Tag Archives: aid

The Aid Bitchslap

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.”

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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.

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Love the way you lie

I’m pleased to feature the fabulous “J,” (retired formerly of Tales from the Hood blogger blog) guest posting here on Shotgun Shack….

I used to think it was up to INGOs to voluntarily be more truthful and accurate in their marketing, more forthcoming with information about program challenges and even failures, and less prone to simplistic, dumbed-down public messaging. It used to really annoy me every time a marketer would go on about how if we don’t “hook” the donor in the first 15 seconds we lose them, or how donors don’t want to hear that aid is complex and difficult, that aid successes are nowhere near as cut-and-dried as our glossy direct mail and interactive websites make it all seem.

But now, I dunno.

Maybe I’m just jaded. Or cynical. But I seriously doubt that the aid industry is going to voluntarily make fundamental changes to the way it talks about what it does. I hate to say it, but I’m starting to think that maybe this kind of change will have to be driven by donors themselves.

* * * * *

Eminem’s controversial 2010 duet with Rihanna, and even more controversial music video captures a theme with which many of us are familiar: the smart, beautiful woman who, against all apparent logic, just cannot bring herself to walk away from an abusive, violent, perhaps deadbeat partner.

Just gonna stand there and watch me burn

Well that’s alright because I like the way it hurts

Just gonna stand there and hear me cry

Well that’s alright because I love the way you lie

I love the way you lie

* * * * *

Throughout my own career in the aid industry, it has on many occasions been my job to take private donors to the field, either to see projects that they’d already supported or projects that my employer of the day hoped they would support. In every instance, without exception, I found myself in the field with people who had been mis-educated about relief and development work by marketers. I don’t mind admitting that I enjoyed removing the wool from their eyes, in some cases forcibly. I held back nothing about the context, likely impact, sustainability prospects, complexity, difficulty, and so on. I did my best to make sure that they had as clear and complete a picture of what was going on — the good, the bad and the ugly — as possible. In every case their time at the project site with me showed them a picture that contrasted starkly with what they’d been led to believe about how their money made or would make a difference. In some cases they were shocked to learn what we actually did with their money.

But in no instance, ever, did any one of them say, “I think you guys are a bunch of crooks. I’ll be donating elsewhere after this…”, or “This development thing is a lot of bullsh!t. I’m done as a donor.”

* * * * *

I’m not calling anyone person a liar. Not NGO marketing or comms or PR people. I think that the instances in which NGOs tell outright untruths are extremely rare. But I absolutely believe that the gravitational pull of the aid industry is towards painting a picture for its donors of what it does that is un-nuanced and incomplete enough to be untrue. And we continue to paint this picture because our private donors continue to insist on it.

Donors: you have the power to make this better. You have the power to insist that we tell you what we’re really doing. Based on my own experience, I believe that if we get the chance to tell you, you’ll still support us because good aid makes good sense and you’re smart people. But you seem to be addicted to a fake version. I don’t know why, but you love the way we lie.


The Clanging Chimes of Doom – Bandaid Remade and Remixed

Reposting to get you in the holiday spirit…. The original post appeared on Nov 20, 2010…. Enjoy! 🙂

This is perhaps one of the most impactful and damaging songs in history. I heard it on the radio today and got pissed off like I do every time I hear it.

Apparently the image of Africa and Africans hasn’t changed much since 1984. Twenty years later comes Band Aid 2 — because every multi-celebrity charity pity song needs a remake…. Love the intro sound of a crying starving child and the astonished yet highly concerned British commentator.

I don’t even know where to start on the stereotypes and disservice that this song (and similar charity marketing and sensationalist journalism) has done to the image of Africa (the Continent) and Africans themselves. I’ve spent quite a bit of time in African countries and I could post photo after photo of rivers and rain there. And things growing.  I never heard any clanging chimes of doom while there. There are lots of people who are not looking out their windows onto “a world of dread and fear”. Many of my African friends won’t celebrate Christmas because they are Muslim, not because they are starving to death. And many others will celebrate Christmas, but not American or Euro style. Not everyone is sitting underneath the burning sun. Africa is not a giant desert. Can we please not show famine in Ethiopia and pretend it’s representative of the entire continent? There won’t be snow in Africa? So what? Gahhhhh!

Luckily there is the glory of social media to take the edge off the fury…. If you don’t like the original version, there are plenty of re-makes to be found on YouTube. I’m not sure whether to laugh or cry. Here is a selection of the, uh, finest. You be the judge on whether these are worse than the original…. Taking votes in the comments section.

Feed the World with Friends (I wish this were a joke) Version. Wow. Just wow. E for effort. C for caring. D for Do Gooders. But the singing makes me doubt the potential for quality in anything crowdsourced.

Bad 1980s Sponsorship Organization Commercial Photo Montage Version. The original didn’t have enough pictures of crying children and flies in the eyes so this kind person overlaid some of the best of the worst charity photos on to the video to encourage us to care.  (Commenter: So, there won’t be snow in Africa this year? And you say the only gift they’ll get is the gift of life? So, no shoveling, and no commercial holidays? Sign me up.)

Singing Cartoon Turkeys Version (aka PETA Version?)

Dance Aid – Do they know it’s Christmas (Rave Mix) Instrumental so you can dance at your Christmas Rave without feeling guilty because of the lyrics.

Winnipeg Tea Party Version? “Dedicated to the poor children of Winnipeg School Division 1. Children whose childhood is less happy because schools run by tyrants will not say the word Christmas….  Christmas… A holiday so terrible according to commies that it can’t be named….” Special appearance poster by the Folsom Street Fair (the grand daddy of all gay male leather events) whose attendees “mock your religion while demanding that you get rid of the word Christmas…” ends with “glad this baby (Jesus) wasn’t aborted… stop the ACLU”.

2006 College Version complete with a lot of bare midriffs and self absorbed cleavage and blowing hair and dramatic effects which turn into…. a drink infested Christmas party… which ends up in a teenage mums against war protest slash terror attack… and ends with… um. Well if you make it through to the end maybe you can tell me what the point was?

Chris Brown feat. T-Pain laid over Karaoke Instrumental Version (?!?!)  I’m still not sure which lyrics are more awful — these or the original…. this is as bad, maybe worse, than the homemade versions– hard to make it through til the end.

High School Christmas Concert Version with uh high quality filming. (comments section: 3 letters is all this will take. OMG. And 2 words: bloody awful)

1985 High School Talent Show Version. Has that Risky Business feel to it. As a child of the 1980s I’m digging the outfits:

Canadian Version with lots of Tim Horton promos in the background…. “In 1984 the top recording artists across Canada gathered to raise money from the famine in Africa… when the public viewed Canada’s version, the world decided it was best for Canada to just make a fincial (sic) donation instead.”

Hipsters in a Mansion Version (TV Allstars) (“Bless ’em, they seem to think the clanging chimes of doom are something to be cheery about.”)

People in a Toystore with Tambourine and Ukelele Version? Commenter: “Sick! Sick and WRONG! I LOVE IT! My favorite lines: “There won’t be snow in Africa this christmas” (nor in LA, nor Hawaii…???) and “Thank God it’s THEM instead of You” ??? and “Here’s to them underneath that burning sun” – the stupidest lyrics ever !! YOU GUYS ROCK”

Status Quo Video Vault Version (anyone else love and remember The Young Ones? “All the homos in the place goin’ mental now….” “HomeOwners you mean, don’t you….”)

The Clanging Chimes of Doom are Back and Better than Ever Version. Voice and video don’t sync. There’s a dude singing in a shower. There’s a fake adopted black baby. Make it stop.

I’m happy that at least some musicians in the 80s were on the ball.  High 5 to Chumbawamba.

Feed the WorldPictures of Starving People“In 1986, the anarchist band Chumbawamba released the album Pictures of Starving Children Sell Records, as well as an EP entitled “We Are the World”, jointly recorded with US band A State of Mind, both of which were intended as anti-capitalist critiques of the Band Aid/Live Aid phenomenon. They argued that the record was primarily a cosmetic spectacle, designed to draw attention away from the real political causes of world hunger.”

*****

Update Nov 29, 2010: And hey, it seems like Bob Geldof would totally agree with me on this post! I’m starting to gain a little respect for him. According to this Nov 29, 2010, article in the Daily Mail. Geldof, who penned the song 26 years ago together with Midge Ure, says: “I am responsible for two of the worst songs in history. One is Do They Know It’s Christmas? and the other one is We Are The World. Any day soon, I will go to the supermarket, head to the meat counter and it will be playing. Every ****ing Christmas….” The former Boomtown Rats frontman, 59, added: “Sometimes I think that’s wild because I wrote it. Or else I am thinking how much I want them to stop because they are doing it really badly.”


Promises

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.


Aid: love it or leave it?

Aid - love it or leave it? (Photo taken from gnwp.ru - 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?


Holes

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.