The Three Most Common Mistakes In Helping Other Cultures [Part 1]

How to help without unintentionally hurting

There are a great many people out there who have a real desire to help others. If you’re reading this, you’re probably one of them. But are far too many instances where that desire to help ends up accomplishes nothing, or even causing more harm than good. The desire to help is great, but it needs to be balanced with a desire to understand.

I’ve had the (unfortunate) opportunity to see many of the ways in which very well-intentioned people have done things that were actually quite harmful to the people they wanted to help. There are three particular areas that I’ve found to be most problematic, so will address those in a short series of articles.

First, a little about me: culture has been my life-long passion. I’m Canadian, but have been living and working in China since 1993. I’ve been a cross-cultural consultant for more than two decades, helping businesses and organizations better understand how to work in other cultures. I’m the co-founder of a non-profit organization that works with a Chinese ethnic minority group, the Mosuo, who are one of the last remaining matriarchal cultures in the world, and who live high in the Himalayan Mountains. And I’m the founder and President of “The Language of Culture”, a new business that seeks to help people improve their Cultural Intelligence.

“No one has ever become poor by giving.”
― Anne Frank

Mistake #1 — The Savior Complex

For the vast majority of people — myself included — helping to others is inevitably at least partly about our own ego. We want to have that feeling of personal value that we’ve done something important, that we’ve helped other people. We want to have something that we can brag about to others, to show our generosity, our sacrifice, etc.

And that is not implicitly a bad thing; it’s great that you are motivated by a desire to be a generous, giving person.

However, for far too many people, this means that they want to be leaders. They want to be the one that comes in and saves someone else. They want to be a hero. They want to be able to write articles and blogs about the things they’ve done that have helped someone in another country/culture.

I mentioned above that I work with a Chinese ethnic minority group, the Mosuo. Prior to setting up our NGO, the Mosuo had been approached by other organizations and individuals about helping them. But there were always problems. In some cases, the outsiders insisted on having leadership roles, saying that the local Mosuo didn’t have the necessary experience or knowledge. Or they had plans for how they wanted to help, that the Mosuo felt were not practical, or didn’t address what they saw as more important issues. Or they came in with a hidden agenda, such as missionaries offering help, with the intent of converting Mosuo from their local religion.

None of those efforts had any real long-term impact. Most of them fell apart fairly quickly, with little real benefit to the Mosuo themselves.

Our NGO is quite different. When I had my first meeting with local Mosuo leaders, to propose setting up an organization, I told them that they would be the leaders. They would determine all priorities, would set all goals, would oversee all projects. My role would be a purely advisory and support role — to give advice, to offer suggestions, and to help them communicate with the outside world.

This approach, certainly, had problems. Particularly at the beginning, the Mosuo made many mistakes, and had many failures. It was far from smooth sailing. In fact, there were times where, if I had stepped in and taken control, and just told them “Do it like this”, it would have gone much faster and better. But they learned from their mistakes. They improved. They grew.

And today, they can proudly point to the accomplishments and victories that they’ve had as being their own — not something that someone else did for them. More importantly, they become less and less dependent on me, or on any other outsider; in fact, I’ve been deliberately decreasing my own role with time. And we set a fundamental policy that anyone coming in from the outside to help would be welcome, so long as they came in a support role (offering advice, resources, counseling, etc.), not trying to tell the Mosuo what they should do.

“You have not lived today until you have done something for someone who can never repay you.”
― John Bunyan

If you’d like more specific examples, here is an article with seven stories of good intentions gone bad. One of my favorites is the example of the TOMS shoe brand, who set up a program that if you buy a pair of their shoes, they’ll donate another pair to underprivileged children in other countries. This is an innovative initiative that other companies have since copied: “Buy one of our products, and we’ll donate another one to someone who needs it”

This is, undoubtedly, very well-intentioned and generous . But it has several significant problems. Yes, there are kids who needs shoes…but the reason that they need shoes is because they live in poverty. Giving them shoes doesn’t decrease their poverty. Worse, dumping tons of free shoes on them can end up hurting the local economy, as local businesses that make/sell shoes lose business. It would be far more effective to take the equivalent amount of money, and put it into things like helping to develop local businesses and industries, contribute to local education etc. I’m 100% certain that if you went to the local people, and said, “How can we best use our money and resources to help life you out of poverty and make you more self-sufficient?”, their answer would not be “Give us free shoes”. And to their credit, TOMS has listened to some of these criticisms, and sought to adapt their policies to have a greater and more practical impact, such as setting up factories in some of those countries, to manufacture the shoes, thereby not only providing shoes, but also jobs and a boost to the local economy.

Much of this is related to the issue of developing one’s Cultural Intelligence. It’s not just about wanting to help other cultures (as wonderful as that is). It’s about taking the time to truly understand the impact of what you’re doing, and to set a goal of empowering the local people, to make them the heroes.

Continue reading this series to examine three more of the most common mistakes: “To Change, or Not To Change”, and “Ideology Above People”.

If you’ve enjoyed this article, please let more people know about it by sharing it on your own social networks; and you can check out other articles that I’ve written here. If you’d like to learn more about Cultural Intelligence, please check out “The Language of Culture”. If you have questions or comments, please put them here, and I’ll do my best to respond. I’d love to have an ongoing dialogue and hear what others think, too!