Back around the time that I got too busy to regularly stop, reflect, and write, I came across a thoughtful post on aid work in Haiti by Quinn Zimmerman called “The Aid Bitchslap.” I cross-posted it, and then, coincidentally, I stopped blogging due to time constraints. So Quinn’s post has been on my homepage for a very long time. I’m trying to find the time and energy to blog again, but in the meantime, Quinn emailed to let me know he’d written a follow-up to that first post. He’s put some space between himself and his Haiti experience, and it’s a good reflection. Here’s a taste. You can read the rest on Quinn’s blog.
Category Archives: INGO work
Every now and then, I read something that hits me smack in the stomach. This cross-post is one of those. Originally on Quinn Zimmerman’s blog “These New Boots”, the post came over with an email commenting on “that moment where you get the aid bitchslap… when you cross from idealism to realism… [a] strange and ugly and enlightening process.”
Day 326: Questions and (No) Answers by Quinn Zimmerman
(cross-posted with his permission)
“It’s going to take a while before I can even make sense of all of this.” I’m talking to Paddy as we make our way down a dark street in Leogane, dodging motos and trying to avoid the mud. “It won’t happen here. It won’t happen until I’ve left.” He nods. He feels the same. Our time in Haiti isn’t over yet, we’ve both got a few months left, but we’re feeling the end now, and we’re feeling what it took to get here. We’re tired, and confused, and frustrated. We’re excited. We’re proud. We’re trying not to pass quick judgements, and we realize how hard that is to do.
Project Leogane is nearly over. Tomorrow marks the final week. April 27th work ends. April 28th we have the farewell party. April 30th the lease on our house is up, and people make their way to whatever is next. In my case, making my way isn’t too tricky, as I’ll be moving in to the base of my friend Jason, along with Paddy and Billy, where we’ll work for the next two months finishing up our obligations to GOAL and the partnership we have with them. We’ll also be mentoring our handover partner, the Haitian-American organization FHED (Foundation for Humanitarian Education & Development), who will be continuing our biosand filter program once we leave. Billy stays until the end of May. Paddy leaves the end of June. Alejandro and Diana will stay until May 15th to support our transition. I will stay until the end of July. I wasn’t the first to arrive here with All Hands, but I’ll be the last to go.
I know Haiti isn’t yet done for me, but the nature of how I’ve lived and worked here since July 2010 has changed many times, and this perhaps marks the most distinct change. Project Leogane, and All Hands Volunteers, my organization and identity in Haiti, is nearly over. The skeleton crew staying is very much that. We’ll no longer be part of the group. We’ll be the entirety of it. I’ve no problems with that. If I’m honest, I’m excited to see how it will play out, but it does get me thinking. Of what, I’m not so sure, or more accurately, I’m not so sure I can yet explain it in any coherent way. Too many things. So many things. Only through a total disconnect will I have the distance and time needed to sift through all of this, and I’ll have that before too long, but I still feel the urge to try and write about it, to mark it down in some way, although all recent attempts at doing so result in deleted entries, rambling and uncertain sentences that frustrated me but accurately reflect where my head is at these days. I honestly don’t know what to make of this place and this experience.
I do know this. I’m ready to go. Haiti, while still powerful in her effect on me, is beginning to leave a sour taste in my mouth. Going out into the monotonous, seemingly unchanging landscape of Leogane, which some of us have now taken to jokingly referring to as “post-apocalyptic”, is something I try and avoid unless in a state of mind sufficient enough to match whatever absurdity is going to come at me. My patience is near gone. I still feel for people. The empathy is there, but it’s become something different than it was before.
“Fuck you!” The shouts come pretty regularly these days, sometimes from kids, sometimes from adults, always directed at us for no other reason than the fact we are foreigners, that we are blans. I don’t know the people shouting. Sometimes we shout back, other times we shake our heads at the stupidity, sometimes we laugh, other times we stop the car, get out, and watch the guilty children run away, or the guilty adults eye us up. A few days ago it’s a group of guys playing football in the middle of the street. “Fuck you!” We pull over, not because of the comment, but because we’re at the chicken stand we were headed toward to buy some food. My patience is worn thin. We get out of the car a few paces from where the guys are. “Masisi! Masisi!” They’re calling us faggots. Really? Really? I don’t even know you. Fuck this. I hammer back at them. “You think we’re faggots? Is that what you think? I think you’re a bunch of uneducated, ignorant idiots. Instead of playing football in the street and telling blans you don’t know to go fuck themselves, why don’t you go to school? You’re young men. You’re not kids. Do something with your lives.” I want to keep going. I want to tell them they are pathetic. I want to tell them that you shouldn’t tell someone to go fuck themselves one day then come groveling to them the next asking for a job or money or food or a house. I want to tell them they are the problem with this fucked up country. I want to, but I don’t, because I know, despite the anger, that while they are ignorant, and they do deserve to get called on their shit, they don’t deserve to be shamed for their condition. Most people just play the hand they’re dealt. Few opt to really try and change their hand, let alone the deck. That’s not Haitian. That’s human. Haiti just happens to deal a pretty shit hand to most. I’d be a fool to place the entirety of the blame on them. They’re not the cause. They’re part of the effect.
We get the chicken and drive away. One of the guys mimics punching us. I enjoy the five second fantasy of laying them all out in the street, although I know that will never come to pass. I’m not a fighter. We laugh it off, but not really. “This fucking place…” Every day. We allow ourselves some ignorance of our own, mocking the wannabe gangster culture the men in the street all had on display. “Oh you’re a gangster are you? You’re hardcore? You can’t even get food. So hardcore. So gangster.” We laugh, hard. I know the comment is off-color, but I also know I’m doing it to release. I’m aware when I’m allowing myself to mock a situation that shouldn’t be mocked, when I’m engaging something I’m actually against. I’m aware that I’m doing it more and more these days. I’m aware that, at the end of the day, I do it because it helps mask the underlying frustration and sense of overwhelm and guilt that comes with being a foreigner in Haiti.
We come home, tell some housemates about it. They tell us how people started throwing rocks at one of our roommates as he was getting a dance lesson on the roof from a local Haitian girl. They had to come inside and continue the lesson out of reach of the rocks. I get a phone call. My friend Jenny, a Haitian girl I’m close to and care for a lot, tells me her grandmother has died. Paddy and I go to visit her and her mother and sisters to offer our condolences. While I’m sitting with Jenny and her older sister Katia, Paddy is talking to their mother, Madam Michelle. It was her mother that has just passed away. We stay for twenty minutes then say goodbye.
“Fucking hell…” We’re in the car, Paddy looks tired. “What’s up man?” I ask him. “Madam Michelle was asking me for everything – my bed, my table, my mattress, anything I can give her once All Hands leaves.” I can see the frustration in his face. “Your mother just died. For fuck’s sake can you stop for just one minute and grieve?” It is endless. Today, here in my room, I hear a knock. Ornela, Madam Michelle’s youngest daughter, Jenny’s little sister, is at the door. “Qwen? Qwen?” “Hold on a sec sweetie.” I open the door and she’s there. We talk for a bit. She asks me a question. “Qwen, can you buy a painting from my mom? We need money to go to Jeremie.” Jeremie is where their grandmother lived. She’s talking about the funeral. My heart melts, but I’ve learned a long time ago that I have to draw a line. “I’m sorry sweetie, I don’t have money for that right now.” I hate myself for even saying it, but I know I’ve done a lot to help her family. Jenny is back in school because of me and some of my friends and family I reached out to. Seeing her finish high school is a personal goal of mine. I have to keep that in my sights and put blinders on for everything else. A week ago Jenny called me, she tells me Katia is really sick, that she has to go to the hospital. She asks me if I can pay for it. My heart hurts again, but I repeat the line I’ve learned to live by. “Sorry Jenny, I don’t have money for that right now.” “OK Qwen. It’s OK.” Jenny, eighteen and whip smart, knows me pretty well. She’s been on the receiving end of my anger when she tries to push the boundaries of my charity. She’s heard my rants on Haiti and the culture of dependence and expectance. She also knows I really care for her and her family. Still, the requests don’t stop. They won’t stop until I leave. Even then they won’t stop. Facebook chat post-Haiti often involves requests for money from people I know here.
Some things I have become clear on as a result of Haiti:
1. Good intentions aren’t enough.
2. Rose-colored glasses are bullshit.
3. The white savior industrial complex is real, demonstrated daily by feel good aid programs that probably don’t work, or feel good causes like Kony 2012 that generate plenty of buzz but don’t add up to much when people are actually supposed to do something.
4. You can’t help people who don’t want to help themselves.
5. True altruism is an incredibly rare thing. (See #3)
6. Little victories must be celebrated if you want to protect yourself from the crippling effects of the larger failure.
I came to Haiti very much guilty of believing good intentions were enough, and I certainly had the rose-colored glasses. I knew a bit about the idea of the white savior industrial complex, but didn’t know enough to realize I was playing right into it. I believed people inherently do want to improve their lot, and will work hard to see that happen. I also believed myself to be a fairly altruistic person. I’m not so sure about that any more. And while I never came here thinking I could “save Haiti” (an incredibly egotistical idea to begin with), I also didn’t realize the importance of allowing yourself to truly appreciate the small things before the big things break you down.
I still believe in helping people. I still believe my heart is in the right place. But I question myself more these days, and question what I’m doing and how I’m doing it. I question whether the work I’ve done here will really even make any difference. Is it even working? We’ll know that as we conduct final follow-ups over the next two months, now that production and installations are nearly finished. I’m wary though. Every biosand filter I’ve ever seen in Haiti that was not one of ours was broken and unused. Just today I went to get a sandwich and found four or five of them in front of the sandwich shop, all in various stages of malrepair, waiting to be turned to rubble and probably used to patch holes in the street. The problem is we’re giving people a “solution”. They tell us they want it, but it’s not of their own design. And yes, while I have spoken to families we’ve given filters to and heard from them they are getting sick less, and they no longer fear cholera, I also know of families that never used the filter to begin with, and only wanted to be in the program because their 100 gourdes contribution got them both the filter and a new Culligan bottle, which is worth 250 gourdes. Is that our mistake? Probably. Is there an easy work around to it? Not that I can think of. Asking for a contribution of more than 250 gourdes will guarantee that truly poor families will not be able to get a filter, and not providing a Culligan bottle (or any other safe water storage container) will result in families using open buckets instead, which we’ve tested and know 95% of the time result in re-contaminated water. It’s a small problem in the grand scheme of things, but it demonstrates the complexity of trying to “help” people.
If I were to do it all again, I wouldn’t design a solution. It isn’t my place to do that. What I’d do is try and be a useful resource for a group of people or a community that have a much better understanding of their problems than I do, and want to work together toward finding solutions. I wouldn’t come in as the guy with the answer. I’d come in as the guy willing to try and help them in any way possible as they find their own answer, and act as the bridge between that answer, and the money and resources needed to make it happen.
Or, perhaps if I really wanted to help, I wouldn’t ever come to Haiti to begin with. I’d keep my fight at home in the United States, rallying people to try and build awareness that places like Haiti suffer because of policies benefitting our government, our corporations, and ultimately, ourselves. Policies created by our politicians, sometimes with our consent (the Iraq War) and sometimes as a result of special interests (the Supreme Court’s campaign finance reform ruling), result in massive problems for other people in the world. Sometimes I wonder if that truly ever can be remedied.
Nature has a distinct element to it that is both brutal and undeniable: to be alive means to take care of you and yours before all else. There are rare exceptions to that rule, but they are just that – rare exceptions. The lioness doesn’t feel guilt when she brings down the days-old gazelle, despite knowing the gazelle could never hope to challenge her. Is it the same for us? We may all be part of the same species, but we’ve always cordoned ourselves off in distinct groups, be it religious, racial, or geopolitical, and time and again worked to improve our groups at the expense of other groups. We are not a peaceful species. We are not enlightened beings. And history has shown time and again that, like the lioness, we show no remorse or mercy when faced with a weaker opponent. I sometimes wonder what the Taino people, Haiti’s original inhabitants, were like. I’ll never be able to know. They were raped, murdered and enslaved to extinction at the hands of the Spanish. There are no more Tainos in the world.
Is it naive to believe we can ever change this part of being human? I’ve often wondered this. If we ever had a chance at change, now would be the beginning of it. The internet and advancements in communication and transportation have made the world a much smaller place. I’d like to think that will lead to a greater mutual understanding of the fact that we are all, indeed, human. It might, or it might not. I often think we will have to evolve to the point that the idea of religion is cast aside, that the idea of nation is cast aside, that the way we define ourselves (white, black, Christian, Muslim, American, Haitian) have to be abandoned. Without first accomplishing that, we will always have a way to cordon ourselves off from others, to group up, and to grow to believe that our group is the most important group. Those groups must be broken for us to advance.
It makes me think of something a friend of mine who works in Rwanda told me recently. She told me that the majority of Rwandan children today do not know if they are Tutsi or Hutu. Their parents do not tell them. She told me that it is illegal to ask someone if they are Tutsi or Hutu. She told me that all forms of personal identification no longer have the words “Tutsi” or “Hutu” on them. She also told me Rwanda is one of the more progressive and advanced countries she’s visited in Africa. That came at an incredibly high cost, but maybe that’s what it takes. The EU, flawed though it is, and in and of itself a group, was born out of the desire for integration that was the result of two devastating wars that killed entire generations of Europe’s people. I’d like to think we can learn enough from our history to be able to continue that process of integration without the prerequisite of mass suffering, but maybe that is indeed a prerequisite. If so, there’s certainly suffering enough to go around. The world’s groups are still devouring each other. The question is, if we do not feel we are affected by it, do we care enough to try and stop it? And, the skeptic in me asks, if we do care enough to try and stop it, why? What do we stand to gain? #5 – true altruism is an incredibly rare thing.
Indeed, a lot of questions, not a lot of answers, and a fair amount of pondering. If nothing else, Haiti has given me that, and that, ultimately, is a good thing. An engaged thinker is a humbled thinker. I do not yet claim to be either, but I aspire to be both.
See Quinn’s blog “These New Boots” for more.
I’m super excited to let you know about a new project I’m part of…
AidSource: The Humanitarian Social Network.
AidSource is something that I’ve been working on with Tales From the Hood and Alanna Shaikh. The idea stemmed somewhat from the fantastic community that appeared via Stuff Expat Aid Workers Like. There are a lot of really smart, thoughtful, witty and dedicated people working in aid and development, and not a lot of unofficial and focused space to talk about the industry and to each other about our work, and how our work impacts on a variety of spheres (from personal to global), and what we’d like to see changing and moving ahead.
We have been beta-testing AidSource for about the past two months, but as of today it is open to the public. To join, just go to AidSource and follow the prompts. It’ll only take you about five minutes to set up a profile and join.
Once inside you’ll be able to join working groups and discussions related to international relief and development, see what events are coming up in the aid world, blog, or just hang out with folks in the aid and development industry from around the world (and of course much, much more!). There is a special section for students and educators, too, so be sure to check that out. We’re hoping that local aid workers will find the space useful too.
You’ll find a fair amount of cross-platform functionality present in AidSource. Members who want to can set up their accounts so that once they’re members, they can log in using Google, Yahoo!, Facebook or Twitter credentials. You can also tweet and update your Facebook status from inside AidSource, ‘friend’ other members, upload photographs or documents, and ‘like’ things.
We think this is not just a very cool idea and site, but also something that (with time) has the potential to drive significant positive change in the aid industry. We hope you’ll take the time to check out AidSource: The Humanitarian Social Network.
Originally written by the Meat Puppets and covered on Nirvana’s Unplugged, this song was not written about aid and development at all of course, but I like metaphors, and Cobain perfectly captures the self-loathing aid worker’s angst.
Many a hand has scaled the grand old face of the plateau
Some belonged to strangers, some to folks you know
Holy ghosts and talk show hosts are planted in the sand
To beautify the foothills, and shake the many hands
Nothing on the top but a bucket and a mop
And an illustrated book about birds
See a lot up there but don’t be scared
Who needs action when you got words
Finished with the mop then you can stop
And look at what you’ve done
The plateau’s clean, no dirt to be seen
And the work it was fun
And an illustrated book about birds
See a lot up there but don’t be scared
Who needs action when you got words
Many a hand began to scan around for the next plateau
Some say it was Greenland, and some say Mexico
Others decided it was nowhere except for where they stood
But those were all just guesses, wouldn’t help you if they could
I dreamed last night that I was at a conference, presenting on a project. During the questions session, a woman stood up and recited a cryptic poem. The room waited for the punch line.
Here’s my point, the woman said, walking to the front of the room and writing on a chalkboard that had somehow appeared behind me. The arrogance of your approach cancels out the validity of your results. I was mortified.
Opening my email after waking from the dream, I found the continuation of a conversation I’d been having with N. Earlier in the month he had sent over a link to a blog post that included a reference to Ross Coggins’ poem The Development Set.
We discuss malnutrition over steaks
And plan hunger talks during coffee breaks.
Whether Asian floods or African drought,
We face each issue with open mouth.
Read the whole poem if you haven’t yet. Realize it’s written in 1976, ask if anything has changed, and feel yourself get uncomfortable.
The poem is referred to in Prashanth Nuggehalli Srinivas‘ post* titled And then the dessert arrived: global health dichotomies, where Srinivas reflects on the official dinner at the First Global Symposium on Health Systems Research organized at the Montreux Casino. The post made the rounds earlier this year.
“A photo of the dying TB patient formed the background for 20 minutes of a talk on “Why Health Systems Fail” by Atul Gawande, a surgeon and writer, to an audience obviously more interested in the wining and dining and, of course, the party that followed.”
N. and I wondered in our email exchange if it is possible to opt out of these kinds of fancy conferences yet still remain in this line of work. Is there a middle ground? Or do you have to 1) swallow the dichotomies without flinching if you want to work in ‘development;’ 2) fully opt out of the system and create something new based on different values or 3) just get out of ‘development’ entirely and do something totally different? A classic dilemma on whether you can make change from within or without or even at all. Obviously it applies to many other fields aside from development work.
Is it important for personal and professional spheres to be consistent in the field of development work? N. notes “We typically excuse discrepancies in the US, well-paid aid “CEOs”, personally wasteful environment advocates, etc not seeing the former as appropriate domain for evaluating someone. But that’s silly, of course they are inevitably related.”
Was the woman in my dream right? Does the arrogance of the approach cancel out the validity of the results? At what point do you opt out entirely? Should you expect someone working in ‘development’ to hold a certain set of values and does that make their work more valid and successful in the long term? Or do the short-term results of ‘development projects’ make the processes and means of getting there unimportant?
What would happen if ‘austerity measures’ and ‘cutbacks’ were applied at the top? (er, hello #occupydevelopment?)
*Original article written along with Meena Daivadanam, Kristof Decoster and Asmat Malik appeared on Health Affairs Blog on February 9, 2011
I can kind of say I “know about” rape in the Democratic Republic of Congo. I’m not an expert on DRC by any means, but I’ve certainly read enough to know that it is happening.
Does “knowing about” rape in the DRC make me very sad? Yes.
Does “knowing about” it make me feel like the world is an evil place sometimes? Yes.
Does it blow my mind that humans endure or perpetrate this type of brutality? Yes.
Does it make me wonder what is underlying it, why it happens and what are all the complexities that surround it? Yes.
Does it make me wish that there were a way to help make it stop? Yes.
Has anyone offered a viable solution for someone like me to help stop it? Not really.
“Knowing about” and “caring about” don’t equal “having identified the right thing to do about.”
A new short film is out called “Unwatchable.” This film assumes that the reason people don’t do more about the situation in the DRC is that they don’t know about it or don’t empathize with it because it is happening to people in the DRC.
To remedy that, “Unwatchable” re-enacts a true story that happened to a family in the DRC, setting it the UK. The premise is that if we watch the same horrifying things happening to a white family in the UK, we will “know about” what is happening in the DRC, and then we will “care about” it enough to “do something about” it by signing a petition to “stop rape minerals”.
So, does watching a horrific short film about a white British family being brutalized help me empathize with families in the DRC? No.
Does it help me better understand the situation in the DRC? No.
Does it move me to do something about violence in the DRC? No.
Does it offer me a solution or a viable way to help stop violence in the DRC? Not really.
To start with, I actually can’t even remember who the organization is behind the film. All I remember is some helicopters, a man with a bloody groin, lots of screaming and men in military gear, a teen-aged girl in a school uniform forced back on the kitchen table with flour all over her face being gang raped with a gun, and a little girl in white running in the fields with some flowers.
And another thing – no matter whether the people portrayed in the film were Brits or Congolese or from wherever, I would have been disturbed by the images. So if the goal of the film is horrifying the viewer by showing something that is “unwatchable,” then yes, goal achieved.
But am I better informed? Do I empathize now? Not really. Instead, I feel alienated, traumatized and I want to look away. I feel hopeless.
Will a lot of people watch the “unwatchable?” Probably. (Especially since it’s getting a lot of criticism right now.)
Does it make a solid connection between this violence and “rape minerals”? Not really.
No sane person would approve of rape as a weapon of war. But the difficult part is knowing what is the best way to end it, and knowing if there is really a way that someone like you or me can do anything about it.
Is legislation against “rape minerals” the best way? Who knows? There’s certainly enough questioning about the recent advocacy work and legislation that achieved a ban on them to make you wonder if banning is anything like a real solution.
The thing is, you can “know about” what is happening in the DRC and be “against rape” and still not be convinced that a petition or a boycott or Dodd Frank is the best way to end it.
So does “Unwatchable” add anything relevant to the debate or identify real solutions? Not really.
In addition to being unwatchable, I found it to be pretty “Unhelpful.”
The aid and development blogosphere has grown over the past few years. So… it’s time to find out a little bit more about who is reading this type of blog and what readers are interested in.
A number of bloggers have gotten together to create a joint survey of readers: please take it here. It’s short and anonymous.
After you take the survey, please tweet it, blog it, or otherwise share it with others who read aid and development blogs.
(Go check out www.aidlolz.tumblr.com for a few laughs.)
Back in February, Kumarian Press sent me a review copy of “Inside the Every Day Lives of Aid Workers.” I was pretty eager to get it, since J. (Tales from the Hood) and I had recently launched “Stuff Expat Aid Workers Like (SEAWL)” and this seemed like a good complement to what we were doing.
I imagined reading about real-live aid workers and the challenges they face in their work. Maybe some studies about their lives complete with trends on income disparities or alcoholism or going native or something. Possibly some interesting narratives or stories or ethical questions they face that could spark reflection and discussion…
Well, seven months later, I had only struggled through the first 4 chapters of the book.
Then J. posted his review so, not to be outdone or shown up as the half-assed member of the SEAWL partnership, I decided I must plow through to the end, even if it meant skimming instead of really reading.
And… I’m actually glad I did because the most applicable and digestible information was found in the second half of the book.
Chapter 5 (Orienting Guesthood in the Mennonite Central Committee, Indonesia) was a good read (though in some places it felt like the author held the MCC in contempt for their beliefs). Perhaps I liked the chapter because I have known several people working with the MCC or basing their work on similar worldviews, yet I had no underlying idea of the concepts their philosophy is based on. I’m now wondering if Greg Mortenson stole the concept for 3 Cups of Tea from the Mennonites.
Chapter 6 (Everywhere and Everthrough, Rethniking Aidland by Keith Brown) traces the “birth, implementation and afterlife” of a USAID funded civil society project. It explores “AID politics” quite nicely, though the writing was a bit convoluted. I liked the concept of “adding actuality to a virtual program,” eg., that moment when a project designed in DC without local input and aimed at fulfilling political motives of the US Government gets funded and needs to be implemented locally in a complex situation that doesn’t resemble the imaginations of those who designed the project. Unfortunately, I got to the end of the chapter feeling like “OK, we know this, and…?”
Chapter 7 (Anybody at Home? The inhabitants of Aidland by Anne-Meike Fechter) was by far my favorite and Chapter 8 a close second. In 7, the author explains the concept of “Aidland” as a metaphor for the particular traits and characteristics of the development sector… “a complex, almost self-contained web of institutions, people , and activities, with sets of attitudes, discourses, and practices of its own”. She then pulls in a cross-section of ‘types’ of aid workers, discusses what makes them “inhabitants of Aidland” and emphasizes the complexity and variety of people who identify as “aid workers”. The point is made then that in order to identify trends in aid and development, it is useful to talk to and study actual aid workers, and that activity at the margins of “Aidland” can give rise to interesting speculations on where the field is headed.
Chapter 8 (Dealing with Danger by Silke Roth) is an analysis of the security risks that different aid workers face and their individual justifications for taking on difficult and dangerous aid work. I see many of my friends and acquaintances reflected in the profiles of this chapter, so it resonated.
Chapter 9 (by Heather Hindman) goes into the trend of subcontracting and the “Hollowing out of Aidland;'” starting off with current corporate sector buzzwords like outsourcing, off shoring, subcontracting, neoliberalism, streamlining, best practices, and efficiency and their impact on how aid is done and ‘delivered,’ and how these changes alienate the aid worker and produce a rift between those who do the work of development and the product of their labors. The chapter comes from a human resources angle, and looks at aid workers as primarily ‘workers’. It also provides a fascinating look at how subcontracting is changing not only development, but also families, relationships and the ‘expatriate way of life’.
So it was worth getting through to the end.
Check J’s review for some excellent points and insights on the book. Though I’m guessing maybe he’d had enough by Chapter 4 and called it quits. 🙂
Several years ago I was sent by the INGO where I worked to a nearby country to accompany and translate for a photographer and a reporter who were touring a post-conflict zone. They were going to take photos and write stories about the situation in the country and the work we were doing to address the impact of the situation on the most vulnerable communities. A driver and someone from a local NGO counterpart accompanied us.
There were many indigenous groups in the zone that we visited. It was my first experience at translating in a multi-lingual rather than bi-lingual setting. The journalists would ask a question in English. I’d put it into the official language of the country. A man from the indigenous group would make sure he understood what I was saying, and then he’d turn around to the group of men that had gathered to meet with us and relay the question or comment to them. They would have a long discussion, or sometimes what seemed like an animated argument, and come to a consensus on their answer. Then he would turn around to me, give me the group’s answer, and I’d put it into English for the 2 journalists. Sometimes the two journalists would clarify to each other in their native language, which I didn’t speak.
The group that we visited in one particular community had been forced off their land by the government who declared the area they had always inhabited an ecological reserve. They believed this was a political move rather than any real government concern for the delicate ecology of their homeland. They felt the government wanted to weaken them by removing them from their land and decimating their culture and their capacity to resist. This was part of the government’s approach to dealing with ‘lack of development’ in the country.
The photographer took lots of pictures. The reporter was thrilled with the story. The local counterpart representative looked happy. He was very supportive of our visit. Certainly it was worthwhile if it meant some more funding for his local NGO. I was excited to be in communities I’d never normally get to spend time in, plus, the journalists were really fun to hang out with. A great visit for everyone involved…. right?
As we prepared to say our goodbyes to this particular community, the headman said to us. “There is one more thing before you go.”
“Yes? yes?” said the reporter, adrenaline surging at the fascinating stories she would write about the lives of indigenous peoples and their romantic struggle for survival. “Tell us,” said the photographer, spirits high, imagining the colorful photos he’d print of the people in native dress against the pristine natural background, the bare-breasted women with babies tied on their backs, washing in the stream.
“Don’t take our photos and our stories with you if you are not going to help us.”
We realized we might be there a bit longer, explaining ourselves.
The photographer promised heartily that he’d send copies of his photographs. The journalist, instinctively holding her hand over her heart, promised she would send a copy of any articles that were written. I translated the promises, and made my own promise to send any articles and photos to the local counterpart, who promised to get them to the community.
They didn’t look satisfied, so now it was us conferring amongst ourselves to come up with a response. We agreed that I should carefully tell the headman that we couldn’t help them directly. I should explain to them the concept of ‘advocacy’, and tell them how the work we were doing would help ‘raise awareness’ about their situation and pressure their government so that they would not be moved off their land. I should help them understand that the local counterpart, the journalists, my organization and I were all ‘advocates’ for them.
They understood all those ideas just fine, but shrugged, not so satisfied. We felt uncomfortable. We didn’t have anything concrete to offer. And anyway, we didn’t see ourselves as ‘whites in shining armor,’ coming to save them. No no, we were beyond that, better than that. We had progressed beyond all those other organizations. We were ‘changing policies’ not ‘giving hand outs’ and through our work we would be ‘catalyzing sustainable and lasting changes‘ in people’s lives. At least that was what we wanted to believe.
But what we were really doing was taking their story to use as a way to shine a light on our story about how any funds donated to us would empower them (and other beautiful, brown and colorfully dressed people like them) to save themselves. We really did believe that we could make a difference with our newspaper articles, our photos and our advocacy. Truth was that it was still more about us and our organization than it was about them.
“People come and take our stories, and they never come back, and our situation doesn’t change,” they said. “We hope that you will be different.”
Sure, we wanted to be different, but I’m pretty sure that the story that the reporter wrote and the pictures that the photographer took didn’t help this particular community at all. I never heard anything else about them after our visit, and I’m fairly sure they never heard anything about the 3 of us. Though I bet the next few times they saw the local counterpart, they asked.
The journalists got some fantastic photos and nice stories about the organization I worked with placed in the most popular newspaper in their home country. We all believed those stories were helping a larger cause somehow, and therefore that it was a good thing. Who knows, maybe we did make some kind of small difference in the big scheme of things.
Several months after our visit, I got a press clipping in a language I didn’t speak, which I sent off by post, not really knowing if the community would ever get it. We fulfilled our promises in deed, but that visit has always stayed with me.
“We hope that you will be different.”
We were not.
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
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?