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Charity Versus Justice

A friend recently told me that I am “too nice.” It made me recognize that I have now fully made the transition to becoming my mother. (Thankfully I have also grown up enough to be completely content with this realization.) I used to say this exact same thing to her when, as a busy special education teacher, she would stay up late making treats for her class because they had managed to collectively turn in their work on time, or when she spent money she did not have on others. Truthfully, this was hardly a complement. It was like saying “great job on being a complete pushover,” instead of just recognizing the wonderful things she was doing for others. She also really enjoyed doing these things. Who is to say she is being too nice; maybe everyone else is not nice enough.

I’ve now noticed people often express similar sentiments when talking about my plans for fellowship and future career in global health. I get a lot of, “what you are doing is so great, I would never be able to do something like that” and “that is such a sacrifice.” Are you then going to get a real job that pays you money? They imply that it is above and beyond, and idealistic. And while it is nice to have people mostly excited about my next steps, it is unfortunate that it is couched in ideas of charity.

I see this as a problem for a few reasons. First, by speaking about helping the less fortunate as extraordinary work, it is too easy for others to not get involved. Second, there is a danger in thinking about global health as idealistic, as doing so makes its very important goals seem unattainable; Why try if we can never get there?

Over the years I have thought a lot about the perception of global health, especially people’s perception of themselves when they are engaged in global health work, and whether this is seen as generosity or justice. This article published a few months ago in the New York Times really brought this back to me, with some very salient points. My favorite part of the article is a reprinted quote from the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., “Philanthropy is commendable but it must not cause the philanthropist to overlook the circumstances of economic injustice which make philanthropy necessary.” The fundamental problems that exist leading to a lack of basic healthcare throughout the world cannot be fixed by a few people dedicating their careers; it requires a majority of people recognizing these problems as their own, and as their imperative to address.

I think being “too nice,” while keeping in mind self-care and preservation, will actually serve me well in the global health arena. I know next year I will also find a lot of like-minded individuals who are working hard to fulfill what they see as people’s rights. I am hoping I will also be able to have some influence on others to recognize the necessity and obligation of seeking out justice, and to not just applaud the “do-gooders” from the sidelines.

This entry was posted in BMC.
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