Category Archives: aid

Aid: love it or leave it?

Aid - love it or leave it? (Photo taken from - use of photo is not an endorsement of the band/message/song)

Last week, Tom Paulson guest posted for Stuff Expat Aid Workers Like (SEAWL). He didn’t realize he was guest posting, because he wrote the post for Humanosphere, but his post could easily be re-written as SEAWL “#75: Self-Loathing”.

In his post, Paulson identifies ‘A serious problem of self-loathing within the aid and development community’ along with ‘pathological self-deprecation’ and a tendency towards ‘nose-cutting and face-spiting’ (not necessarily in that order).

He uses 2 posts to illustrate his point.

1) Aid Cannot and Will Not Fix Anything by Tales from the Hood, and

2) It’s a Better Life Without Oxfam: the video, which Duncan Green (Oxfam GB’s head of research) blogged about and View from the Cave re-blogged.

Paulson writes that ‘Given the level of ignorance and even hostility that exists in this country toward spending much on foreign aid and development, I think the main challenge for this [the aid] community is make the case for the value of aid and international development. Saying “aid cannot and will not fix anything” is a dangerous soundbite in this political and cultural environment, I think.’

I kind of see his point, and I like Paulson’s writing in general, but this question reminds me a bit of the old “USA Love It or Leave It” mantra.

Most anyone who works in the aid sector knows that aid has serious problems. Some say it’s irreparably broken and move on to a different career or start their own initiative that they think will get beyond the problems of ‘aid’. The general public knows that there are problems in the aid sector as well. It’s a bit hard to hide. And anyway, part of the problem with aid is that for years, its marketers and promoters have been promising something that aid can’t deliver and creating a skewed vision of the world.

I suspect that those who stick around in the aid sector 1) believe aid does some good and that it can be fixed (see many of Owen Barder’s posts), 2) labor on seeing the small bits of good that they or their team or their project or program can accomplish within a system they know is broken (see Spitting into the Wind), 3) are motivated by their paycheck (see Hardship Living) or other perks (like feeling hardcore) or 4) some combination of the above.

Aid is no different from any other large system or industry. It shouldn’t be held as sacred and beyond critique, including by those who know it well and can identify the fine points and details of what is wrong, and perhaps especially by them.

Would Paulson say that we shouldn’t criticize our political or religious systems because it might put people off? Or that we are self-loathing if we talk about what ails those systems and needs to be fixed?


What’s hardcore?

As an expat aid worker (or journalist) you do a lot of talking and writing about how hardcore things are in the place where you are living, working or visiting.

You do this to get people out of their bubbles. You want them to know what is going on. To see what you are seeing and experiencing. To care. To react.

You feel the need to wake people up. To say to them: ‘You have no idea how hardcore it is here. You have no idea what people are going through!’

But sometimes you lose the plot and your narcissism kicks in. You totally change the nature of the story to: ‘You have no idea how hardcore I am because I’m living, working or visiting this place where people are going through terrible things.’

It becomes a contest of who’s the most hardcore.

Because that’s what this is all about anyway, right? You being hardcore?


July 10, 2011 update: This post was sparked by the 2 links below and related discussions on blogs and Twitter but I was unsure about saying so at the time.–researchers-respond-to-haiti-ptsd-article/

Then this morning I read this piece:

And right after that, I read this (including the first comments):

which refers to live-tweeting the visit of a rape victim to the doctor (something that really made me angry at the time):

And so yes, this post was dedicated to Mac, in case it wasn’t clear before. 

Dear Development…

(wherein @giantpandinha ends her relationship with Development and posts her open letter here….)

Dear “Development,”

By the time you read this letter I will be gone. We have been together a total of five years, with a long separation in the middle when I nearly eloped with social anthropology…. In our first stormy year, I was the “local hire” expat on a bicycle. The other four, I have been based at headquarters, where the biggest crises seem to revolve around lack of milk for tea.

I studied you, Development, at university, never really imagining myself working for an INGO. I was always more interested in culture, history, the lived experience of people coming out of colonialism than in “you,” the economic development part. Okay, so I was interested in human rights, but that was an indulgence – I always perceived that the rights obsession has its own perverse consequences in certain contexts.

I have been lucky in the two jobs I had – both allowed me to dodge the massive compliance edifices being constructed around me. These jobs allowed me to make other friends, they were not the jealous types.

In my last job, at an organization majority funded by individual supporters, people gave to us for who we were. Something I thought could free our hands to focus on the causes of poverty and to avoid what I have seen in many agencies. You know, the ones more dependent on government monies hence spend so much time bean-counting and measuring that they are unable to work with the people closest to the reality on the ground… the ones that treat development like a massive Rube Goldberg machine, where you put some inputs in, a series of technical and scientific interventions are applied… et voilà. People are pulled out of poverty, and “sustainably,” at that.

Thanks to Andrew Nastios, I learned that this approach is actually more Ford and McNamara than Rube Goldberg. That the reason “development” feels so bankrupt to me is that all of its tools, its systems, its approaches emanate from the managerial thinking that gave the world the car culture, and that made the Pentagon so powerful.

In my latest post, I worked in an environment of total cognitive dissonance. Where the language was of solidarity, of partnership, but in our day-to-day we tangled with massive compliance systems. Forcing them on social movements and NGOs in the Americas, Africa and Asia. All of these systems totally overdone, considering the level of trust our supporters had in our work. Obviously we needed strategy and to know partners were doing good work – but systems balloon and mushroom out of control. Even those creating them recognized their Frankenstein(s).

I was one of the only people given the slack to actually get to know our partners without jamming their words into required tools and reporting forms. I often wondered why people did not express greater envy about my job – the fact they did not was worrying in and of itself.

Against this backdrop, I was involved in trying to create a responsive, light monitoring and evaluation system that would “protect” the work we did on the crucial stuff that Duflo and co. cannot “randomize” – campaigning, policy influencing and social change. A worthy thing, and I feel almost like I am betraying those I have worked with on this by quitting now.

But our leadership does not really get what is at stake. Even in my relatively enlightened corner of the aid business, people are busy just simply being busy. Defending their little corner. Stuck building systems that are not for people but for abstracted automatons.

Our leaders are not serious about scanning the horizon, about admitting that the public is right to scrutinize aid. I hear none of the kind of serious soul-searching that the moment requires.

We repeat transcendent values like dignity and justice as mantras yet we are blinded by bureaucracy and relentless self-interest. We keep running into the breach and doing the work that governments must do for their own citizens. As much as Dambisa Moyo annoys me, why can’t we set a date for when this should be over? What would it look like if INGO staff actually dedicated themselves to the sensible cliché of “putting themselves out of a job”?

People all over the world want to feel good, or even maybe just more ok. Even though most know humanity is screwed in the long run, people yearn to go where the energy is. Yet INGOs keep appealing to them with the same negative images, and collecting cold data for their institutional donor patrons. Individuals, and I would venture even taxpayers, do not need experts to spew evaluation data at them. They want to feel a stake in what is generative, what is life affirming. Statistics have a role, but their role is a backstop. People in the US and Europe want to support others in their struggles to make things better, and they want to see the connections between here and there.

In the end, the truth is that I feel very exhausted. And hurt. How is that possible? I am not hurt because of a failure of leadership per se, or a lack of vision in the sector. (I am more than aware of my  borderline pathological disdain for authority, which I done my best to keep in check.)

What hurts is being there. Taking this daily battering of double-speak, seeing my peers stripped of illusions slowly becoming jaded, mercenary aid worker hacks. Or seeing them simply jump ship to do the same thing elsewhere, like a change of scenery will make everything better. Or even worse, seeing them bury their heads in the sand.

Oh, Development, no amount of earnest critique, satire, or wounded camaraderie can save our relationship now.

So while I am disappointed in you – I tried so hard to make it work – I am not bitter. In spite of this hurt, I remember back through the last couple of years. You introduced me to amazing people. Some of these mutual friends we can keep. (That is if you do not make a voodoo doll of me after reading this letter.)

I am going to be starting some projects with like-minded friends, that are not about the same old patron-client relationship, repackaged in managerial logic and dragged out for post-colonial generation after generation. These projects are about trying to link people of good will, with energy that does not come from a knee-jerk guilt reaction.

If I fail, great, but I have failed as a human and not a cog in a lop-sided machine.

Gender and INGOs: pretty on paper….

Ben Ramalingam’s recent post ‘Gender bias as an emergent property in international agencies‘ discusses how the aid industry has fallen short in walking the talk on gender. Ben basically says that agencies love building other people’s capacity around gender. Yet as with so many things agencies and aid organizations like advising on, our own capacity is in a fairly sorry state.

Ben notes that micro-level and informal attitudes and dynamics add up to an overall institutional bias against women at international development agencies. I’d hazard to say that most women face a gender bias, whether working in their home countries or afar, whether at an agency headquarters or in a ‘developing country’ where gender awareness programs are implemented, whether ex-pat or local contract. Above and beyond the gender dynamic specifically in development agencies is an overall gender bias working against women in many (most?) societies. This goes beyond what an INGO can address, but one could argue that if development agencies were really committed to addressing gender bias, they would start ‘at home.’ How many agencies have actually looked closely at their own set-up and made serious improvements before embarking on a ‘gender’ program or campaign externally?

Next time you are out with female colleagues who trust you enough to say what they really think, just drop one of these topics on the table, and I guarantee that you’ll get an earful. If your agency has none of this going on, you deserve a medal.

Where there aren’t many women. 

The ratio of men to women changes by country and region, depending on how customary it is for women to work outside the home. In places where women don’t normally work outside the home, obviously you don’t find many women in management or otherwise. Those women that have been able to attain the education levels to qualify them for management positions are sometimes few and far between. When you do find women in management, you might notice a bit of “Margaret Thatcherism” going on, as they have to be tougher and harsher than any of their male counterparts or risk being seen as weak. When a woman is “imported” from the outside to manage mostly men, it can be difficult for her to earn their respect. She will often be undermined not only by men, but also by other women.

In some cases, as a female manager your sex is the first thing people see.  I’ve been introduced by one agency director as ‘the pretty face of the management team’ and by another one as ‘so and so with x number of children, married to xx,’ while my male colleagues were introduced using their titles and their university degrees. (Note: Both directors were European).

Getting into management.

It can be tough to get from non-management to middle management, and even tougher to get into upper management for women. When women do get management positions, you’ll often see them in ‘softer’ areas that have less perceived power in the organization and less decision-making power over budget or organizational priorities. So you’ll see women stuck in middle management or managing human resources or communications rather than women managing emergencies, programs or operations. These ‘lesser’ management positions do not look nearly as good on a CV and it’s very difficult to ever advance a career into the highest positions of power within organizations from one of these ‘softer’ management positions.

Men decide, women implement.

In those agencies where there are a lot of women (eg., in countries where it’s common for women to work outside the home), the agency dynamic often closely mimics the community dynamic that the agency is all up in arms about. The men are in charge, making the decisions, and women’s participation tends towards doing all the hands-on work to implement what the men have agreed on. Men manage and decide over use of resources. A small mostly male management team (hmm, kind of like the all-male community leaders) will make all the decisions while the army of female staff carries them out (hmmm, kind of like what goes on in communities we want to change).

I’ve heard men tell their female colleagues that they should not be given management positions because they are going to be pregnant and taking time off every couple of years, and how will the agency and the work move forward then?

Family friendly policies.

Some agency policies are family friendly or gender friendly in ‘the north’ but in ‘the south’ policies are often adapted to local law or there are different policies for ex-pats vs local staff. So while ex-pats might get special benefits based on their contracts, local employees do not get enough time off for breastfeeding (which of course, INGOs preach to community women, exclusively up to 6 months) or for paternity leave (and yes, INGOs also preach about how men should share the load of child care). Local staff don’t get financial support to cover their child care needs the way many ex-pats do.

Many women find ways to make this work, but not all women have sisters, aunts, mothers and grandmothers who can care for their children while they work. A high percentage of men (ex-pat and otherwise) have stay-at-home wives who enable them to work long hours and travel without worrying about the laundry when they get home or the well-being of the kids while away. Very few women, ex-pat or otherwise, have the luxury of stay-at-home husbands who take on the household and child care duties (or working husbands who share the load equally).

I’ve actually overheard people arguing that a male employee whose wife lost a child late-term should not be allowed to have bereavement time, because this was a health issue for the woman and the man would just be lazing around anyway. I’ve heard an HR manager argue that men should only get 1-2 days paternity leave, the time required to register a child. (I’m all for local cultural adaptation, but seriously?) I worked at an agency several years ago where the (female) HR manager instilled a policy requiring women to submit a pregnancy test as part of the hiring process. This is so obviously not legal.

Pulling your weight.

Even when an organization does offer paternity leave or maternity leave, there’s an unspoken pressure not to take the full-time allotted. For mothers it’s very difficult to stay long hours at work, and INGO’s with large workloads and limited staff who are always working to capacity tacitly encourage both men and women to work long hours and on weekends. Those who leave after an 8 hour day are often frowned upon as not really carrying their load or not being committed to the organization, thus they do not advance.

Equal pay for equal work. 

It’s common for an ‘assistant’ to be female and do most of the work for a male manager who takes most of the credit, or for a female colleague of the same management rank to take on a larger share of the work where the male takes on a larger share of the glory. Part of this is that men tend to talk more about what they are doing than women do. And pardon me for saying it, but men tend to be better at creating an illusion of productivity and success, while women tend to shy away from taking credit for success.

It would be fun to see an analysis in terms of equal pay for equal work, and a workload study with regard to what each person does, accomplishes, and their actual pay scale and the ranking of their position on that salary scale done in every single NGO that is promoting women’s campaigns. Gender equity should start at home.


In some countries, it is not safe for women to move around alone, especially at night, but instead of agencies finding a way to work around this, women are simply restricted or put themselves at risk because there is never enough transportation to go around for mid-level managers and below. In some places women are encouraged to learn to ride motorbikes, but the bikes are not always the right size for a woman to manage. In addition, male colleagues make fun of them and say they are acting like men, trying to be men, will fall off the bike, etc.

Bathrooms and kitchens!!

There is obviously a biological difference here, but bathrooms are not private nor clean in many INGO and agency offices unless women take charge of making them so. Most of the time women are left to keep communal kitchens tidy, wash coffee cups, etc. When complaints are made, rather than men offering to take on their share, suddenly budget for a maid will be found.

Drinking with the boys.

One of the best ways to get ahead in the INGO world is to get invited to a regional meeting and go out drinking late night with the ex-pat boys club who already hold the key management positions and the power. Women don’t tend to do this as often as men or may not be welcomed. And if you don’t get in with this group, you tend to get passed over, regardless of the quality of your work.

Double standards.  

Speaking of ‘drinking with the boys’, I’ve gone out to group dinners in some countries where only female colleagues showed up because our (married) male colleagues were all ‘staying back to work.’ We’d seen them sneaking out of the hotel, one by one. We knew that they were going out to visit ‘special friends.’ Sometimes the men just all leave a group dinner around 8 or 9 p.m. because they have other ‘commitments’ you might hear about marginally the next day, as people make sly comments to each other about the night before. Meanwhile these same men will preach a different story to communities about responsibility and faithfulness and gender equity and blah blah blah. If a woman were seen doing something similar, it would impact on her reputation enough to make her life miserable. (Obviously this double standard is not restricted to the workplace or INGOs).

High percentage of divorced or single women working in development agencies.

Women often comment on the high number of divorced or single women in INGO work. Now, this could be because we are all so totally modern and enlightened that we have chosen a career over a husband. But you know what? I can’t remember ever hearing a man saying he was choosing one or the other. I rather think that for many women, the workload, long hours and travel expected of them to keep a career in INGO work doesn’t fit in well with the traditional role of ‘keeping a husband feeling secure, happy and well-cared for’ and causes conflict in the relationship. Sometimes demands of a husband require women to cut short the time they can dedicate to their work, affecting their upward movement. Sure, wives also complain about their husbands working too much but if women don’t hold equal power in their relationships at home and their husbands don’t share the load, and they don’t make enough money to hire someone to take on their domestic chores, an explanation that dinner wasn’t ready because they were working is not going to cut it.  Eventually, they will probably have to choose either career advancement or keeping a happy home.

The ‘ghettoization’of gender.

As I said earlier, an agency that has overcome the issues above deserves a gold star! If agencies would look internally, discuss and address these things openly rather than writing up internal policies and program strategies on gender that are simply words on paper, it would be a huge step forward. Sympathetic male colleagues can have a huge impact on supporting women in the workforce. Most agencies have failed to involve men in gender work (both at agency level and at community level). It’s seen as a ‘woman’s issue’ and men don’t see what it has to do with them, so they ignore it or undermine it.

So INGOs normally have a (95% of the time female) gender advisor or coordinator or focal point who is tasked with single-handedly promoting gender equality throughout an entire region or organization. The isolation of the issue means it has little influence in the larger picture. As long as INGO’s pitch, both externally and internally, that gender equality is only about women, and as long as gender equality and gender equity are seen to only favorably impact on women, INGOs will continue to undermine their own efforts in promoting an inclusive and equitable working environment.

Pretty on paper.

When organizations promote gender equality in their policies and programs, but don’t tie this to mechanisms of accountability like budget, and don’t bring the issues out for open discussion by both men and women, they end up with pretty words on paper while the organization continues to sideline equity issues and promote a hypocritical, holier-than-thou agenda.

Thanks to Ben Ramalingam for bringing up this issue, and thanks to those who provided anonymous input on this post!


I made my first trip home to the Midwest after I’d lived out of the US for about 2 years. I wasn’t yet an ‘expat aid worker‘ but I had married a ‘local’. My husband and I lived minimally, surviving on his salary. Neither of us was on the front lines by any means, but the war in his country had only recently ended and things were still on edge, so we lived a bit on edge too.

This trip home was a classic example of so-called ‘reverse culture shock.’ Before my 2 years in my husband’s country, I’d been on the West Coast for almost 5 years. So being back in my mid-sized, middle class, Midwestern home town was a trip. People were big. They shopped in bulk. They ate large portions. They drove everywhere. They loved the mall, super-sized stores and fast food restaurants. The women had big hair, summer tans and gold jewelry. The fruit at the supermarket was big and fake looking. When you got it home, it was flavorless. Buildings were closed up, air-conditioned, sterile. The houses were sided or nicely painted, the lawns square and manicured. Streets were wide with multiple lanes. People drove shiny new cars and minivans. I felt a bit like I’d stepped into the Black Hole Sun video….

On the one hand, sleeping under a down comforter in a chilled, quiet room with venetian blinds drawn meant I didn’t wake up with the sunrise and the roosters, and that was nice. My feet didn’t get dusty when I walked around outside. There was a washing machine, a dryer and a dishwasher. There were no mosquitoes or roaches or any other bugs in the house. The streets weren’t jammed with buses and cars beeping, revving engines or blowing out clouds of black smoke. I could watch old episodes of my favorite childhood shows on Nickelodeon, and they weren’t even dubbed. My mom made my favorite meals. You could drink water from the faucet. There was an abundance of cheese, real butter, green salads, and the chocolate didn’t taste like flavored wax. I didn’t worry about being assaulted — or worse.

On the other hand, I felt like a stranger.

I remember my mother complaining about how my younger brother was wrecking the house and didn’t care. The house didn’t look wrecked to me at all. It looked just how it had always looked, and it was about a thousand times nicer than where I lived with my husband. “Come in here and look at this!” she said. “He put a hole in the carpet.”

We were having a conversation about a hole in the carpet?

I followed her into the room where the hole was. “It’s right here….” She scanned the floor for the hole. She couldn’t find it. She knelt down and ran her hand along the carpet, feeling for the hole. “Ah! Here it is. Look at this!” I looked at the small tear in the carpet and made what I hoped were appropriate comments. I felt closed and distant. I was angry at her for complaining. Did she have any idea that most people in the world didn’t even have carpet? And she was upset over a small hole?

I couldn’t relate my mom, or anyone else really. I didn’t know where to start when they asked what it was like where I lived. Most people had no idea where the country I lived in was located, what language was spoken there, or that there had been a war there that they were funding with their tax dollars. My grandmother wanted to know if we had toilet paper over there. It took too much effort to explain and contextualize. My self-righteousness ran high.

One of my best friends from college came out from the West Coast to see me for a few days. She at least knew her geography, wars, history and US foreign policy. But it took us awhile to find some common ground. I had my young child with me. I wasn’t as hip as I used to be. She talked about how she didn’t have her dream job yet, that it was hard for people our age to get going on a career. She talked about her aspirations to be something or someone special. I tried to find a way to relate, but it was hard. Where I lived most people didn’t have big career dreams and aspirations, they felt lucky to have some kind of income.

It was her first time in the Midwest and she was culturally shocked too. Things mostly just made her laugh in dismay. She found the Midwest ‘scary’ and Republican. We had often gone vintage clothing shopping in college, so we took a day trip away from my home town out to some smaller rural towns to check out the thrift stores. They normally sat on desolate Main Streets alongside little diners, variety stores, quirky craft boutiques and secondhand bookshops. She took black and white photos of the 1950s style storefronts, the old-fashioned signs for ice cream and hot dogs, and the church signboards with crooked or missing white letters that urged sinners to come in and be saved. We ate French fries and grilled cheeses and drank lemonade at one of the diners. A friendly old man in a baseball hat and overalls tipped his hat and held the door open for us, chatting us up in his slightly Southern accent.

After I got back home to my husband, my friend sent me some cassettes of her favorite bands, things she knew I’d like. She explained in the enclosed letter that one of the bands was fronted by Courtney Love, the wife of the lead singer from Nirvana. The band was called Hole.

I was excited to have some new music from an old friend. I popped Hole into the cassette player. Teenage WhoreBabydollGarbadge Man… It sounded harsh and ugly to me. My husband made faces. ‘Why are you listening to that?’ I pressed stop, annoyed at him, yet I couldn’t explain why I was listening to it. I wanted to defend myself, my college friend and Hole, but I had nothing to say.

For the next several weeks, when he was out of the house, I listened to Hole over and over, trying to learn to like it, trying to hang on to bits of my old self.

The forest, the trees, and the shoes (of course)

I was waaaaay up in the mountains of Honduras, in a remote rural community. My colleague was with me. It was her first time traveling outside of the US. We were visiting a housing project that a major donor had been supporting over the past several years. He wanted some pictures and a first hand report, since we were going to be in Honduras anyway.

It was the rainy season. We spent several hours on narrow, winding roads pitted with deep potholes. We got stuck in the mud once and the driver offered us his umbrella to stand under while he dug the car out. We drove through small rivers. Everything was green and red-brown. The houses were of clay and thatch. They blended in beautifully with the countryside. Unfortunately the insects that spread Chagas disease live in thatch, and breed in the walls and roofs of these types of homes. Chagas is a big problem in much of Honduras, and was one reason for the housing project we were going to see.

The community was quite happy to have us. Visitors from the outside were a rarity. They invited us around to see their homes, clearly there was a lot of pride going on. We gathered in a circle, some of us sitting on plastic chairs, under a big tree as the sun came out from behind the rolling clouds. The housing project committee explained how they had put in all the manual labor, they had organized for the material purchases, and they had worked with los señores ingenieros to agree on housing designs.

Mothers told us that now, because they had cement floors, they were sending their children to school. We were confused for a minute. What did a housing project have to do with children attending school? The mothers explained that they had been unable to keep anything (or anyone) clean before, because of the mud floors. But now they were able to keep school uniforms and shoes clean and ready for school, so they were not embarrassed to send their children off to school over in the next community.

Now that the housing project was complete, the community wanted to negotiate funding from the donor for a water project. They would be able to plant two times a year instead of once if they could tap into an irrigation system. They showed us the feasibility studies that they had managed to get done. They invited us inside the community president’s home to eat giant portions of turnips they had recently harvested, telling us how they could double production if the water system could be funded.

The community was animated. They were in a tough situation, but they were moving ahead. I felt really motivated.

As we drove away, I looked over at my colleague. She was in tears, upset by the poverty she’d seen. ‘Oh! Did you see the children?’ she said. ‘Some of them weren’t wearing any shoes!’

Talk about missing the forest for the trees.


This post is part of the Day Without Dignity Campaign, a counter-campaign to Tom’s Shoes Day without Shoes Campaign.

Instead of going barefoot for a day to ‘raise awareness’ (eg., to promote Tom’s and reinforce the idea that poor people are helpless victims), why not do some research and donate the amount you’d spend on a pair (or 2) of Tom’s shoes to a good organization that does something concrete to support people to achieve their own goals though their own dignified efforts?

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Finding meaning in Africa

I was on the way to Rwanda. My seat mate turned out to be an attractive, obviously wealthy woman, in her mid 50s. Before she even took her seat I knew she was going to be a talker. “Your first time to Africa?” she asked. No no, I’ve spent quite a bit of time there actually. “Oh, I’m going through a really ugly divorce,” she said, getting settled in and buckling her seatbelt, emphasizing “ugly” by widening her eyes. “I’m on a spiritual journey with a group of women. We’re going to see the gorillas and visit projects in Rwanda and Kenya for women victims of rape and violence. I know my life seems hard, but I’m really so lucky to be where I am. I am going to help women in Africa as part of my own healing process. I really need to find meaning and purpose in my life.” I inwardly rolled my eyes, thinking this woman was in no mental or emotional place to help anyone, let alone women who had been battered, raped or otherwise gotten a bad rap in life. I wondered why it was “Africa” that she needed in order to find “meaning and purpose.”

We talked the entire flight, and she kind of grew on me, despite the concerns I had about her reasons for going to “Africa.”

I saw a beautiful woman who had been in an abusive and destructive marriage, had a self-admitted and externally-obvious low self-esteem, a series of plastic surgeries and that kind of wealth- and power-based bad relationship with her children and ex-husband that I’d only seen in movies about rich people. I felt bad for the women that she was going to “help.” I imagined them feeling obliged to be kind to her as she got teary-eyed, bringing her own drama into it, feeling sorry for them, hugging them, “bonding with them,” taking pictures with them and telling them that despite their differences, they had something in common simply because they were women. She wasn’t a bad person, just perhaps misguided. I actually did hope that somehow her trip to “Africa” would help her heal the damage that had been done to her as a beautiful, rich woman from the West Coast of the US. I didn’t agree with her motives, but if she was going to be there anyway, I hoped at least she would come out of it stronger and healthier somehow.

As we parted ways upon arriving to Kigali, we realized that strangely enough, we were on the same flight back to the US, so we arranged to meet in the airport pre-flight for a bite or a beer. I found her at the airport with a group of wealthy, new-agey, middle-aged US women who were, like herself, seeking spiritual healing from Africa. They’d been to see the gorillas. They’d visited Kibera, a large slum in Nairobi. They’d gone through some kind of 5 or 7 or 12-step program to strengthen their womanhood and heal the spiritual and emotional vacuum inside them, to address the emptiness that often comes along with the life of plenty, privilege and pressure that only the wealthy understand.

She gushed about her trip to see the gorillas, and a long discussion ensued with the rest of the women about whether the guide was Hutu or Tutsi, and what that meant, and how they couldn’t help but think he must be Hutu, and they secretly didn’t trust him, though he was actually very intelligent. They talked about how the whole country of Rwanda needed healing. One of the tour operators explained a program that she was running to help women who had been raped “shake.” This “shaking,” she said, cures them of the emotional scars associated with the horrible experiences of having been raped, watching family members killed or otherwise experiencing the terror of living through a genocide. She said a similar program had been very successful in the DRC. I politely smiled and nodded at the appropriate times, feeling uncomfortable.

My airplane friend pulled out her iPhone and started flipping through pictures of gorillas and their adorable babies. Then her eyes welled up. “We went to Kibera” she said. “It’s a terrible place. Oh, these women. You have no idea what they go through. Look at this….” she said. “This girl was raped 7 times.” “This girl, she has HIV and her older sister is all she has left to take care of her.” “This woman started a home for raped girls, she was raped too, 12 times.” She quickly flipped through a series of pictures of girls and women that she had met and who had sad, sad stories that she repeated as if reciting facts from a text-book. I wondered if she saw them as human, or if they were just more photos to document her own experience of seeing the horrors found in “Africa.”

She talked about all her goals of helping these women. She was going to start a charity in Kibera for them and she wanted me to help, since I knew a lot about this kind of thing. I was at a loss for words. I didn’t even know where to start so I smiled and said we’d talk once we got home. We didn’t.

Maybe @kiwanja‘s right, and there should be a “finding Africa gave my life meaning tax.”

Things you don’t see

I arrived to a new time zone a little under a week ago and am staying in a nice enough rural place with a pretty sparse set-up. There are some flowers in the garden outside, and a clean, narrow bed with a thin mattress and faded blanket. The walls hold the requisite framed pictures of nature scenes and inspirational sayings in English. There’s a throw rug that smells like it’s seen better days. Although there’s no mirror on the wall, there’s a little hand-held one with a plastic orange handle on the small table in my room. There’s no television in the individual rooms, but you can hear one blaring most of the time from the common dining area. The power supply is steady during the day. I can smell high powered disinfectant and insect repellent when I come back from the community in the afternoons, after the room has been closed up all day. The slapping sound of the woman caretaker washing clothes starts early in the morning. We’re able to communicate fairly well, sometimes with a little help from my colleagues.

Naturally, in addition to alcohol, Internet (both of which I’ve been able to get easily enough since the guest house has local beer and my colleague hooked me up with a ‘mobile Internet key’) and chocolate (brought some with me), I’ve been dying for a hot shower. It’s not really cold here, but gets down to 55-60 degrees Fahrenheit at night, and early mornings are chilly, as is the water that’s been sitting in the pipes overnight. What’s a girl to do but tough it out and reduce the personal hygiene standards for a couple weeks?

I slept in a bit this morning. Maybe that’s what’s made me a little more alert to my surroundings…. I noticed this in my room.

And realized all I have to do to get a hot shower is make it do this.

Doh. Funny how your pre-conceived notions make you blind to what is right in front of you.

Oh, You People and Your Damn T-Shirt Donations

happy recipients! it must be good aid!

A couple days ago @aidhack alerted the “twittersphere” of the fact that World Vision USA was sending it’s habitual 100,000 misprinted NFL Superbowl Loser T-shirts to 4 countries where the organization works. This year it’s not Haiti that gets the loser t-shirts, it’s Armenia, Zambia, Nicaragua and Romania. (And seriously, with all that Superbowl cash, you’d think they could come up with a decent freaking design on those shirts, wouldn’t you? The ugliness of the shirts just makes this all that much worse).

Righteous indignation was felt. Eyes rolled. #facepalms and #headdesks and #heavysighs exploded.

Not another 1 million shirts!

Much drama and many tweets ensued, leading to several people commenting on World Vision’s website to criticize them for this vivid example of bad aid.

Amy from World Vision commented back,

I’m hopeful that I can answer some of the possible misunderstandings about our shirt distributions, especially as they compare (or more accurately, don’t compare) to the efforts of groups like 1 Million Shirts (particularly as it was first starting out). As many of you know, World Vision’s work has a comprehensive scope. We do long-term development in communities where we build relationships, often for up to 15 years. Our distributions of supplies, including, sometimes, new clothing and new shoes, are not standalone projects in isolation… [and so on and so on]

Everyone (possibly scarred from Jason Sadler’s “Hat-o-rade” video and thrilled at this more mature type of engagement) applauded Amy for engaging in the discussion and addressing the questions. But her response did not satisfy. The drama continued. @bill_westerly suggested that they burn 90,000 of the shirts and sell the remaining ones to hipsters in New York City who would get a kick out of having an ironic limited edition ‘loser’ t-shirt and purchase them at extreme prices and the money could be donated.

@saundra_s wrote a kick-ass post going into great detail on why World Vision will continue doing gift in kind programs till the cows come home…. GIK is like, a quarter of their total revenue, meaning it keeps their overhead waaayyyyy down. And the government provides incentives for corporations to make exactly this type of donation – win win for the INGO and the corporation.

Saundra collected several posts on her website, noting that although the #1millionshirts episode sparked some 60 blogposts, This example of a giant, old, influential organization that knows better doing classic bad aid only got about 6 posts. What’s up? She speculates, with much wisdom, that the reason there are so few backlashy posts aimed at World Vision is because people are scared to criticize them heavily due to their influence in the INGO sector. (Actually maybe bloggers were reducing their attention proportionally? 60 posts for 1,000,000 shirts, 6 posts for 100,000 shirts….jk). Here’s Saundra’s Radio Silence post and her list of posts related to the 100,000 shirts debacle.

One of those posts is by Ida Horner. It’s called World Vision USA and those 100,000 Tshirts. Ida mentions another World Vision project that sounds like a real winner:

“If you live here in the UK you may recall a programme in which 8 Millionaires were sent to SW Uganda to share their business skills with a village under the supervision of World Vision. The WV country representative took these millionaires to task over simply giving things to the community as opposed to working with them to come up with long term solutions!”

And that raises for me a clear thing here. I would bet you that the country director who took those 8 millionaires to task for their handouts was doing some #heavysighing, #facepalming and #headdesking when the fund-raising team informed him that those 8 millionaires would be arriving to his office on a big PR trip. And I would bet you that the program staff who have to manage the distribution of those 100,000 loser t-shirts are equally as annoyed with their marketing and fundraising teams for continuing to get that 100,000 loser t-shirts donation. (I certainly would be).

People forget that the gap between program and fundraising teams is huge and very contentious. I bet some people are secretly cracking up (over secretly consumed alcohol) at all the blogger heat World Vision USA’s marketing and PR teams are probably under for those 100,000 loser shirts. And secretly dreading the shaming they will face at the next INGO meeting with their program peers.

Check these posts if you don’t know what I’m talking about:

The Great Divide – (and continual tension between marketing/fundraising and program implementers)

This is for my Corporates. Lesson 7: A hand out is a hand out is a hand out (about, yes, you guessed it, it’s about hand outs)

This is for my Corporates. Lesson 6: Win-win or Forced Marriage (about those giant gifts that those corporate fundraisers get that the program people want nothing to do with)

The thing is, people will take most anything if it’s free, and they will always take free t-shirts. But it doesn’t mean that it’s the best way that money and effort should be spent. Or that it does much towards ending poverty.