Earlier today, Shahnur Alom (a 25 year old Bangladeshi) wrote me this:
Fuck you Shawn, and fuck those chinky basterds you’ve come to help and molest during the night (that’s what aid workers do around the world in the name of charity). you dirty mother fucking Americans can fuck off from our land and suck some Jewish Israeli cocks.
To a Westerner, this guy is just a troll and a hater. However, to a Bangladeshi, this is an attitude which is sadly quite commonplace in Bangladesh. It’s attitudes like this which have made it difficult for NGOs to exist in Bangladesh, for aid workers to do work, and for potential donors to trust whom to give money to.
This is why I do things the way that I do. When I’m in Bangladesh, in virtually every village, I end up having to emphasize three things. And only by emphasizing these three things do I avoid sentiments and attitudes like those from people like Shahnur:
- I have to emphasize that I am not an NGO. What I’m doing is as just a guy.
- I have to emphasize that I have blood ties to Bangladesh.
- I have to prove and emphasize that I respect Islam.
With a population of over 150 million people, Bangladesh is by no means a country of uniform consensus. But, prevalent negative attitudes and perceptions towards NGOs and aid workers is something I feel has been under-reported, insufficiently documented, and poorly-studied.
Granted, there has been one notable study on Bangladeshi elite perceptions on NGOs and poverty. And, on a rare occasion, a non-Bangladeshi aid blogger traveling in Bangladesh will encounter this and blog about it. But the majority of aid & development professionals and scholars don’t focus on this.
This is because, at least of late, there is a focus on quantitative data and a dismissal of anything else as “anecdotes”. But, as any anthropologist will tell you, not all knowledge and insight can be gained from a quantitative approach. Sometimes a small, individual, and ethnographic approach is needed.
I don’t believe the solution to this is for NGOs to go away and for aid and development to be done just by individuals. But I do believe that NGOs and charities can benefit from independent individuals who work alongside NGOs as “bridge-makers”. I’ve already talked about how I try and do this.
In fact, everything I’ve done: from not incorporating, to not using donations to give myself a salary to stipend, to raising funds for overhead separately, to saying no to lucrative job offers with UN agencies and NGOs, and to leveraging technology to directly connect donors and villagers has been with this goal in mind.