Let me introduce you to this young mother I met in Galachipa, Bangladesh. This photo was taken just after Cyclone Aila – you can see that part of her house’s wall is missing. Trust me, I don’t bring this up as a downer.
After I met her, I explained to her what I was doing: that I’m not a charity official or employee – I’m just a guy. And, with my camera and camcorder, she could send a message to all my friends around the world.
I asked her: what does she want people outside of Bangladesh to know? What single message would be the most important to send? After I heard what she had to say, I knew I could never release the message.
She made a message with the names of specific individuals and groups who she felt were mishandling people’s donations. She urged people not to donate through these methods – because it would never reach her.
While I agree with much of what he said, this one passage sticks out the most:
I want to just remind folks of the risks of observer bias- that being that when you rock up to Village X with a notepad, or a camera, your very presence affects the answers that will be given. Community members may lack resources, and even education, but they’re not stupid. When a donor representative like myself or Shawn asks them a question, they will always give the answer that makes it most likely that they will receive more funds. If they turn around and complain about the quality of aid, they know there’s a risk that the donors in question may write off the village as a failed project and move on. Big smiles and thank-yous are far more likely to make a donor feel good and give more- and they know this.
I mention this because, for me, this couldn’t be further from the truth. Click the jump to find out why.
Insights of a “Bideshi-Deshi”
I’m what you call a “third culture kid”: I’ve been born and raised in North America but my parents often took me back to their homeland (Bangladesh). So my upbringing has neither been exclusively Western nor exclusively Bangladeshi. I’m a cultural mutt. I call it being “uncultured”.
The result is that, on the ground, I’m given the respect afforded to a “bideshi” (a foreigner) but, at the same time, villagers are just as frank with me as they are a “deshi” (a native). And when I mention I’m not an NGO employee I get a level of candor that neither a bideshi-only nor a deshi-only would get.
People seem to just pour their hearts out to me about their frustrations with aid. Every village I’ve gone to, people have given me a laundry list of complaints about aid, NGOs, and specific charities. Some will even mention specific people by name with a specific complaints about that official.
This has happened so often that I’ve come up with three recurring observations:
- A Distrust of NGOs: Bangladeshis have a saying “NGOs taka kai fellay” which translates to “Charities eat the cash”. There is a sense that donations given to a charity don’t properly reach those in need.
- A Preference for 1-on-1 Help: Even in villages where micro-finance is available and reputable charities serve, villagers will often turn to loan sharks instead. Why? There is a sense that getting help from a person is more “dignified” than getting help from an institution. (As speculation, it could also be a case of “better the devil you know”.)
- Remittances as Charity: Despite knowing first-hand about poverty in Bangladesh, few if any Bangladesh emigrant families living abroad (including my own extended network of Bangladeshi friends and family) donate to charity. Instead, such families prefer to send money back home to friends and family so they can spend it on any personal charity initiatives they might be doing (like feeding those in their home village). Even emigrant families prefer to bypass NGOs and to help in a 1-on-1 manner.
It seems like some villagers have the idea that charities are evil organizations staffed by criminals who are just out to steal as much of the public’s donations as humanly possible. The bideshi/foreigner in me knows better – and would love nothing better than to change this opinion. But, the deshi/native in me, can’t help but wonder where all those donations go. And, the more I learn each day, the more the deshi in me gets confused.
For example, I only just learned that the World Vision Gift Catalogue doesn’t actually work the way most of my friends think it does. You can click a button that says “donate a backpack of school supplies to a child” or “donate 2 chickens to a family” but (as one World Vision supporter has pointed out) that doesn’t mean that will actually happen. It just means your donation will go into a pool of funds – not that any school supplies or chickens will be given on your behalf (or at all).
It’s things like this – the seeming disconnect between what donors think they are giving and what’s actually happening on the ground – that villagers complain to me about. I don’t claim to have all the answers. But what I can say is that by listening to locals on-the-ground, learning from experience, leveraging social media, and leaning on both my “bideshi” and “deshi” cultural backgrounds, I’ve been able to do work on the ground that specifically addresses the complaints villagers have shared with me.
A “Third Culture” (aka “Uncultured”) Approach
There is so many things I’ve done differently, but for the sake of brevity, I’d like to focus on three things:
- Separate Fund for the Poor: I gained a qualitatively different level of trust with local villagers when they learned that no cut was being taken from the funds that were going to be helping them. That meant that neither the white SUV that we drove up in nor the crisp clean button-up shirts the aid workers wore were coming from the donations that would be used to help them. And even though the villagers knew that the equipment I was using came from donations from friends and family, they were okay with this because I was able to explain that donations were separate from the funds I was going to use to help them. Basically my model is like Charity: Water – carried all the way to the village.
- Trackable Donations & Direct Line with Donors: Partly because no cut was being taken from donations, it was easier for me to tell them about the specific people who were helping to fund things and/or make things possible. All of a sudden this became less about anonymous funding from a charity and more about help from far away friends. This was further cemented by the fact I was able to use my cellphone to show them specific video messages from my friends. I was even able to start a two-way conversation between villagers and donors over Twitter.
- Independent Presence, Independent Oversight: Even though the charity I worked with had a reputation second-to-none in Bangladesh, what created a quantum leap in perception of me and what I was trying to accomplish amongst villagers was the fact that they knew I was not part of the NGO system. They knew that no manager or director would force me to prematurely move onto the next project before this one was completed to their satisfaction. They knew that I’d be signing off on the budgets and the project proposals. My role was community mobilizer, donor representative, complaints department, and independent auditor all in one. And they knew I would not sign off on anything until the village was fully satisfied (not just “within acceptable standard parameters”).
Skipping the BS
It may be true that “Big smiles and thank-yous are far more likely to make a donor feel good and give more”, but I had to bend over backwards to earn every smile and every “thank you” that you see. Partly because villagers were so frank and open with me about their frustrations with aid, they were holding me to a higher standard – and they were skipping the BS.
When I had done something wrong, they’d tell me. When they think what I was doing wasn’t going to work, they’d let me know. When they were angry, they held nothing back. The only way to earn their respect was to listen to them and make things right. This didn’t mean being the village Santa Claus: rather it meant being the bridge-maker and educating them on what the donors could fund and what the charity was willing to do.
I concede that “rocking up” to a village with a camcorder, iPhone, and notepad can affect the responses villagers give me. But for me, the most insightful things came when the cameras were off and villagers thought I was out of sight and wouldn’t be able to hear and/or understand their Bengali. Behind my back, locals would be talking amongst themselves about how they felt “for the very first time donations have been properly used” (their words, not mine).
I should point out that earning this kind of respect in any village is serious capital, and it’s easy to use it to feed one’s own ego. Wary of this fact, I seldom told villagers my full name. In fact, after villagers were satisfied with my work and I could sign off on the projects, I made sure that no traces of my name (or this project) were left on any of the projects I completed. Instead, I made sure that donors, the charity, and (most importantly) the villagers themselves got the credit.
Exiting a village in a way that lets my role be forgotten is something I do on purpose. This is because it let’s me take the good will and personal reputation I’ve fostered within a village and give it over to the reputation and goodwill of the charity I worked with. Even if a charity doesn’t do a similar project in this particular village again, it has earned respect amongst the people for being a charity that’s agreed to a high such a level of scrutiny, transparency, accountability, and control.
Left in Limbo & Purgatory with Charities
After reading the blog post that inspired this one, I was left blushing at all the good things he had to say about me. He points out that I’ve been thoughtful and haven’t done this project “half-cocked”. Nor have I been, in his words, “jetting off for a few weeks to some developed country, seeing all the flaws in the aid industry, and sharing their epiphany on how they can do such a better job than the aid professionals currently working in the field”. I’ve put the time & effort to do this correctly and respectfully.
And that’s my point. Big international charities wisely dissociate and disconnect themselves from cocky, thrill-seeking, and self-serving voluntourists. But charities are equally reluctant and reticent to engage responsible outsiders with different ideas. Simply put: charities offer no reward for good behavior. Even when I have allies “within the fortress” like Wendy Harman (at the Red Cross), the light at the end of the tunnel (to actually doing more work on the ground with this approach) can be far, far away. And, not every charity has a Wendy Harman.
Immediately after I posted my video “World Vision Vloggers”, one of the officials at World Vision (not my primary contact but one of the people who was regularly corresponding with me about teaming up) promptly blocked me on Twitter and cut off all correspondence with me. This highlights another problem with trying to reach out to charities: our loyalties come into question when we say anything that doesn’t tow the party line. Charities need to be able to distinguish between suggestions from supporters and criticism from cynics.
Above: The video which prompted one World Vision official to block me on Twitter.
People like me exist whether we’re ignored or not. With cheap airfare and “hug-an-orphan” charities catering to “voluntourists”, there is a path for those who want to fly in, fly out, and feel good about themselves. With World Vision Vloggers, there’s even a path now for online celebrities to go into the field and use their momentum to draw attention and raise funds for charities. But there isn’t yet a path for people like me who see the value of established charities and who want to push for innovation.
Worst of all, everyday a charity continues to lock me out (or opts to hit the block button instead of the reply button), is also another day villagers turn to loan sharks, remittances controlled by a few key villagers, and even voluntourists. But village attitudes towards aid, development, and charity can change. All it takes is for them to see what big charities can do when they team up with a bideshi-deshi like me.