Colonialism with a veneer of good karma

A boy in East Timor watches U.S. Navy Seabees paint a local school. This seems like an act of generosity by the U.S. military and in some circumstances, it would be. Not here.

Timorese people are perfectly capable of painting their own schools, but the boy is learning that his country needs foreigners to come do such things for them. The U.S. was paying these sailors anyway, so it costs American taxpayers nothing to have them do this work. But an unemployed Timor youth would see things differently.

But at least he’ll get an education, right? No. He’d probably learn more on the street than in this school. UNESCO has even stated that most children “are not learning worldwide.”(1) Under the rote, compulsory schooling that has resulted from U.N. policies, children passively memorize a few answers for the test. The life-crushing lesson they learn is to never question whoever runs the show.


We refer to the aid industry as karma colonialism. “Yes, it’s still colonialism” explains the colonialism part of that name. Here’s why we’ve added the term karma.(2)

The aid industry thrives by making donors feel good. Happy donors don’t look too hard to see the real impact of their money. And it’s easy to make donors feel good, as long as that’s your #1 goal. The industry provides good feelings and good publicity for other people and institutions as well.

☺ Consumers can feel good about consuming more. If you buy a pair of Toms shoes, the company will donate a pair to “a child in need.” (Or maybe not so much in need; see Toms Shoes.)

☺ Those who benefit from being born in a wealthier country can write a check, say “I’ve done something to help the poor,” and then not think about it for another month, or another year.

☺ Billionaires, including those whose made their money by creating goods and services that are addictive and harmful, or through dubious or outright illegal methods, can call themselves philanthropists, deflecting criticism today and creating a more appealing legacy for tomorrow.

☺ Charities hold fundraisers for newsworthy causes. You pay, everybody has fun, and it’s all “for a good cause.” Few participants look closely at what happened to the money; they wanted a good time with good feelings, and they got it. Rarely is it even possible to know what happened to the money. By claiming that the fun event has educational value and so the associated costs are not part of overhead, the charity can claim low overhead expenses, even while sending little to the supposed beneficiaries.

☺ Governments give — or at least promise to give — a certain amount in foreign aid. That establishes the nation as a good world citizen. If most of the “aid” benefits corporations, campaign donors, and voters in the donor country, that’s merely a footnote, if it’s reported at all.

☺ It provides feel-good vacations. After the Washington Post reported that a church in Mexico was painted and repainted six times in a summer by waves of volunteers, New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof suggested that this wasn’t so bad, because “whatever the impact on others, volunteering may at least help the volunteer” to develop empathy.(3)

We should be asking more questions. What’s the real impact of giving away shoes? Are wealthy American kids really entitled to free empathy training from church pastors in Mexico?

One thing inhibits such questions: All these actions take place under the guise of “We’re helping the needy.” Maybe all that free stuff is hurting the local economy, but what if lack of shoes really is the only thing that keeps a child from attending school? Shouldn’t we try to do something, even if we’re not sure about the details of how it all works?

No, not if we’re making the overall situation worse. We can look away from a lot of things that we ought to see, as long as we’ve got good karma on our side. We can even look away from colonialism. But instead, let’s look more closely.

Notes and Sources

1. For evidence of increasingly bad schools, please see Schools are getting worse.

2. In its original meaning, karma is used in Hinduism, Buddhism, and other religions of East and South Asia to describe the entirety of one’s actions, good and bad, and their effect on one’s present and future lives. It is also used to refer more broadly to the aura of good or bad that surrounds a person, place, or organization. We use it in this broader sense. Karma Colonialism results when individuals, organizations, governments, and businesses focus on feeling good and looking good, while ignoring their full impact on those affected.

3. Kristof was referring to the Washington Post story “Churches Retool Mission Trips,” by Jacqueline L. Salmon, which gave several examples of — well, of what we’d call karma colonialism: “a wall built on the children’s soccer field at an orphanage in Brazil that had to be torn down after the visitors left” and, in Ecuador, “a church was built but never used because the community said it was not needed.”

Top photo: Timor child watches U.S. Navy Seabees at work, by Cpl. Brittney Vella. Public domain image.

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