Considering the implications of pathological altruism in social work, this article is based on the assumption that some people may, sometimes, act ‘social’ as a way of living vicariously through their developmental beneficiaries. If true, this has negative personal and professional consequences. The author alerts us to our practices and provokes development professionals to introspect about the subtle psychological dynamics of their work
I n the second episode of a popular Indian show ‘Panchayat’(on Amazon Prime), Abhishek, the panchayat secretary, wants a solar light right outside his office. Abhishek lives in the office and is unhappy with the irregular supply of electricity in the village. Actually, he wants a solar light so that he can prepare for his MBA and move out of his current job as soon as possible. In the meeting on the allocation of solar lights, Abhishek, unlike others, fails to make the ‘selfish’ claim. It is decided that the last solar panel will be placed in front of a tree, believed to be haunted by a ghost that followed the villagers in the dark. Abhishek immediately repents this. The rest of the episode is about how he ends up dispelling the myth about the haunted tree, and gets his own house lit up. In this short episode lies one of the most counter-intuitive insights for development professionals—sometimes, the most effective social transformation is a result of pursuing one’s own self-interest.
After a few years in the sector, I can say that Abhishek is not an anomaly to the development scene. Abhishek represents many young social work professionals who are there accidentally. However, not all these young people in the social sector are as clear as Abhishek. Abhishek is at least clear that his job in rural development is just a ‘transit space’ for his other bigger aspirations. Development work, especially in rural spaces, can also be a good ‘hiding place’ for some. It’s a way to turn our back to the demands of urban employment. Also, owing to the urban-rural dynamics, young people from the city may be afforded respect in rural spaces, at least to their faces. Behind their back, villagers are often able to see their failures and may even pity them. This portrait of young people in social work is not intended to describe everyone. Different people take to social work for different reasons; for many young people, however, ‘social work’ may not be their first love. Social work, in such cases, is more like a friendship that time translates into marriage, more from habit or familiarity than out of romance.
My own reason for entering this domain is quite the opposite of Abhishek's. I was very passionate about rural transformation. I approached my engagement with villagers with a degree of religiosity, as though this work would somehow transform me. In leaving Delhi and going to a remote village, I believed that I had made a very radical choice. In college, we would often criticize how taking up jobs in mainstream spaces meant being co-opted into the system of socio-economic oppression. Thus, even in that remote village, I held onto my attitude of being entitled and arrogant. I thought that I had given up on so many things to be there. However, this was the honeymoon phase of my social work and, in that phase, nothing put me off as much as someone treating social work as ‘just another job’. Mr. X in my office did exactly this.
Mr. X was the opposite of all that I thought a social worker should be. Mr. X was older than I, married, and regarded development projects as a 10-to-5 job. He entered the sector on completing his MBA, and this was not his first choice of profession. Mr. X had no grand philosophy governing his choice and no explicit expression of his sensitivity. Unlike others, he did not down-play his authority when he could exert it. He worked on his modules, conducted his training programmes and maintained a professional distance between himself and the villagers. He was also openly critical and explicit about certain attitudes of the villagers. When interacting with government officials, unlike others, he gracefully submitted to their authority, ensuring the most effective collaboration with them. He loved his holidays and wanted to return to his family every day as early as possible. He would also often rework the office interior and allocate some resources to enhance his own comfort. Clearly, I didn’t like him. Some of the other teammates could be seen working at odd hours, being more personal and friendlier with the villagers and also explicitly stating their novel views on rural transformation.
Abhishek (the film protagonist), on the other hand, wanted to leave his job. Abhishek could not care less about the development of the villagers. Even though he tried to be polite, many times he ended up throwing tantrums. To think of it, he is neither very heroic nor likable. Yet, why does the audience identify seamlessly with Abhishek? This is because Abhishek instead of depicting ‘likeability’ manages to portray a level of authenticity. This makes him relatable.
And yet, Mr. X was the best performer in the office. His targets were always met and his field sites showed the best impact. Other teammates had several theories to downplay his success albeit respecting his skills. Despite the emotional distance he maintained, the villagers respected him for his well-designed contributions and implementation. The folklore of social work is filled with stories, in which people have gone way beyond their comfort zones to produce social change. Contrary to such stories, the success of Mr. X seemed to be based on very unelevated principles—safeguarding one’s interest and doing as much as one comfortably can.
If embracing self-interest can help development professionals (as Mr. X demonstrates), can a certain way of ‘caring for others’ actually cause trouble? Yes! It cannot just be self-sabotaging, but can cause social harm. As part of the development sector, whose essence is to work for others, we should consider the insidiousness of what is defined as ‘pathological altruism’. Not all forms of altruism are considered pathological. Taken to the extreme, pathological altruism is represented by a suicide bomber, a sacrifice of the highest order done under the impression of a larger social good. More subtle forms of this behavior are often expressed as juvenile instincts to defy social norms, calls for revolution, depression, childhood trauma, guilt and self-righteousness. Those involved in social work know, if done with rigour, our work is not just physically taxing but can also cause a lot psychological stress. However, it is a discomforting suggestion to consider ‘social work’ as a response to an internal pathological condition, especially if you are a passionate member of our community. In practice, however, all professionals, at some time or the other, may fall victim to it. The biggest charm of doing things for others is a heightened sense of agency and a feeling of transcending the narrow desires of the self. For some time, it can actually help people with pathological altruism feel better; however, like all forms of self-deception, this feeling eventually wears off. Anna Freud first theorized this concept and called it ‘altruistic surrender’, which basically describes people, who are unable to experience pleasure from their own instinctual desire and who achieve satisfaction by helping others achieve the same desire; they love to live life vicariously. Why would someone live through others? Anna Freud describes altruistic surrender as primarily a defense mechanism, a way to avoid any real risk and anxiety of failure, which comes with pursuing your own goals.
As development professionals, our projects are designed for others for several reasons, including ‘earn more money’, ‘become gender sensitive’, ‘democratic citizens’, ‘more educated’, ‘entrepreneurial’, ‘creative’, ‘healthy’, ‘culturally attuned’, ‘spiritual' and ‘tech- savvy’. The crucial thing in our work is that we are not just responding to well-articulated needs of the community. Rather, a good part of our work is in interpreting and in some ways even designing community needs.
One big way in which pathological altruism enters our work is through this act of interpretation, by which we may project our own vision on the community. As an example, I want to share my very first project on education. The project, named ‘Education in a Santhal Framework’ wanted to reimagine the education of Santhali children. In a short span of two years and without any team, the project had three broad goals: (i) Create an educational pedagogy that is based on their mother tongue (ii) Create learning activities that is inclusive of indigenous knowledge systems and (iii) Connect school education to more contextual community practices such as agriculture or craft. As a solution, the project conceived of a ‘community learning centre’, to be anchored by the youth, who would both design and implement the activities. For the first aspect of the educational problem, we designed multilingual tools for language education. For contextual learning, we tried to set up kitchen gardens in schools. For incorporating indigenous knowledge systems, we tried to develop arts and media-based activities to engage with local knowledge. After two years and spending approximately Rs 10 lakhs (including my salary), we were nowhere near having made a single impact that could have been measured and put to use or scaled. Not that nothing came out of it; however, much of it was ephemeral, not substantial, not leading to sustainable and concrete changes. The project had a string of interest activities that added to nothing much. One of our activities, Music as Healing, had an indigenous musician from Africa jam with indigenous folk artistes in the middle of a forest in Chakai. In itself, the event was fun for all of us. Yet, nothing followed this event that could really integrate elements of indigenous music into the learning space.
At a generic level, the problem that I took up was radical. However, it was approached with a degree of naiveté. On the face of it, it looked as if the project was attempting to do so much; however, it was born out of an imbalanced perspective and unchecked internal tensions taking a social form. This was a pilot project with comparatively low investment. Imagine people in positions of leadership, advocacy and even with political power operating in a similar way! Those who dream through others, often dream big and romantic because there is less at stake for them. Consider a social worker obsessed with organic farming. No matter how good organic farming may be, it is not very tenable for the small landholders operating in a subsistence economy. Consider a social worker obsessed with entrepreneurship. Even though we understand the ordeal of people, who migrate for cheap labour, there will only be a handful of entrepreneurs in society. And even supporting those handful of entrepreneurs cannot be based on ‘trainings’ given by people, who have always worked as salaried employees. Consider a social worker, who thinks the community needs to revive old ways. As much as there is an inherent sadness to cultural knowledge systems withering away, its revival without actually creating a whole ecosystem around it, doesn’t do much. I am not trying to say that radical changes (organic farming, entrepreneurship, cultural revival, climate change, alternative education) should not be attempted; just that these changes are complex. Ambition without capacity is a recipe for personal anxiety and social disaster. Yet, our pathological altruism can falsely motivate us to start projects and ground activities that lack any coherence around objectives, methods and impact. This not just results in wasting enormous amounts of money but also frustrates community members. Nothing can be a greater misdeed than wasting the time of community people, who are already deprived. Eventually, there is a lot frustration when the community fails to fulfill the burden of the dreams placed on them. Altruistic developmental work generates an entangled parental relationship with the villager, through whom one may vicariously want to create and live in a utopia.
Even though, as development professionals, our desire is to ensure the development of others, we must put our own development back into the centre. If young social workers want to coach and monitor others without playing the game and facing the heat, things will not go far. If we become aware of our own individual aspirations and desire, we may start using developmental projects to our own benefit. This is exactly what we want our beneficiary to do, to make full use of the projects for their own development.
As against the imaginary adventures of pathological altruism, a regular well-thought-out development project feels like work. It requires accountability and attention to detail. The nature of these projects may seem less woke and some may define them to be narrowly focused on just economic incrementation. Some of these projects, however, have layers of value to them. Based on my experience, a good example of such a work are small and simple changes in livestock management in the villages. Its simplicity lies in the fact that it works within an existing system of livestock economy, overcoming its pitfalls and opening new avenues. Mr. X would often be seen aligned with such projects. And thus, on hindsight, Mr. X has all my respect. Knowing his limits, Mr. X never over-committed. Rather than trying so hard to be good and revolutionary, Mr. X preferred to be real and truthful. Sure Mr. X has his biases and shortcomings, but his attitude ensured that he created the least social harm. Even though social work was not his first choice, Mr. X stayed on and eventually excelled at his work.
Abhishek (the film protagonist), on the other hand, wanted to leave his job. Abhishek could not care less about the development of the villagers. Even though he tried to be polite, many times he ended up throwing tantrums. To think of it, he is neither very heroic nor likable. Yet, why does the audience identify seamlessly with Abhishek? This is because Abhishek instead of depicting ‘likeability’ manages to portray a level of authenticity. This makes him relatable. Thus, as an antidote to pathological altruism, I would like to end with an emphasis on authenticity.
One of the biggest challenges in being authentic is the confusion caused by an active internal battle between who we are and who we want to be. Although there is plenty of literature on what authenticity is, simply put, it is the intimacy with one’s own desires. When we desire, we are vulnerable. I think my own efforts at authenticity has dramatically changed my relationship with the community members. As a big shift, I moved out of that place and simultaneously pursued other things that I like. I know better, why I am doing what I am doing. It opened up a broader range of my personality to the people I work with and they could do the same. And I must add that I haven’t given up on my aspiration of imagining and creating culturally responsive learning spaces. In fact, I am much more deeply and passionately into it. The community youth that I work with are more aligned with what we are trying to do. We could negotiate better on where we converge and yet acknowledge the different paths we all are on. What I have definitely given up is on simplistic meta solutions to complex local problems, reductive conceptions of ‘culture’, being blind to pragmatics of youth aspirations and banal notions like ‘indigenous people love nature'.
Even though, as development professionals, our desire is to ensure the development of others, we must put our own development back into the centre. If young social workers want to coach and monitor others without playing the game and facing the heat, things will not go far. If we become aware of our own individual aspirations and desire, we may start using developmental projects to our own benefit. This is exactly what we want our beneficiary to do, to make full use of the projects for their own development. Ideally, all development work and projects should be located at a point of resonance, in which my own aspirations align with the aspirations of those I am working with. To create real impact, social work needs business-like precision and care rather than being an aesthetic expression of noble intentions. Conversely, if for-profits keep developing a more intense social welfare dimension to their objectives, the balance will be restored.