We have a tradition of giving in this country that is pretty remarkable. Collectively we give billions of dollars to charitable organizations that provide food, health care, legal aid, educational opportunities, etc. We waste no time sending help when natural disasters strike; down the street or around the world.
But I fear compassion fatigue is overtaking us. There are so many problems that seem insurmountable and we are barraged with the images of need. We see women, mostly African, on CNN starving to death, dying of AIDS, raped by soldiers or forced into marriage at very young ages. The problems seem just too overwhelming.
But that is not every woman in Africa, or Asia, or Latin America, for that matter.
There is no doubt that there are vast differences between an average woman in the West and an average woman in a low-income country. Of course, we are all aware of disparities and paradoxes. We all know that there are low-income communities in the West, primarily communities of color, whose problems are similar to those of women in low-income nations. Rich women in low-income countries may have lives far better than those of the average Western woman. But there are many commonalities amongst the world's women. We all grow up with dreams. We contemplate marriage and children in some way. We love, laugh and cry at similar situations and celebrate similar passages through life. We all hope for a better future. And even in the every day, the content of our conversations is not always so far apart.
It is these stories — of women living, working, being — that humanize them, that bring us closer to each other.
This week we launch Lifelines, a new online community. We ask women all over the world to share their stories and then compare them with the stories of others. We believe it is these shared experiences that engage people in these global challenges, create lasting relationships and lead people to action.
In the United States, for well-intentioned reasons, we have long viewed international assistance as a give-and-receive transaction. We give because we have been given much and others who live in more difficult circumstances receive. Because Americans value ingenuity and responsibility, we especially prefer to give to programs that teach a people to fish rather than giving them the fish.
While I appreciate the motivations that drive people to give – they see suffering and they want to do what they can – this model is problematic in that it sets up an artificial barrier between the givers and the receivers. As we all know, even the giver gets something back, usually in the sense of feeling better about themselves by having done the "right" thing.
It is when we see each other as people – not givers and receivers – that we realize that none of this is hopeless and that what we do, even the small things, matter.
There are enough real barriers that divide us: language, geography economic or political conditions that keep us from meeting each other. But if you log on to Lifelines and compare your life to others, you'll learn about an 87-year-old woman who said, "I was the first woman in my family to go to college, although I didn't complete my degree. I still keep in touch with my best friends from school (it's been 60 years)."
Or a woman in her 20s who wrote, "My family is full of dynamic women. To name just one: my mom. She's always interested and kind and never deterred by hard work."