“Lying” in Aid & Development

Last month, I wrote a blog post about negatives attitudes to NGOs in Bangladesh. I’ve also talked about how these negative attitudes can be avoided by being a “free agent”, emphasizing blood ties, and respecting and understanding Islam.

I’d like to elaborate on that last point because I recently stumbled on this video:

Before you click play, I should probably point out this video is not for everyone. At the very start of this video, the Imam suggests that all non-Muslims (with a particular emphasis on Israelis) are liars.

It’s also important to note that this particular Imam, has got in trouble in the past and has been accused of hate speech. But, honestly, what he’s preaching would not be out of place in many conservative villages in Bangladesh.

Traditional Islam has a strict standard on what is and is not considered a lie. There is no such thing as an “innocent white lie”. Moreover, the penalty for lying is severe and can incur the wrath of God (including the afterlife – Qu’ran 4:145).

“Fear Allah, and be with the truthful.” (Qu’ran 9:119)

In the strict interpretation of Islam, even hyperbole is considered a grave lie (i.e. “I called you a million times!”). In fact, as the Imam points out, even wearing colored contacts or dying your hair is a form of dishonesty.

But how does this pertain to aid and development? And why does not being a NGO or charity seem to help foster greater trust in more conservative villages in Bangladesh? Find out after the jump

Word as a Bond

Over here, we’re used to being sarcastic, hyperbolic, &  saying we’ll do something when we really mean “I’ll try my best”. But in rural Bangladesh, saying you’re going to do something is often tantamount to making a God-as-your-witness commitment.

Because exaggeration and hyperbole is tantamount to lying, it’s always better to under-promise and over-deliver. It’s also important to note that interpretations on what is and is not lying can be drastically different in (modern, progressive, and multi-cultural) urban areas versus (homogeneous and conservative) rural areas.

A Different Kind of Accountability

“The signs of the hypocrite are three: when he speaks, he lies; when he makes a promise, he breaks it; and when he is entrusted with something, he betrays that trust.” (Narrated by al-Bukhaari, 33; Muslim, 59)

The reason why I feel the concept of free agents working alongside existing organizations can work so well in Bangladesh is because it adds a more local conception of accountability.

For us, an organization is “accountable” if it is registered, has structure, has policies, procedures, rules, regulations, and oversight. Also a positive Charity Navigator rating doesn’t hurt either.

But for many villagers in Bangladesh, being accountable means being accountable to Allah. It means following Allah’s commandments on conduct, behavior, and rules on what is and is not lying.

There in lies the problem. In Islam, an organization is not a person and cannot be held to account to God. And employees within an organization are but parts of a larger whole and are bound by the policies and procedures set before them.

By this conception, organizations can be seen as something that allows people to shirk and shield themselves from accountability to Allah and his commandments on honesty. This is why having “free agents” in the mix is so important.

Qualitative Not Quantitative

I’m by no an expert on Islam, on Bangladesh, or even aid and development. But I do feel that aspects like Islamic influenced and inspired concepts of honesty and accountability are not sufficiently studied by aid professionals.

This is because, as I’ve said before, there is a skew towards quantitative sources of data. Things which don’t have a “Big N” are dismissed as being nothing but anecdotes. But, to understand why many people distrust NGOs, you really do need a qualitative, ethnographic, and anthropological approach.

Until then, I don’t know if heart-felt and unscripted testimonials from villagers (like in the video below) will be dismissed as a mere anecdote or as indicator warranting further research:


6 Responses to ““Lying” in Aid & Development”

  1. 1 L (not the detective)

    Wow! I’m really glad that you posted this. I feel like I learned something new about Islamic culture today, and you showed how it is applicable and relevant to aid & development work.

    I think that it is extremely important to understand other cultures and it is a shame that (at least in the USA) there aren’t any “world culture” classes taught to public school children, and very few at the university level. Understanding the cultural norms of other places in the world is vital to interacting and *truly* communicating with others in a meaningful way.

    My professor half-jokingly said it well, “Americans think that the rest of the world are Americans living abroad.” In a lot of ways, I think that Americans and other western countries impose our cultural norms on other countries, and when we go into a country like Afghanistan or Iraq, we don’t understand why American-style democracy isn’t working. The British did it for a long time, whenever they colonized another country. And as you’ve shown, cultural differences can have larger ramifications.

    I don’t necessarily fault anyone – everyone does this to an extent. It’s natural to think that the rest of the world operates in the same way you experience it. (It often doesn’t even occur to many people that the differences in cultures have an impact on the way we interact.)

    What is important is the realization that it the rest of the world is not the same as you. What is important is to be *taught* that “no, in this part of the world, it’s supposed to be done *this way*,” so that we have a better understanding of other cultures and how to interact with members of those communities.


  2. 2 Blue Skies

    I’ve added ‘hyperbole’ to the long list of reasons why I’m going to Hell.

  3. 3 Kirstena

    I agree with you that understanding local attitudes is extremely important as an aid worker, or really any foreigner living abroad, and I think you’ve done a really good job, in this post and others, trying to identify specifically with the people of Bangladesh. If every expat and aid worker put as much time and effort as you have into trying to understand local context, I think attitudes and practices would be a lot different. Thank you for setting such a great example.
    My only other comment is to be wary of conflating religion and culture too much. Islam as it is practiced in Bangladesh probably looks much different than in other parts of the world, due in part to cultural differences, and I have a feeling that there is a cultural element behind this emphasis on honesty. I have spent some time in the Middle East and Muslims there do not, in general, seem to place the same importance on truthfulness.

  4. 4 Shawn Ahmed

    Oh yes – I couldn’t agree more with you. One aid blogger in another post said she didn’t believe what I was saying because she didn’t see this with Muslims living in Thailand.

    And I think it’s a mix, it’s religion combined with local interpretations and culture the creates local context. And Islam has mixed with culture very differently in different parts of the world.

    The only thing I’d add to your comment is that I do believe there are certain human charitable tendencies that have existed long before NGOs.

    For example, I think the desire to have a connection with those we are helping is less a modern fad and more to do with our historical development – perhaps dating back to when humans were mere hunter-gatherers.

  5. 5 London1202

    Couldn’t disagree more.

    In my experience, bangladeshis are the biggest liars on the planet.

    They are actually quite incapable of telling the truth.

    They have a genetic predisposition to mendacity

  6. 6 Shawn Ahmed

    @56f0e97aa3ae879d4e349c054b921ef9:disqus – At least you’re honest enough to share your feelings.

    Though, sadly, you’re not brave enough to back it up by attaching your real name to your comment.

  1. 1 The Nexus of Aid Work & Islamic Extremism | The Uncultured Project
  2. 2 How Come the Poor Can’t Video Blog? Thoughts on the Digital Divide | The Uncultured Project
  3. 3 free instagram followers

Leave a Reply