Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Bureaucratic Fools


The Red Cross may be a great organization, but red tape sucks. Yesterday, I got a call from my friend who happens to be another public school English teacher here in Seoul. He was distraught by the disaster in Japan and wondering what could be done besides donating money. To him, he wanted to do something more personal and tangible - he suggested giving some of his extra shoes, and he hinted at possibly going over there to help in the recovery effort. I think a part of all of us wants to do the same.

These are noble thoughts and wants. However, it seems that best best way for anyone not currently in Japan is to donate to the Red Cross, which seems to be about the only organization to help in large scale crises that doesn't later get investigated for fraud charges. Their volunteers and workers know what they are doing and it's much more effective to have people channel their money into such organizations as opposed to being another mouth to house and feed while we are there. In this case it seems to come down to just math.

So, what to do here in Korea? Well, there are Red Cross donation places being set-up in places across Seoul, but there's always more that can be done. Collectively, some native teachers and I came-up with the idea of asking our students and staff for donations. Specifically, I thought it would be a good idea to have students donate money in the form of coins - nothing over 1000 won ($1). As Stuart MacLean says, "we would rather have this be the comings-together of the many, as opposed to the comings-together of the few." A thermometer-style chart would have been set-up outside of the class and we could have had the money deposited into a KB Star bank counting machine across the street on a weekly basis - the money being stored in a jar in the principal's office if need-be. The thought was that kids can't donate substantial amounts through the regular channels, but they could feel a part of the relief effort if they were provided with an opportunity to do so in a small way that becomes large when measured in the collective.

Well, the answer from on high today was "no". This was from way up on high, so I'm not really blaming anyone except for the system. I'm also not criticizing the system and suggesting that this one here on Korea has any less red tape than attempting something similar in a Canadian school would have. But it also doesn't suck any less.

Basically, I was told that it's not looked upon well by parents to have the school seemingly "pushing" for donations from the students - even if those donations add-up to less than a dollar from each. Honestly though, I just don't get it. I do get that it is sometimes annoying to open the door at dinner time and see a dude with a clipboard collecting for something, but when your teachers are asking for a small amount to help those who have lost everything, well, I wouldn't begrudge those who don't donate for whatever reason, but I would begrudge the system that says it's not worth offending someone by encouraging them to donate what amounts to a couple of pieces of candy or less than a small order of fries at Lotteria.

I have been told that I am allowed to encourage students to call the Red Cross to donate, but I couldn't actually take any money from them at all. The Red Cross would have likely had a donation between $800 and $1000 from our middle school - no one student from my school being out anything more than perhaps an afternoon's sugar rush - but instead we have awkward conversations between administration and co-workers where people simply say "It's too bad. Your idea is great, but that is the the rule" and to which I respond: "Yeah, it IS too bad because people have lost everything and are dying and this would have a been a simple way for people to help and feel that they are doing something."

If it's really too bad, then perhaps the higher-ups in the district or the central offices would just turn the other way and let us raise some effing pennies. As with most things, I look back and think that I should have simply raised the money first - do the right thing until you're told that you're not allowed to.

I wonder what the response would be from the public school administration here in Seoul had the North attacked months ago, hundreds of thousands losing their homes and loved ones. Meanwhile, in Japan, life goes on as normal while those in power quibble about wether or not to let Japanese school children donate their coins to the cause of helping with the Korean recovery effort. Would we be thinking, "It's too bad. Your idea is great, but that is the the rule"?

Like my friend who phoned on Monday said, "It's weird, people are walking around the school as though nothing's happened."

For those who are able to donate more than pennies, you've probably already clicked this link.

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