our actions are connected.

What principles would you apply to helping those in other countries around the world?

I’d be interested to hear from you in the comments.

And, if you’d like to take meaningful action through responsible volunteering or donations, of course, there’s a way to do that too.





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