The Reductive Seduction of Other People’s Problems
Courtney Martin
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In 2013, I worked in India in venture philanthropy as yet another Westerner working on issues in the developing world. I was walking home from the train station and came across an unconscious man in his 20s on the stairs. He didn’t appear to be someone living on the streets. He looked like an average guy in a clean dress shirt, but he clearly needed help. I wasn’t sure he was even breathing.

I started asking bypassers to help call an ambulance for him. The first person said “He’s just drunk, ignore him.” As did the second. The third person ran away from me as though she saw a ghost. Eventually, a local convinced me that this man’s condition was absolutely normal. I grew into complacency as not a single person seemed to care for the life of this fellow human being, and I too walked away.

For all I know, he could have died because I didn’t have the courage to take a stand, and I carried this regret with me into 2014 as I began life as an Acumen Global Fellow placed within a social enterprise in Pakistan. I was motivated to not fall into complacency, which meant having the gumption to introduce fraud controls to the company, demote an underperforming employee and be fully candid about internal management issues with the CEO.

These measures made me unpopular, yet it was by bringing perspective from the outside that helped empower the local team to take some of these challenges head on. Change comes from within, but perspective comes from without. From saving lives to breaking complacency, positive change does, at times, demand an outsider to do what’s right, not what’s easy.