“But I Meant Well…”

“First, do no harm.” -Hippocratic Oath

Three recent stories have brought home the fact that many people do not consider the wider ramifications of their actions. Despite the good or noble intentions of each, they end up causing greater problems for many others.

The most minor of these is probably the story of two “urban explorers” who attempted to climb the Williamsburg Bridge in NYC. It seems these two young men wanted to scale the bridge to take pictures.  However, because the police had no way of knowing what their intentions were, or whether the two would be able to come back down safely, the police shut down the bridge for a couple of hours. Moreover, as the police had to climb up to get them, these two “explorers” put several police officers in danger as well.

I understand the desire to climb a big structure like that.  I understand the desire to see things from new (and often hidden) perspectives.  However, the results of this action were pretty easy to foresee.  At best, thoughtlessness by these men cost several New Yorkers hours and risked the safety of New York police officers. At worst, someone could have been seriously injured because two men did not think through the ramifications of their actions.

It’s not always thoughtless dares and stunts that can cause harm like this. Another example comes from the world of charity, especially foreign aid.  It has long been known that foreign aid can be a “lootable resource“, similar to gold and diamonds, and thus help perpetuate conflict.  However, even bypassing government and engaging in direct charity can have foreseeable, negative consequences.

One well-known example of this is “Tom’s Shoes“. The idea sounds noble, at first glance. By giving shoes to children who lack them, on the customer’s dime, it will enable more children to go to school and will help children avoid roundworm.  This is definitely a good thing. However, it also undermines local businesses. Many of these communities have shoemakers ready to make shoes locally, if the money is there. Moreover, these local shoes can be made for vastly cheaper than Tom’s Shoes. Instead, Tom’s is directly taking work away from these local communities.  (This is not even counting the environmental effects of bringing shoes from America, rather than paying locals to make them.) There is short-term good done (a kid has shoes!) at the expense of long-term poverty reduction.

A similar effect can be seen in the “charity vacations” some (rich) young people take. These are usually designed around “building homes” in impoverished countries. However, this free labor from unskilled Americans (and Irish) depresses wages in the (already impoverished) target country and crowds out local house building. Just the money these people spend getting to and from the target country would be enough, if instead given to local businesses, to build a house. Moreover, all of that money would then stay in the country, helping to boost economic growth and development. However, the desire to “do something personally” and to “feel good” about it leads to a more destructive outcome.  The intentions are good and noble, but the result often isn’t. (Let us keep in mind that unemployment in the most prosperous of these countries is twice the US rate. Free labor is the last thing needed.)

All of this brings me to possibly the most repellent case.  As everyone on the internet knows, a supposed lesbian blogger in Syria turns out to be a straight, American male.  Mr. McMaster claims that he wanted to spotlight the trouble going on in Syria, and “I do not believe that I have harmed anyone — I feel that I have created an important voice for issues that I feel strongly about.”

However, his method of doing so (posing as, not just a Syrian, but a gay female Syrian) has done more damage to the protesters than good. The state police have already used him as a tool to discredit all of the protesters as foreign. Actual Syrian lesbians, for whom anonymity is required for daily life, have been increasingly targeted in many ways. Others say that he has discredited other Middle Eastern English-language bloggers, who are now suspected of being Westerners. None of this should be surprising to anyone who has watched other uprisings (and their suppression) in the past. It seems that he (belatedly) understands that, but forethought could have prevented the problem entirely.

“The road to hell is paved with good intentions.” It is not enough to “mean well” or “just try to help”. It is essential that you plan out the ramifications of your actions on others, particularly if whatever venture you are planning should fail. This is especially the case when your actions directly impact people in situations, cultures, and places different from your own, as you do not have all of the necessary information to make this decision on your own. Before going forward with any kind of large-scale venture like this, search outside your own “group” and get advice from others.  Make sure that your actions do not have ramification you are missing.

And, if you are at all unsure, remember this rule: “First, do no harm.”


One response to ““But I Meant Well…”

  1. Re: Tom McMasters
    Additionally many people expanded resources and effort to try to ‘rescue’ Amina. The US embassy had been involved and several Syrian bloggers and journalists put themselves at risk in trying to help a ficticious character. Also I saw one reference to an online relationship which would mean that Mr. McMasters was a little too ‘thorough’ in creating his persona.