Act Locally

A new television show called “How the Other Half Live” premiered recently here in the UK. – the premise of which is for a wealthier family to support a needier one. It’s a little bit “life swap” instead of “wife swap”, with all the shock value and smarmy discomfort that reality TV trades on. Nevertheless, highlighting the problem of poverty in Britain does seem to be one of the show’s aims. Ads for the show claim that 4 million children in Britain live in poverty – a surprising figure when you consider that the total population is about 60 million and Britain is one of the wealthiest countries on the planet. Shock value, yes, but of a very different kind.

And it started me thinking about the issue of domestic charity. Wondering how many of us care as much about poor people at home as we do about those around the world. Back in the nineties, the phrase “think globally, act locally” caught fire as a neat consciousness-raising call. But lately it seems to have lost its way, in favor of simply, “think globally, act globally”. We’re inundated with international news — Darfur, tsunamis, dictatorships and the uprisings against them — and almost shamed into being global citizens. But how many of us are good citizens in our own communities – much less our own countries?

I’m not raising my hand here. I took off to South Africa from Midwest America when I was twenty-two to volunteer at a human rights organisation. I remember at the time my father saying, “Why can’t you help people on the south side of Chicago?” And I remember that I didn’t have a very good answer for him. All I knew was that going to South Africa held out a lot more promise than driving forty minutes across town to depressed neighborhoods with pissed off people…people who were potentially pissed off with me.

Every country has its version of “the south side of Chicago”, an infamous, deprived area or its infamous, deprived residents. About a year ago there was a lot of public hand wringing in the UK about so-called “hoodies”: young men who wore hooded jackets and menaced shopping malls and high streets. Many of these men were involved in gangs and committed crimes, from the petty to the more serious. And average Britons sneered at them, avoided them, saw them as an insidious reminder of all that’s wrong with modern Britain. Essentially our societal response was punishment and censor – natural, I think, in the face of a potential threat.

But I couldn’t help wondering how many of these “hoodies” would fall into an international charity’s definition of “vulnerable” or “at risk” and therefore worthy of support. Because they’re poor, because their family are immigrants, because their families are unstable. If these “hoodies” were Zambians or Cambodians, rather than fellow Londoners, would I feel scared of them or sympathetic to them? If I were watching them on TV would my first instinct be to look for the societal drivers of their behavior that somehow excuse them from blame?

How thin that line between villain and victim is.

And I think that’s why so many of us enjoy international giving: because we never have to confront that line, much less cross it. The people we help stay firmly entrenched in our minds as helpless victims: images, flat and unthreatening, little more than concepts really. We never have to experience their human complexity: the fact that maybe they swear too much and have sex a lot and steal for a thrill or to get some money. And we never have to face up to our potential complicity with their situations, our fears and prejudices, the comforts of our own lives in comparison to the discomfort of theirs.

Of course we need to remain engaged in international affairs; with so much media and technology we no longer have a choice. But the reality is that we probably have the greatest chance of bringing about change in our own little worlds: in places that we know, in communities that we’re invested in, with issues that we can better understand. If we’re willing to commit ourselves to confronting all the cruddy complexity of the poverty and illiteracy, sickness and abuse taking place within a 50 mile radius of our homes, we might actually make a difference for that other half. In so doing we’ll have to accept that there are no pure victims: in Derby or Darfur. All of those victims has a messy human reality and even the villains might have a sad story to tell. But if we accept that we can simply deal with the issues and not our emotional reaction to them.

Imagine what might happen if more of us started to “think locally and act locally”. Maybe just maybe I wouldn’t have four million poor children living in my own country. And maybe just maybe all of this local action might add up to global change.

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