Thirsty hippos vs poor Africans: altruism and empathy

In Kenya, extremely poor villages live near wild animal reserves. I helped Kathekani and surrounding villages plan a cooperative poultry production enterprise to supply meat to the resorts at the biggest reserve, the Tsavo National Park.

mzima-springs-hipposOn the weekends the cooperative president took me to visit the reserve to look at the elephants, zebras, giraffes and try to find a rhino.  We spent all of one day driving around the rhino reserve and encountered a dozen or so rangers, but none of the endangered black rhino.  I finallly called it quits so we could get out of the reserve before dark.

Another day we visited Mzima Springs which has a resident population of hippos.  After I enjoyed watching the hippos, the president told me of his belief that the water from the spring was being wasted on the animals and should be diverted to help his villages irrigate their crops.

Later in the trip he convinced me his family was in dire need of food and got me to give him money.  When I got back to Nairobi, I found out he is one of the richest men in his village.

Meadowcreek is a nonprofit organization and benefits from the same altruism which led me to help this cooperative and give money to a rich man.  Many researchers contend that we all have an innate need to help others.  They cite scads of supporting studies.

I’m not so sure that all societies instill altruism equally.  I visited Malawi in Central Africa to do an assessment for a rural development project.  There I found that all the hospitals were mostly staffed by nurses from Europe.   They trained dozens of Malawians as nurses every year.  The Malawians mostly left the country to take jobs in Europe and the US.

I still enjoy traveling to underdeveloped countries to help them improve themselves, but I think we might have taken altruism a little too far in the US and Europe.

In 1858, a German philosopher noted the need for a new term: empathy. An empathetic person is someone who can share another person’s feelings. If you tell an empathetic person that your heart is broken, she might touch her own heart and gaze at you sadly through moist eyes.

I wonder why it took so long for the term to be invented.  Maybe because people have to have a lot of free time and be raised in a basically all-Christian society for empathy to arise.

Some of us do help others in need out of genuine concern for the well-being of the other person.  If we feel the other’s pain or need, we will help the other, regardless of what we can gain from it.  This directly contradicts the standard model of evolution, but seems to work for a variety of charities.

When I left my small town for college I did have a little too much of this empathy/altruism.   I learned that some people will just take and take and take.  As long as you are willing to give.  So I try not to run myself ragged trying to help everyone I see anymore.

I think the nine parts Moses: one part Jesus approach works best. You may have heard of it.  It combines turn the other cheek and eye for an eye.  Say you are working to improve some situation. Everyone has something they can give, even those you are trying to help.  If they are willing to give to help a joint effort, I gladly give.  I even give willingly  now and then when they don’t give.  But if they consistently refuse to give, I do too.  If if they change heart, I start giving again immediately.    These simple rules have been shown time and time again to result in the highest levels productivity in cooperative and competitive situations.

I try not to let my overdeveloped empathy/altruism get out of control.  I wish everyone was altruistic, but I know some aren’t.  Some folks are great at making you feel sorry for them or their cause.  But they are in it for themselves.  They take advantage of your altruism for their own selfish goals.

The same occurs with some minority groups.  They take advantage of the altruism of the larger society by making us feel sorry or even guilty for them and their cause. Yet they aren’t interested in giving, but only taking.  Time to apply the nine parts Moses approach.

Doing that with other people is tough enough.  What’s really tough is applying it to natural ecosystems.  Hippos are seldom going to be altruistic toward humans. Should we be empathetic/altruistic toward them?  What about when their needs conflict with the needs and desires of people?

I wanted to tell the cooperative president that the Mzima spring water shouldn’t be diverted to crop fields while the hippos died of thirst.  I didn’t.  It’s pretty tough to be accused of putting animals above people.

But from a resilience perspective, humans can’t survive without a healthy ecosystem.  We need other species to increase our own resilience.  Do we really need the hippo, the rhino, the giraffe, the zebra?  Or should they all be sacrificed so people can have more productive fields or more and more children.

It’s a tough question when you are trying to help some really poor people in Africa survive in a parched land and the animal reserve has plenty of fresh water.  But I vote for the wild.

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