How I Use Social Media & My Ethnicity to Help the Poor

Young Mother Stands with Her Child after Cyclone Aila Hit

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.

This is not an uncommon occurrence. And I mention this because of a blog post written by a friend and aid worker whom I have a great deal of respect for.

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.

Village mothers tell me of specific charities they have had problems with. I'm not sure if I should release this footage on YouTube because of the names mentioned and the repercussions it would cause.

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).

During Cyclone Aila, I teamed up with Save the Children. I set up an online system where people could donate to pay for relief kits. Those who chose to donate a relief kit actually had a relief kit distributed in their name. The World Vision Gift Catalogue does not operate in this manner since "items donated" don't correspond to real physical items (they are merely representative concepts). Featured in this photo is the kit Luis Segovia paid for.

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

Children and villagers watch videos of uncultured project supporters who made it possible to bring clean water to this village. Dismiss this as unsustainable or a gimmick if you want, but fostering connections like this overcomes local criticisms of how aid is done.

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”).

After explaining Twitter was a "group SMS and picture messaging" service, I asked this villager what he wanted me to send to my friends. He asked me to send his picture (with the message, "tell your friends I said thank you".)

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.

Villagers gather together to say "Thank You, YouTube" on camera. Before they agreed, I had to make sure each and every family was fully satisfied with the work I had done on the ground with Save the Children. Yes, there were complaints and issues along the way and yes, I addressed each and every one of them before exiting the village. This didn't mean doing everything they said and throwing money at every problem. Rather it meant building a bridge between donors and the charity in a way that had never been done before.

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.

This signboard (for the Pond Sand Filter) contains three elements. It acknowledges donors with photos of the supporters who helped make this possible. It acknowledges the charity that implemented the project (Save the Children). And it acknowledges the primary village family who will become caretakers of the Pond Sand Filter as per its handover to the community. Absent: any reference to me or the Uncultured Project.

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.

Beth Kanter, Me, and Red Cross's 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.

  • http://www.communityorganizer20.com Debra Askanase

    Shawn, your blog post has so many pieces of wisdom that I don’t even know where to start the comments! For me, a believer in the power of social media to transform the world for better, your story about how donors are often misled about their donations actually being used for the said purposes struck home. Social media is all about transparency, and if an organization is misleading its donors, there is no doubt that a blog post like yours is necessary. That said, it’s such a great opportunity to find an internal champion (like the wonderful Wendy Harmon at ARC) in that organization and try to create change.

    Lastly, I couldn’t support your principles more: Separate funds, trackable donations, independent oversight. I’d love to see you lead the way to this becoming the standard in all international giving and NGO work.

  • http://www.communityorganizer20.com Debra Askanase

    Shawn, your blog post has so many pieces of wisdom that I don’t even know where to start the comments! For me, a believer in the power of social media to transform the world for better, your story about how donors are often misled about their donations actually being used for the said purposes struck home. Social media is all about transparency, and if an organization is misleading its donors, there is no doubt that a blog post like yours is necessary. That said, it’s such a great opportunity to find an internal champion (like the wonderful Wendy Harmon at ARC) in that organization and try to create change.

    Lastly, I couldn’t support your principles more: Separate funds, trackable donations, independent oversight. I’d love to see you lead the way to this becoming the standard in all international giving and NGO work.

  • Elizabeth

    I finish Uni next year, and I would really like to work in aid and development. Do you have any advice for avoiding being one of the people who gives bad or ineffective aid? Because its something that I have been worried about for a while; whether it would be better for me to do something else rather then risk being a part of something that ends up making things worse.

  • Elizabeth

    I finish Uni next year, and I would really like to work in aid and development. Do you have any advice for avoiding being one of the people who gives bad or ineffective aid? Because its something that I have been worried about for a while; whether it would be better for me to do something else rather then risk being a part of something that ends up making things worse.

  • http://shotgunshack.wordpress.com Shotgun Shack

    I’m finding this debate super interesting. I agree with a lot of MoreAltitudes points but it’s good to see your thoughts and experiences too.

    I just started blogging about similar frustrations I have working within the aid and development system. Often the people working within and on the frontlines of charities are also beating their heads up against the whole aid system. Even if they want to do it right, there are so many institutional barriers it’s not even funny. And not everyone working within a charity has the same mentality about the work either. You can find some of the strongest aid critics working inside the sector.

    Some of what you are talking about has to do with what the public consumes too and with behavior of the masses who really don’t understand what constitutes good development work, nor do they have the time to do the research to learn what works and what doesn’t.

    I hope that with really smart posts and conversations like yours and that of MoreAltitude there will be a broader conversation that will lead to some pressure to crack the system and make it better for everyone involved.

  • http://shotgunshack.wordpress.com Shotgun Shack

    I’m finding this debate super interesting. I agree with a lot of MoreAltitudes points but it’s good to see your thoughts and experiences too.

    I just started blogging about similar frustrations I have working within the aid and development system. Often the people working within and on the frontlines of charities are also beating their heads up against the whole aid system. Even if they want to do it right, there are so many institutional barriers it’s not even funny. And not everyone working within a charity has the same mentality about the work either. You can find some of the strongest aid critics working inside the sector.

    Some of what you are talking about has to do with what the public consumes too and with behavior of the masses who really don’t understand what constitutes good development work, nor do they have the time to do the research to learn what works and what doesn’t.

    I hope that with really smart posts and conversations like yours and that of MoreAltitude there will be a broader conversation that will lead to some pressure to crack the system and make it better for everyone involved.

  • http://www.riverkidsproject.org/ Dale Edmonds

    Love the discussion starting for this – social credit counts because I followed Beth’s link to you *g*.

    One point as manager of a relatively small local NGO in Cambodia – 400 kids, under US$150K a year – the finances for direct donations do not scale without a serious investment in technology.

    For example: we needed kindergarten chairs and tables, about US$200. If we then send that request off to donors, someone will fund it. Then we can take photographs, scan in the receipt and send it to the donor, everyone’s happy.

    Except – the donor takes a week to make the money transfer, then we have to delay the purchase, and someone on staff has to take time to photograph the new tables, it all adds up to time running around instead of useful work.

    We now ask for donations for things that we’ve already bought, so that we know the receipts and checks have been done, we can get a photo if needed, and the donors are basically refunding a specific expense. So much easier for us with no wait time, and for donors who want concrete things, almost as satisfying.

    The other factor is that costs vary a lot in our project. Outside of rent and salaries, almost nothing is fixed. School fees go up and down each month, food prices are all over the place, one month we need to make three loans, the next month, ten.

    And there’s also what the real vs budgeted cost is. I can argue that a child in kindergarten costs about US$25 a month for us. But I could just as easily argue $15 or $50, depending on what I count – do I include a proportion of the country director? What about calculating the shared rent by time used instead of space? Or including the extra meals for half the class, or the extra costs of the teenage assistant’s training and support? I have to make that judgment call and justify it to my donors. Surprisingly to me, very few ever ask the whys. They just want a number.

    It is really easy to hide bad NGO decisions in accounts, e.g. listing fundraising as public education simply by tacking on a tiny health banner on an ad. The only cure is open books, IMO, but even then for a large organisation, the complexity of the accounts can be enough to hide bad decisions.

    But simplifying it isn’t always possible. I can’t directly link a sponsorship to a child any longer, as I used to be able to when we were much smaller. To keep separate accounts for over 400 kids would be such a huge administration cost, compared to when we had just 40 and it was still possible.

    So basically: small and nimble works well for direct donations. But it doesn’t always scale well because of the admin involved. Your ten minutes per donated bag becomes a month of work for a thousand bags.

    What I’d love to see is some kind of accountants’ guide to charities – figuring out how effectively the money’s being used from the books themselves. Terrifying but oh so useful!

  • http://www.riverkidsproject.org/ Dale Edmonds

    Love the discussion starting for this – social credit counts because I followed Beth’s link to you *g*.

    One point as manager of a relatively small local NGO in Cambodia – 400 kids, under US$150K a year – the finances for direct donations do not scale without a serious investment in technology.

    For example: we needed kindergarten chairs and tables, about US$200. If we then send that request off to donors, someone will fund it. Then we can take photographs, scan in the receipt and send it to the donor, everyone’s happy.

    Except – the donor takes a week to make the money transfer, then we have to delay the purchase, and someone on staff has to take time to photograph the new tables, it all adds up to time running around instead of useful work.

    We now ask for donations for things that we’ve already bought, so that we know the receipts and checks have been done, we can get a photo if needed, and the donors are basically refunding a specific expense. So much easier for us with no wait time, and for donors who want concrete things, almost as satisfying.

    The other factor is that costs vary a lot in our project. Outside of rent and salaries, almost nothing is fixed. School fees go up and down each month, food prices are all over the place, one month we need to make three loans, the next month, ten.

    And there’s also what the real vs budgeted cost is. I can argue that a child in kindergarten costs about US$25 a month for us. But I could just as easily argue $15 or $50, depending on what I count – do I include a proportion of the country director? What about calculating the shared rent by time used instead of space? Or including the extra meals for half the class, or the extra costs of the teenage assistant’s training and support? I have to make that judgment call and justify it to my donors. Surprisingly to me, very few ever ask the whys. They just want a number.

    It is really easy to hide bad NGO decisions in accounts, e.g. listing fundraising as public education simply by tacking on a tiny health banner on an ad. The only cure is open books, IMO, but even then for a large organisation, the complexity of the accounts can be enough to hide bad decisions.

    But simplifying it isn’t always possible. I can’t directly link a sponsorship to a child any longer, as I used to be able to when we were much smaller. To keep separate accounts for over 400 kids would be such a huge administration cost, compared to when we had just 40 and it was still possible.

    So basically: small and nimble works well for direct donations. But it doesn’t always scale well because of the admin involved. Your ten minutes per donated bag becomes a month of work for a thousand bags.

    What I’d love to see is some kind of accountants’ guide to charities – figuring out how effectively the money’s being used from the books themselves. Terrifying but oh so useful!

  • Anonymous

    Hi Elizabeth – the fact that you’re asking this question shows amazing thoughtfulness and responsibility. That’s a perfect start.

    My suggestion is learn as much as you can before you decide to travel. You’ll be learning as you go, and somethings you studied may not be valid on-the-ground. But it’s good to have the fundamentals.

    Read aid blogs like “Good Intentions Are Not Enough” and “Aid Watch”. They can sometimes depress the heck out of you, but you can learn from others mistakes. And, remember, no one is perfect – we will all make mistakes.

    The final piece of advice is look and see if your country has a Peace Corps like they do in the United States. I can’t speak highly enough of that organization. If there is no Peace Corps, look to see if there is a VSO branch in your country.

    If I didn’t have cultural roots to Bangladesh – I would have definitely looked at the VSO.

  • Anonymous

    Thanks so much for the kind words Debra :) And thanks also for sharing this post on Twitter with your followers.

  • http://uncultured.com Shawn Ahmed

    Hi Dale – thanks for sharing your thoughts. You touched on a lot of points. Let me try and touch on at least a few.

    First, you don’t need a huge investment in technology to create this “feedback loop” for donors. How much are cellphones with cameras these days? How much is a cheap video camera?

    I definitely did *NOT* spend ten minutes per donated bag. In fact, the process was rather streamlined thanks to Save the Children. They had to (as normal operating procedure) collect recipient names and tick them off a list. All I did was snap a photo on my cellphone and have a camera rolling on a tripod.

    And, let me put it this way, I personally would not object to having a cost of sending a kid to school include a fee for teaching staff or school supplies. Take a look at the Charity: Water pie chart for example. They allot a certain percentage for sanitation training with every clean water donation. I have no problem with that. Most donors wouldn’t.

  • http://uncultured.com Shawn Ahmed

    Thanks for the comment Shotgun. I’d like to touch upon this sentence: “Some of what you are talking about has to do with what the public consumes too and with behavior of the masses who really don’t understand what constitutes good development work, nor do they have the time to do the research to learn what works and what doesn’t.”I’d like to think – whether it’s my life long regular exposure to Bangladesh or the 3 years doing this project – I’ve done a lot to educate the public on what is good development work. For example, I’ve been trying my hardest to push the conversation beyond cliches like “teach a man to fish” and “help people help themselves” and try and get people to understand the complexity of extreme poverty.And, while I’m happy to keep posting responses to friends and others like MoreAltitude – what I really want to do is get back into the field and do more work.I’ve found a model that donors like. More importantly, I’ve found a model that beneficiaries LOVE. The problem? Many charities hate it, reject it, and refuse to even do a dozen of projects with me like this.

  • http://twitter.com/morealtitude morealtitude

    Glad you’re engaging in discussion around aid quality issues Shawn. Dialogue is a healthy thing for everybody and it’s good to challenge institutions. You raise some legitimate concerns about NGO perception by beneficiaries and donors alike and it’s good that you’re seeking options and solutions to them.

    I won’t go into much detail here as most of what you’ve written above about your approach to development was in your video and I’ve discussed it in my original post. It comes down to the acknowledgement that you’re in a good place to be wrestling with things like accountability and program quality, with some creative thoughts especially in how you engage with social media, but that many of your ideas also have challenges with scalability which would need more investigation.

    The inference that your suggested model for development is better than that of established NGOs is a bit like saying that a vehicle from Ford is better than a vehicle from Boeing, because a Ford is affordable and you don’t need to spend years getting a license. This is true, but a Ford can’t carry 400 passengers and can’t cross oceans either. Different approaches fit different operational contexts, each with strengths and weaknesses. A couple of the concerns with your approach (even for smaller projects) are mentioned beneath.

    My statement about communities *always* responding in a way that will give them funds was hyperbole and it’s right that you called me out on that- that’s an overstatement, however the argument stands- that whether westerner or Bangladeshi expatriate or local staff, you always have to take account of the impact that your identity has on the person you’re talking to. You are still an outsider to these communities- even if you’re less of an outsider than I would be. (As a TCK myself I am well aware of what it’s like to have a foot in both camps- and neither). I know of many examples of colleagues from LDCs who return to their villages after working with international NGOs and are treated as outsiders (and walking wallets) so if them, how much more us!

    You’ve overcome this partially by spending time building relationships (a very important aspect of development, especially in relational cultures). NGOs do this too. 90-95% of NGO staff are locals, often drawn from the communities where projects are run. These staff manage the relationship side of things, including taking feedback from community members. Most field projects I have visited run in this way. See HAP for the standards that large NGOs like Save the Children, Oxfam and World Vision, for example, would hold themselves accountable to. The most important message for NGOs out of all of this (given the legitimate concern that the people you spoke to raised) is: Invest in PEOPLE- make sure your staff are the right people for the job, and know how to build relationships between communities and the organization. This is becoming increasingly well understood (but to see why agencies sometimes are slow to change, make sure you check out the message I posted this morning on my blog).

    You want to be careful overemphasising your cultural ties as an expat because while that works in your favour here in Bangladesh, by inference this strength vanishes the moment you move to another culture- Kenya, or China. There are other strengths you can bring as an outsider- such as an external perspective, and not being tied to the same cultural norms. But doing good development work is not dependent on your cultural identity- rather it’s based on how you project your identity, how self-aware and humble/respectful you are, and how well you partner with others on the ground who can walk the cultural landscape to bring out the best in both sides of the fence.

    2 things worth revisiting from the blog-post.

    1. There’s a danger in teaching donors to expect to receive 1-on-1 feedback on their donation, because you make development about the donor’s experience first, not the recipient, when in fact it isn’t, it shouldn’t be, and it mustn’t be. In fact, this message goes against years of messaging to improve donorship, donor expectations and unrestricted giving.

    2. 1-on-1 feedback like this encourages the expectation and giving of ‘stuff’- veering towards handouts and dependency. Giving ‘stuff’ and building ‘things’ are starting to fall by the wayside of good development practice, in place of things like improving the ways in which communities can realise their own rights by engaging with local stakeholders in a deliberate way, taking hold of their own development objectives. This isn’t new thinking- participatory development has been around at least since Chambers and the early 1970s. However the sorts of services NGOs are increasingly providing cannot easily be quantified in a 1-on-1 model, and we mustn’t let our donors think that ‘good development’ equals ‘brown person receives bag of rice’, because it patently doesn’t.

    You’ve gone back to the overheads thing here, which again I addressed in my post, and which has been done to death in the online aid community. I’m only restating it here for the people who might read this post and not look elsewhere. Simply put, overheads are not a bad thing in and of themselves, and are categorically nothing to do with the quality (or efficiency) of assistance being provided to people on the ground. The Charity: Water approach plays into the expectations of donors who don’t understand aid realities (great explanation above by Dale on how these things get quickly complicated, even on a small scale). It contradicts years of good donorship advocacy and undermines the efforts of NGOs who are trying to transparently explain to donors how and why they operate. Getting a few donors to cover $1 million so the other $4 million can go to the field directly works fine for a small agency like Charity: Water, but for Save the Children with an annual global budget somewhere around $1 billion, where do you find a donor who is willing to pay $200 million to cover the overheads in one hit (exactly the same ratio of overheads to operations)? Not feasible- so donors shouldn’t expect it.

    Finally a quick word on remittances. Remittances are great- they are a community resource and a powerful way to protect communities, help them cope with crises, and help them manage their own development. They are, however, very different to aid. Aid agencies shouldn’t (although do) eye remittances as competition/money they want. That money belongs to the communities. But note:

    1. Remittances are not impartial, neutral or bound by humanitarian imperative- they go to family members, complete with agendas, and are dependant on community distribution systems which are not always equitable and are based on existing power dynamics.

    2. Remittances favour better-off communities, as it is communities who have been able to educate their members and send them overseas who receive remittences; poorer communities without opportunity are doubly disadvantaged as they do not have as many people sending money back to them.

    Therefore there is room for NGOs to fit alongside remittances, not for one to replace the other.

    Your post does capture several concerns that portions of the public have about the NGO sector and this has value. NGOs should be (and are) aware of that debate; it’s not new (e.g. distrust around use of overheads has been a challenge as long as there have been charities). You have some good solutions and responses and I’d encourage you to keep investigating and creating disussion on how these might be applied to charities, balancing both best practice and pragmatic realities.

    I really would encourage you to read through some of the aid literature that my online colleagues produce- both about good practice and about aid quality. I think it will improve your understanding of the sector on a global level that goes beyond your experience in Bangladesh and with your specific donor audience. From there, you can see how you perceive your ideas might best be applicable to programs and organizations on a more global scale.

    Cheers mate.

  • http://twitter.com/morealtitude morealtitude

    Glad you’re engaging in discussion around aid quality issues Shawn. Dialogue is a healthy thing for everybody and it’s good to challenge institutions. You raise some legitimate concerns about NGO perception by beneficiaries and donors alike and it’s good that you’re seeking options and solutions to them.

    I won’t go into much detail here as most of what you’ve written above about your approach to development was in your video and I’ve discussed it in my original post. It comes down to the acknowledgement that you’re in a good place to be wrestling with things like accountability and program quality, with some creative thoughts especially in how you engage with social media, but that many of your ideas also have challenges with scalability which would need more investigation.

    The inference that your suggested model for development is better than that of established NGOs is a bit like saying that a vehicle from Ford is better than a vehicle from Boeing, because a Ford is affordable and you don’t need to spend years getting a license. This is true, but a Ford can’t carry 400 passengers and can’t cross oceans either. Different approaches fit different operational contexts, each with strengths and weaknesses. A couple of the concerns with your approach (even for smaller projects) are mentioned beneath.

    My statement about communities *always* responding in a way that will give them funds was hyperbole and it’s right that you called me out on that- that’s an overstatement, however the argument stands- that whether westerner or Bangladeshi expatriate or local staff, you always have to take account of the impact that your identity has on the person you’re talking to. You are still an outsider to these communities- even if you’re less of an outsider than I would be. (As a TCK myself I am well aware of what it’s like to have a foot in both camps- and neither). I know of many examples of colleagues from LDCs who return to their villages after working with international NGOs and are treated as outsiders (and walking wallets) so if them, how much more us!

    You’ve overcome this partially by spending time building relationships (a very important aspect of development, especially in relational cultures). NGOs do this too. 90-95% of NGO staff are locals, often drawn from the communities where projects are run. These staff manage the relationship side of things, including taking feedback from community members. Most field projects I have visited run in this way. See HAP for the standards that large NGOs like Save the Children, Oxfam and World Vision, for example, would hold themselves accountable to. The most important message for NGOs out of all of this (given the legitimate concern that the people you spoke to raised) is: Invest in PEOPLE- make sure your staff are the right people for the job, and know how to build relationships between communities and the organization. This is becoming increasingly well understood (but to see why agencies sometimes are slow to change, make sure you check out the message I posted this morning on my blog).

    You want to be careful overemphasising your cultural ties as an expat because while that works in your favour here in Bangladesh, by inference this strength vanishes the moment you move to another culture- Kenya, or China. There are other strengths you can bring as an outsider- such as an external perspective, and not being tied to the same cultural norms. But doing good development work is not dependent on your cultural identity- rather it’s based on how you project your identity, how self-aware and humble/respectful you are, and how well you partner with others on the ground who can walk the cultural landscape to bring out the best in both sides of the fence.

    2 things worth revisiting from the blog-post.

    1. There’s a danger in teaching donors to expect to receive 1-on-1 feedback on their donation, because you make development about the donor’s experience first, not the recipient, when in fact it isn’t, it shouldn’t be, and it mustn’t be. In fact, this message goes against years of messaging to improve donorship, donor expectations and unrestricted giving.

    2. 1-on-1 feedback like this encourages the expectation and giving of ‘stuff’- veering towards handouts and dependency. Giving ‘stuff’ and building ‘things’ are starting to fall by the wayside of good development practice, in place of things like improving the ways in which communities can realise their own rights by engaging with local stakeholders in a deliberate way, taking hold of their own development objectives. This isn’t new thinking- participatory development has been around at least since Chambers and the early 1970s. However the sorts of services NGOs are increasingly providing cannot easily be quantified in a 1-on-1 model, and we mustn’t let our donors think that ‘good development’ equals ‘brown person receives bag of rice’, because it patently doesn’t.

    You’ve gone back to the overheads thing here, which again I addressed in my post, and which has been done to death in the online aid community. I’m only restating it here for the people who might read this post and not look elsewhere. Simply put, overheads are not a bad thing in and of themselves, and are categorically nothing to do with the quality (or efficiency) of assistance being provided to people on the ground. The Charity: Water approach plays into the expectations of donors who don’t understand aid realities (great explanation above by Dale on how these things get quickly complicated, even on a small scale). It contradicts years of good donorship advocacy and undermines the efforts of NGOs who are trying to transparently explain to donors how and why they operate. Getting a few donors to cover $1 million so the other $4 million can go to the field directly works fine for a small agency like Charity: Water, but for Save the Children with an annual global budget somewhere around $1 billion, where do you find a donor who is willing to pay $200 million to cover the overheads in one hit (exactly the same ratio of overheads to operations)? Not feasible- so donors shouldn’t expect it.

    Finally a quick word on remittances. Remittances are great- they are a community resource and a powerful way to protect communities, help them cope with crises, and help them manage their own development. They are, however, very different to aid. Aid agencies shouldn’t (although do) eye remittances as competition/money they want. That money belongs to the communities. But note:

    1. Remittances are not impartial, neutral or bound by humanitarian imperative- they go to family members, complete with agendas, and are dependant on community distribution systems which are not always equitable and are based on existing power dynamics.

    2. Remittances favour better-off communities, as it is communities who have been able to educate their members and send them overseas who receive remittences; poorer communities without opportunity are doubly disadvantaged as they do not have as many people sending money back to them.

    Therefore there is room for NGOs to fit alongside remittances, not for one to replace the other.

    Your post does capture several concerns that portions of the public have about the NGO sector and this has value. NGOs should be (and are) aware of that debate; it’s not new (e.g. distrust around use of overheads has been a challenge as long as there have been charities). You have some good solutions and responses and I’d encourage you to keep investigating and creating disussion on how these might be applied to charities, balancing both best practice and pragmatic realities.

    I really would encourage you to read through some of the aid literature that my online colleagues produce- both about good practice and about aid quality. I think it will improve your understanding of the sector on a global level that goes beyond your experience in Bangladesh and with your specific donor audience. From there, you can see how you perceive your ideas might best be applicable to programs and organizations on a more global scale.

    Cheers mate.

  • http://twitter.com/morealtitude morealtitude

    Hey Debra,

    I can’t speak for NGOs generally because each one has different approaches and different ways of interacting with the public. For example, the World Vision Australia gift catalogue has a very clear FAQ section that explains that funds go into a program and are not delivered 1-to-1, so no misleading going on there.

    http://trans.worldvision.com.au/Smiles/GiftCatalogue/About.aspx

    When agencies such as Tear Fund, World Vision and Save the Children did first start using Gift Catalogue models for fundraising, it started as a 1-to-1 donor promise. They learned within a few years that this was a poor way of doing good development. It was restrictive to program in the field, heavy on logistics costs, and focused on donor interest not field needs. Thus agencies engaging with better field practice are moving towards a program-based approach. Not all agencies are doing that, so I can’t comment, for example, as to what World Vision Gift Catalogue in Canada is doing, but I do know that messaging to donors does need to match what is being done in the field. If an agency is not doing that, then it’s right to hold them to account (phone them up and challenge them!)

    So in short, it’d be right to get upset if an agency is saying one thing about the money then doing another, but wrong to think that because the ‘gifts’ provided are not 1-for-1 that communities are getting short-changed; it’s actually much better practice NOT to do handouts of gifts in that way.

  • http://uncultured.com Shawn Ahmed

    Thanks for posting this clarification. I hope I didn’t give the impression that World Vision is misleading its donors. I consider myself a World Vision supporter and World Vision clearly states that their Gift Catalogue is not a 1-to-1.I (and a few of my friends who donated to the catalogue) made the mistake and assumed it was. We kinda had assumed it worked similar to Heifer International, Kiva, or Charity: Water (which do 1-to-1). But, as I only just learned earlier last week, this is not the case.

  • http://shotgunshack.wordpress.com Shotgun Shack

    I used to work for a sponsorship agency. As we learned more and more, we stopped the one-to-one model because it created problems in the community. I’ll never forget one family that I sat down with because they informed us that they wanted to stop participating in programs that we were funding. The reason they gave for dropping out of health, education and hygiene programs? “My son’s sponsor didn’t send me anything, and the sponsor of the boy who lives down the road sent him a fishing pole.”

    One-to-one giving can really create problems at the community level when some people get more than other people. That is one reason (of many) that most sponsorship agencies have moved to a community based model. Maybe I’ll write a post about that….

  • http://uncultured.com Shawn Ahmed

    That’s a very good point. Although I don’t think that would apply to 1-to-1 examples outside of child sponsorship.

    For example, what is there to complain about with Charity: Water’s 1-to-1 model? That a villager accidentally received more clean water than anticipated?

  • http://uncultured.com Shawn Ahmed

    And, as a secondary thought, I’m reminded of the few times when I’ve helped a few individuals in a village more than others.

    One time, for example, I had a spare t-shirt and decided to give it to one kid – even though there were multiple kids around.

    Having spent time with the village, I was able to (truthfully) explain that I picked the kid who seemed to have the least number of shirts (he only had one). Villagers accepted that.

    I think, along with 1-to-1, needs to come better dialogue. A lot of good things happen when you can have frank conversations with those you help.

  • http://uncultured.com Shawn Ahmed

    Thanks for such an amazingly insightful comment. I need to start this reply with an apology. I’ve been trying so hard to drive home the idea that charities can see gains by changing how they handle overhead, embracing a 1-to-1 relationship, and having a more direct line with donors & recipients that I failed to emphasize my main point.This is about the poor.I don’t claim to be an expert on NGOs and the aid system – I’m just a guy. So I can’t speak to what will sustain and scale for a large multinational NGO. All I can say is that village after village, I have found people who prefer 1-on-1 help, prefer to get help from individuals instead of institutions, and prefer to receive charitable help when they know no cut was taken for overhead.You’ll notice the donor doesn’t even come into the picture.The fact that donors prefer this, support this, and want give money to such initiatives is just icing on the cake. And even if I were to turn off this blog, my youtube account, and this project – donors would still prefer this and recipients would still want this. And organizations like Malaria No More, Charity: Water, Kiva, Heifer International, Generosity: Water, are all growing and multiplying in size each day because of this. So, if donors like this, beneficiaries love this, but big NGOs hate it – than who should win?You also assume that donors, when given the choice to choose whether to donate to overhead or not, will opt only to donate to help the poor. While it is true that some do, what I find is the vast majority of people (when informed about the need for overhead) are as generous (if not even more generous) with separately donating to overhead as they are donating exclusively for the poor. Donors aren’t dumb: they know overhead is needed, they just object to the lack of control. And doing things this way doesn’t reduce it down to “giving stuff” or “giving things”. In fact, I’m hesitant to go into that discussion at all. Because then we go into cliches like “teach a man to fish” and “help people help themselves”. In fact, if you’re really pragmatic, all of the internationally agreed upon United Nations Millennium Development Goals are just “things”. So, if “improving the ways in which communities can realise their own rights by engaging with local stakeholders in a deliberate way, taking hold of their own development objectives” means international NGOs have stopped building wells, stopped building schools, stopped immunizing children, and stopped providing mosquito nets to families at immediate risk of contracting malaria – than they are still giving “things”. And as long as they are doing these “things” they will need donations from the public.I have to admit – I like your conception of cultural identity (and power to project an identity of one’s choosing). It’s so much better than what I’ve seen on-the-ground. In Bangladesh, no matter what rural village you go to – a fair skinned (white) person like yourself will stick out no matter what. And people will make judgements on that before you open your mouth. And those judgements will be tainted with 400 years of colonial history.I know this matters because, as an Indian-skinned person, I’ve seen this first hand when I work outside of Bangladesh. When I did a bit of this project in Kenya, for example, locals were very leery of me. They were negative because Kenya (and this village) has had a history of negative experiences with Indians during British Colonial times. This created an automatic bad first impression virtually everywhere I went. And, even if I have assets that are only applicable to Bangladesh, that’s still a strong case for charities to team up with me in Bangladesh. And, through that, I am sure we will find ways of doing things that will be applicable to well beyond Bangladesh. Whether it’s the value of 1-to-1 (for donors and recipients), the value of trackable donations, or the value of better donor controls/decisions on overhead donations.

  • http://www.worldvision.ca Corina

    Hi Shawn,
    I work at World Vision Canada and I am responding to your post about our Gift Catalogue. I just wanted to provide a clearer understanding of how the catalogue works.
    Communities work closely with World Vision to identify specific needs. Together we identify the gifts that will best address their situation and make the greatest impact. These are the gifts we feature in the catalogue.
    Gifts purchased through the catalogue are not given in isolation. They are part of World Vision’s long-term development programs.
    I can assure you that if you give money to goats, then that money goes to goats.
    In terms of the overhead costs, fundraising and administrative costs are built into the price of the gifts. For example, a gift of livestock includes the cost of training in husbandry and pen construction, pen material, vaccinations and feed.
    There are overhead costs incorporated into the price of the gifts. The breakdown for this is as follows: 82.1% goes to the program, 11.9% goes to fundraising services and 6.0% is allocated to administration. For example, a gift of livestock includes the cost of training in husbandry and pen construction, pen material, vaccinations and feed.

    Shawn, I hope this helps shed some light. Let me know if you have any other questions.

  • http://uncultured.com Shawn Ahmed

    Hi Corina – thanks so much for leaving this comment. Your explanation of how the gift catalogue works is exactly how I thought it works. My confusion arose from this comment:

    http://uncultured.com/2010/08/30/response-to-world-vision-vloggers/#comment-75633081

    Which suggested that the gift catalogue is “representative” items instead of real physical items. And, of course, it makes the most sense that these are part of a longer-term development program instead of isolated gifts.

    In fact, it’s World Vision’s focus and attention to long term development which is why I’m a fan.

  • http://www.worldvision.ca Corina

    Yes, the money does go toward purchasing a school supplies.