Theirishscouter found himself a mere 15km from the Lebanese/Syrian border for a few days last week on business. High in the hills above Beirut, the scenery was breath taking, the weather was cool and the atmosphere was most agreeable. The architect designed house had porcelain mugs and nespresso on tap. The sleepy local village sported a ‘Scouts de Liban’ poster for some sort of forthcoming community event. Superannuated Renault 12’s and Series 3 Land Rovers jostled with bonneted trucks, designed in the 1930’s for a space on the pot-holed road.
Down on the coast in Beirut, the French colonial buildings lovingly restored after the ruinous 1975-1990 civil war rubbed shoulders with towering commercial edifices of glass, steel and concrete. Churches and mosques often sitting side by side, regarded the seemingly endless procession of pristine Range Rovers, Mercedes and BMW’s on smooth asphalt amid the urban cedar trees.
It was hard therefore to comprehend that, just a short drive away – roughly the distance from Dublin City Centre to Naas – lay the border with Syria. A country torn apart by civil war. Hundreds of thousands of civilians uprooted from their homes, families separated, many thousands killed – including too many children to count.
At the Beirut Souk, a shopping mall with strong echoes of the Dundrum Town Centre, people in shades and fashionable attire browsed in clothing stores. A high-end supermarket offered magnums of Krug and tins of caviar. A trendy bookstore provided a more scholarly refuge from the tidal wave of luxury goods. Residents and visitors alike enjoyed lunch on large white plates, contemplated confectionary to go with their coffee or sat smoking and people watching in the warm afternoon sun.
The proximity of the human catastrophe on the other side of the mountains seemed almost impossible. The city felt European, cosmopolitan, civilized. Indeed, it is to a lesser or greater extent all of those things.
Not quite so close, but just a short boat ride or an even shorter flight away, the borders of the EU, our own home, sat on the other side of the Mediterranean in the form of Cyprus to the East, Greece to the North and Italy to the West.
It could reasonably be argued that, in the context of so much misery and so much suffering in the world today, we humans need to become slightly immune to it, if we are to function at all. It could be argued we do that sort of thing rather well in the EU.
Equally, with so much genuine need in the world and so many worthy causes, one can easily feel overwhelmed at where to start when seeking to offer help.
In Ireland, people have (not unreasonably) become a little cynical of the charity industry – a vast empire of hard luck stories, proliferated by a well-paid army of articulate administrators who sometimes come across as being in the business of charity for their own ends, as opposed to for the benefit of others as their PR professes.
In the UK, some of the leading charities have come in for criticism from government watchdogs for heavy-handed tactics, profiling elderly, sick or weak members of society and shamelessly mining them for cash.
It is important, in the midst of this greed and the cynicism that it creates, not to loose sight of the tragedies behind the spin and the slick annual reports.
Scouting has a long and honourable tradition of helping others. From the stereotypical Boy Scout, helping the old lady across the street, to the work of some of our own scout groups and members within who have travelled across the world to build schools and shelters for people suffering from poverty and depravation.
Perhaps the question needs to be posed however, does Scouting in Ireland do enough for those less fortunate than ourselves? Should it merely be the preserve of a small elite club of scout groups who have the resources, the skills, the motivation to get up and out to far flung destinations to make a lasting difference to less fortunate fellow humans?
Should every scout group be encouraged to undertake a significant community service project each year, as part of the group development plan?
Can scout groups credibly pack bags in the local supermarket to raise funds for summer camp, when the outcome is merely a ‘holiday’ for the members?
Whether building schools in India, or houses in South Africa at one end of the scale – or working with senior citizens or disadvantaged children in the local community at the other, is there an opportunity for Scouting to put more back into society and in doing so, seek to wrestle our youth members (and adult members for that matter) away from their consoles and credit cards for just a little while longer each year?
It is of course entirely reasonable to highlight that Scouting is in itself a good work and does in itself contribute immeasurably to the community. Surely that is enough?
It’s a valid point.
However as an entity that is (in Ireland at least) populated overwhelmingly by reasonably privileged, mostly middle class people, does our responsibility to our young members extend beyond simply delivering them an exhilarating and engaging programme?
Should we also seek to highlight in a wider sense, the privilege of citizenship in a stable and open democracy and in doing so also inspire them to reach out in a meaningful way to young people, just like them who, through a mere accident of birth, have found themselves on the wrong side of that mountain?