Friday, October 21 2016


Don't overthink before lending a helping hand

Update: February, 17/2016 - 09:30


by Thu Van

A new cold spell hit Viet Nam's northern region yesterday, bringing temperatures down to 3-6 degrees Celsius in mountainous areas.

I'm not sure if another debate on social networks about helping poor people in remote areas will arise like the one that happened when the coldest spell in the last 30 years hit the country late last month.

Just before the Tet holidays, Viet Nam experienced a record-low cold snap with rare snow falling, which killed more than 8,900 farm animals nationwide.

After pictures of children wearing thin clothes and walking through snow in bare feet were circulated, many trips were organised by well-meaning benefactors to these regions to donate warm clothes and shoes.

A tour guide who works in Sa Pa Township, Lao Cai Province, the centre of the cold snap, posted a status about this on her Facebook page, saying that people should stop giving clothes and donations to children there.

She said as an experienced guide who had lived with locals for quite some time, she knows the children wear thin clothes, or even none, and it's not because they are poor. It's because they are used to the cold. Even if people came to give them clothes and tried to put a pair of pants on them, they would take them off.

She even said local people wished for more snow so more tourists would come.

I respect these opinions, but I have to disagree with them.

A friend of mine who had just returned from a remote village in Lao Cai Province showed me a video clip of two local children. The oldest was a girl aged about six, and the little boy was about two and a half. He was only wearing an old, dirty sweater. No pants. When the sister bathed her brother, she used cold water taken from a big vase, and the boy was shivering in coldness.

After a while, he seemed to warm up a bit, but still with no pants on.

What I saw was the boy was ok. But another thing I realised was that he had been like that since he was born. He was used to the conditions and not wearing pants; he was used to poverty, and he was used to not having his basis needs fulfilled. He seemed ok, but was he?

Seriously, in a cold snap that killed nearly 9,000 animals, is it ok for a little boy to suffer?

And if people can adapt to their living environments, why do people living in Canada or northern Europe still wrap up so much in winter?

The truth is that poverty and hardship have become a normal thing for these poor children. Not to mention other things, wearing pants is not necessary to them.

Many friends of mine who came back from these mountainous areas said walking bare foot, not brushing teeth, no school and so on – the minimum examples of a civilized society – were common there.

I wonder if the tour guide who said children in Sa Pa do not need clothes will rethink this?

The children may not want to wear pants, and some may throw them away at the first opportunity. But if we persist then maybe their habits will change and they'll realise the importance of keeping warm. At any rate, if we don't try, they will stay cold this winter and for winters to come.

Taking advantage?

Many others wonder if we should give clothes, food or money to these children and their families, arguing that people will "get lazy" and "find ways to take advantage" of other people's good nature. They say, again and again, don't give a man a fish, teach him how to fish. They talk about a "long term" and more "sustainable" vision.

I agree a long term vision to help these people escape poverty would be the ideal solution. But what we see here in this situation is that with such harsh weather, these children and their families need emergency aids. Clothes, shoes and even food are things we can provide right away. Long term solutions like vocational training, providing jobs and capacity strengthening might come next.

Tran Dang Tuan, a well-known Vietnamese journalist in the country who established a non-profit group called Com Co Thit (Only Rice Is Not Enough), said there's a fine line between what we should do and what we should not.

"Let's think simply: if they need food, we try to give them food; if they need clothes, we try to give them clothes," he said.

When the cold spell hit the country last month, he raised more than VND 3 billion (US$ 134,000) to give to children in mountainous areas.

"Everyone has their own opinion. I choose to love and care for people, so if I can help, I will help. Debating might be a bit of a luxury," he said.

Yes, you might be suspicious about the effectiveness of charity and about whether people who receive food and clothing may become lazy and never try. Or, you might choose to think positively about people and do what your heart tells you to do. It's cold outside now, and many children do not have enough clothes to wear. — VNS

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