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All you need? Guest post by Pat Zaph July 26, 2008

Posted by Raul in Blogathon 2008.

This post was contributed by Pat Zaph who blogs at Listen To The Cheese

Disclaimer: The views expressed in this post are apt to annoy some people. If so, suck it up. The views expressed in this post are also apt to appeal to hippies. If you are a hippie, go take a shower.

In the most basic sense, all you really need to be happy is food, shelter and clothing. Over and above that, in the most realistic sense, anything else is a bonus. The problem with these bonuses is that far too often we treat them as being essentials. The idea that we are entitled to these extra essentials has become so ingrained in our heads that questioning them is often met with harsh criticism or deference. If I asked you to list three things off the top of your head without stopping to think that you would count as essential to your life above and beyond the basic necessities of food, clothing and shelter, I doubt that most people would be able to. Not because they can’t think of any, but because once you take something for granted as essential to your life, you stop being able to disconnect it from what you think is necessary.

The only real way to break this habit, I think, is to be put in the middle of a situation where you’re forced to recognize this. I’ve been living through one of these situations for the last three months. I can step out onto the roof of the building I’m staying in, look out over a suburb of Dhaka and realize that complaining about the annoyances we face in life at home are pithy and pointless. You go to a restaurant, and your order isn’t as hot as it should be. This annoys you and you send it back demanding a decrease in the price. Don’t act as though you’ve never done something that callous, it’s a trait we have as Westerners. Few people actually stop to think that the amount of food on that plate amounts to three weeks of food for some people. I explained to my students here how much I pay for lunch at A&W in Harbour Center and they asked me if I was buying food for a feast. A $6 Teen Burger combo could buy a week’s worth of food for some people here. So the next time you pick up that Big Mac, or Subway, think about how many people there are in the world that don’t make enough money in over a month to even buy the fries in your combo.

Maybe you have thought that before. Good on you. But until you walk through the shanty towns and see with your own eyes what the living conditions are, there still too much of a disconnect between you and them to make much of a difference in your perspectives. I doubt that most people could conceive the duress people live in, even if they like to think they can. Reading about it online, watching a humanitarian story on the news, or listening to it on the radio seems to give people a sense of satisfaction that they know what’s wrong with the world, and that since they are aware of its problems, this makes them a better person. People might toss a can in the food donation bin and smugly feel that they’ve just made a difference in someone’s life. I’ve come to decide that if you do this, you’re an asshole.

You’re making shit all of a difference because you’ve done it without thinking of the context of people who are really in need. Being able to throw food in a donation bin still lets you keep a large disconnect between you and the people you think you’re helping. If you don’t have to see who’s getting it, you feel better. This is the same thing as donating money to an NGO to send it to developing countries. You feel happy that you’ve helped without even wondering about the end result. You think that your money will go to help people in need but don’t question how it’s used to do this. Keeping that disconnect between you and the people you want to help means you don’t know that the money was used to help build storm and flood shelters for poor farmers in monsoon threatened areas. Keeping this disconnect means that you don’t know that your money has been spent on these shelters without any regard to cultural context. Keeping this disconnect means that you have no idea that the shelter you kindly donated your money to with a grin on your face did little to help because this is a Muslim country and there were no separations between the men and women so many women were forced to stay outside and drown. Keeping this disconnect means that your happily donated money didn’t build shelters for the animals that the farmers need for their livelihood, so more people died trying to save their animals from drowning instead of staying in the shelters. But you sit in your air conditioned home or office with a big, self-satisfied grin on your face because you know that you made a personal contribution to help those people and since you did that, they must be happier now.

We take it for granted that our contributions make some large difference to society on a grand scale. We assume that our donations or monetary contributions will make a huge difference to people in need. But no one ever really takes much time to see who these people in need are. They’re just People in Need, and they need our help. Somehow, we also think that if only people followed our values, that they’d be much farther along in life. I’ve seen a string of volunteers come through here in the last few months, and even being here that comes out. And I’m not ashamed at all to say that the biggest culprits of this have been the American volunteers. It’s almost beyond a lot of them to accept the fact that not everyone in the world can live life with a smile on it without western values and what we (they) think of as organization.

This might just be the basis for the every problem dealing with helping people. Those of use fortunate enough to be comfortable in life too often assume that if only people Lived Like Us, that they would be far happier and be able to live a much better life. This frame of thought easily ignores the fact that this takes far greater amounts of money than most of the world will hope to see, and that maybe living like us isn’t necessarily the best thing for a large portion of the population of the world. We need food, clothing and shelter to be happy. I can look out my window, I can walk down the flooded streets, I can talk to the people living in a shanty built up on stilts, and all of them will have a smile on their face because they have a basic roof, a basic meal, and basic clothing. They might not be the happiest person every day of their lives, but I’d much rather see a smile on a persons face knowing that they have all they need to be happy rather than the smile on the face of a person who thinks it essential to know which movie star is fucking which movie star and who wore what to whatever awards show. If our attitude is that people in need should learn to live like us, I hope that they slam the door in our face and tell us to please fuck off. If you really want to live your life happy and know that you’ve made a real difference with some contribution, then go see how your help is making a difference. Don’t sit in a room and assume that you’ve made one, go see for yourself.

Pat Zaph (all photos in this post)

Credit: Pat Zaph (all photos in this post)

Maybe that way, you might learn that some of those things you thought were so important to your life aren’t so necessary anymore.

(c) Pat Zaph

All photos in this post (c) Pat Zaph

This post has been brought to you buy the malnourished construction workers breaking bricks by hand outside my window.

EDITOR’S NOTE – All photos in this post are (c) of Pat Zaph



1. Karen - July 26, 2008

I agree with the message, but I – personally – have a hard time living out the change if I’m nurturing the sort of anger that is expressed in this post…sure, it’s a great catalyst for action, and maybe it’s even needed to shock people – but it also distances me from the people I’d try to talk to. I can’t purposefully fault people for not being enlightened, though people certainly shore up their own ignorance or apathy. But there’s room and need for both approaches, so it’s all good.

2. Tania - July 26, 2008

It’s actually arrogant of you to think that you know about what the people there live through just because you’re amongst them. Not when you’re getting cheap suits made and will eventually come home. You’re not there for a selfish reason of giving yourself to help the people. You’re there to earn a few brownie points at school.

That aside, you don’t have to go all the way around the world to see these types of living conditions. You can see them right here, in this country, on my First Nations reserves.

And all the garbage on people paying taxes that goes to “Indians” who get everything for free is a joke too. Much like all the talk of giving money to an NGO, when “your” taxes go to an “Indian” it goes mainly to support the government institution.

And that too, is the arrogance and smugness of the western world.

3. Ciavarro - July 26, 2008

Pat’s not angry.

He’s a pansy.

It’s all posturing. He doesn’t really care about people in Dhaka. He spends 3 months in the mud and thinks he’s Mother Teresa.

My guess is he will say all the right things about the Third World, then spend the rest of his life assimilating himself in to the gears of Western civilization.

Enlightened people are useless if they do not spurn action.

That’s why I don’t bother donating. I get no self satisfaction from doing so, and I need that money to service my “stuff”. The people of Dhaka have made it this long without my help, something tells me they’ll make it a few years more. Hell, who even says they WANT our dinky donation?

I pay taxes. My government donates to multiple causes around the world. That’s good enough for me.

4. Tania - July 26, 2008

err…selfless not selfish.

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