The best remedy: Nothing at all

Knowing when to help – and when to not – is part of the job for non-profit leaders.

When I was at high school, I had a geography teacher named Mrs Ratinac.

One day, our lesson was on how humans inadvertently make things worse when we try to improve on nature.

Cane toads were introduced to Australia in the 1930s to manage insects and other pests. Instead, swarms of them have harmed native wildlife and destroyed crops.

In more recent times, hydroelectric dams have been built to reduce reliance on fossil fuels. Their impact has been to alter water supplies, destroy fish populations, and displace communities.

“Sometimes,” Mrs Ratinac said, “the best thing to do is nothing at all.”

As the founder of a charity that aims to make life better for people living in hardship, this is a lesson that I find both difficult and very important to remember.

When should we intervene? When should we not? Whatever we choose, there are consequences.

Here in Hanoi, there are informal groups around the city who get together to dance. They meet in public spaces like parks and community buildings.

Some years ago, I learned that a few of the Blue Dragon kids were dancing in the evenings outside a government building that has a long, uninterrupted covered space.

I went to see this for myself. Our kids were part of a teenage hiphop dance club. A few meters further along, there were elderly people practising ballroom dancing. Just past them were some girls dancing to K-Pop.

Each group had their own music playing and had set up in such a way to respect the space of everyone else. In a country such as Vietnam, where public spaces (like roads and footpaths) often seem totally chaotic, I marveled at the self-organizing nature of this.

The Blue Dragon kids love their hip hop.

There was nobody in charge and no lists of rules. Each group just set up spontaneously and got on with their dancing. And it all worked in total harmony.

Then my NGO-brain kicked into gear.

These kids who were hip-hop dancing: Blue Dragon could support them. We could easily get them a supply of snacks and drinks for while they’re practising. Maybe even help them get a better speaker for their music. And do any of them need to buy proper dance shoes?

But then Mrs Ratinac’s lesson came back to me.

These kids were fully independent and self-organizing. They not only didn’t need help; they were a model for others of what teens are capable of on their own.

Were I to get involved, I’d be taking away from what they were achieving. I’d be creating a dependency when none was needed.

There’s a time and place to help; knowing when, and when not, to get involved requires wisdom.

So I did nothing. Just watched. And marveled at the creativity of these amazing kids.

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