Saturday, 31 October 2009

Impossible is just a word

A personal exploration of realism vs. idealism

During a recent exchange of emails with the director of a highly effective, and very well respected child welfare NGO, I received the following sobering caution:

“As I’m sure you know, media can be complex when you are doing charity work. We try to keep a low profile and a very positive outlook because we are so grateful for the access we have. Our only goal is to help the kids. The few times we have done interviews for local television and newspapers we have seen an increase in the abandonment of babies, as parents who are desperate for help hope we will take care of them if they are orphaned. It’s really quite sad. I know some orphanages have even put a ban on stories about helping kids for that very reason.”

My wife and I sat long into the night arguing the merits and flaws of agencies choosing a low profile as opposed to stepping into the media spotlight. We were both moved and saddened on any number of issues related to the director’s comments on what is evidently an intractable problem.

On the one hand, of course, the publicity alerted some desperate parents to the possibility that there was perhaps one last chance to give their children a better shot at life. Clutching this opportunity, they made the heart-breaking decision to abandon their child into the care of strangers.

Before you judge those parents too harshly, consider the alternative. Many of the children that end up in orphanages suffer from what polite society describe as “special needs.” It might be a disfigurement or deformity, many of which are actually treatable, but the cost of surgery and rehabilitation is beyond the means of the poorest. So the children face a miserable life on the fringe of society. Wouldn’t you grasp at any straw, however painful it might be, to give your child a better life?

Those children were taken in by the agency. They were cared for and loved, and are now looking at the world through more optimistic eyes. The agency concerned should be rightfully proud of their work and contribution. They gave a child a new start, and the potential for a more fulfilling and productive life.

On the other hand, the publicity doubtless attracted some less than scrupulous parents or guardians and gave them the opportunity to get rid of what – for them at least – was a troublesome and potentially costly burden. All that being said, whatever the motive of the parent, the child concerned is now living in a clean, safe and positive environment. And isn’t that the whole point?

So did the publicity work? Was it a positive thing? The idealist would say yes, absolutely. The realist would be rather more cautious.

Sadly, given obvious financial constraints, there is only so much that any one agency can do without taking the risk of diminishing the level of care and attention they provide to the children they are already responsible for. Notwithstanding the realities of limited resources, turning away a child in need is an impossible decision for any care-worker.

There are inarguable benefits to publicity and a higher profile. Just as there are the obvious downsides. It’s a tricky dilemma. If an agency relies solely on word of mouth and targeted – but narrow – campaigns to raise funds, they are always going to be on the brink. Always faced with the unimaginable burden of turning children away. It’s impossible to argue with the simple economics of the situation.

If, on the other hand, they decide to mount a publicity campaign or agree to media coverage, there is the danger of being overwhelmed before the hoped for donations arrive – if they ever do. The unique challenge this presents to agency directors is beyond the imagination of most of us.

Consequently, many of the smaller or specialized child care agencies fly just beneath the radar, attracting as little attention as possible. On shoestring budgets they do the best they can, for as many as they can. But they live with a harsh reality. In many cases the children they reject have lost their last chance of a better life. A necessary cull, if you like, in order that the few the agency can help will survive and thrive.

When the realist meets the idealist the inevitable words of reason and comfort are, “You can only do what you can with the resources you have. You cannot take care of the whole world.”

But as our television screens and newspapers deliver a daily litany of financial scandals, inexcusable waste on a massive scale, criminal mismanagement of the world’s resources, petty politics and greed – it is apparent that the realist’s statement is simply a reflection of the world we live in – but isn’t strictly true in the sense that we are universally helpless and fundamentally incapable of caring for the world and everyone or everything in it.

So when told they cannot save the world, it should come as no surprise when the idealist will invariably reply with a defiant, “Why not?”

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