Have To Be Poor To Help The Poor?

If you follow me on Twitter, you already know I’m back in Bangladesh. When I’m Dhaka, I live with my maternal uncle and aunt. Lately, I’ve been noticing a trend.

Just a few days ago, when I came back home carrying a bunch of groceries, my uncle chastised me saying “you better not have used any donations to pay for those groceries!”. In his mind, using donations – however small – for my own food, clothing, or anything that benefits me would be tantamount to stealing.

Toilet paper, antibiotics, soap, and pajamas - not taking a salary from donations is not enough for my Bangladeshi uncle. I also can't use donations to buy personal necessities.

I was able to put the matter to rest by explaining that my groceries were paid for with an allowance from my parents. Besides, if I bought something such as computer or video equipment that I could benefit from outside of charity work, I have a fund specifically for equipment. No donations to help the poor have been “stolen”.

The next day, after having dinner, I pulled out a small snack I had brought to Bangladesh with me from Canada. I brought it with me because it’s a small little treat you can’t find here. As I was eating in front of my aunt, my aunt looked at me and asked: “if you’re helping the poor, why do you eat such expensive food?”.

Eating this protein bar (about two bucks) is a "betrayal of my principles to help alleviate poverty" according to my Bangladeshi aunt.

The snack cost me less than $3. But, when 80% of Bangladeshis earn less than $2 and day (and about half earn less than $1 a day), I could see how this snack (a protein bar) could be seen as an opulent indulgence. “If you help the poor” my aunt elaborated, “you should live a very modest life – or it goes against your principles of wanting to alleviate poverty”.

I bring this up because many aid experts, aid bloggers, or aid professionals simply don’t get what it is I’m trying to do with this project. Some see me as a fundraiser – raising funds for charities I like. Others see it as online promotion – getting lots of tweets, retweets, and YouTube views for my favorite charities.

That’s not it at all. At best, you could call all that stuff a side-effect of my work.

The way we – as Westerners – perceive charities is very different than how locals in the countries that charities serve are perceived. It’s not just a Bangladesh thing. It’s not just a Muslim thing. Nor is it something that you can control for with education. My aunt and uncle, for example, are both Western educated.

It’s a point of view that’s based on the idea that, if you’re devoting your life to serve the poor, you must essentially be “one of them”. To live a life more comfortable than those you help, you are “going against your principles”. And, if you’re an aid worker living such a life from donations given to help the poor, you’re a thief.

Westerners may understand the need for aid workers to travel around in SUVs. But many locals in which charities serve in see this as an example of aid workers "eating the cash" meant to help the poor.

I’ve written about this before and about the Bengali phrase “NGOs taka kai fellay” (aka “Charities eat the cash”). It’s a philosophy that donations given to help the poor should go to directly benefit the poor and not in anyway benefit, help, or sustain those serving the poor.

Villagers in Southern Bangladesh talk about how "NGOs taka kai fellay"

The primary goal of my work is to build (figurative) bridges. When different peoples, religions, incomes, or cultures disagree – we need to foster a verstehen between the two. It’s the only way that tomorrow can be slightly better than it is today. For aid and development, this divide needs to be bridged.

Locals who aren’t receiving aid (like my aunt) voice their disdain of NGOs and the aid system by abstaining from it. They don’t donate or support NGOs. It’s kind of like living in mafia-controlled neighborhood – you think poorly of the mob and do your best to avoid them in your everyday life.

Locals who are aid recipients express their disdain in many different ways. Some will create unrealistic demands and exaggerate needs to aid workers. Others, like village merchants, will jack up their prices. Some will simply refuse to help sustain and maintain NGO projects that are handed over to the local community.

A leaking & broken faucet from a Pond Sand Filter left in disrepair. Villagers refused to maintain it after an NGO handed it over to the community.

And then there are the extremists – who leverage this divide for their own purposes. It could be a mullah trying to radicalize or mobilize local Muslims. It could be an ambitious and savvy local wishing to run for office on an anti-NGO campaign. If there is a divide – extremists will always seek to widen it to their advantage.

A political protest backed by one of Bangladesh's Islamic political parties

The thing to keep in mind is that divides aren’t bridged by insiders or “renegades”. No NGO employee, earning a salary from an NGO, will ever be able to prove that NGOs “don’t eat the cash”. And it’s hard to help NGOs overcome local disdain if all you do is go off and be an “aid renegade” and do “do-it-yourself aid”. You need independent bridge-makers who can work with both sides and see the merits of what each is saying and doing.

My Grandma watching "We Can Speak For Ourselves". She was among many locals that have been watching and viewing my work. What stands out to most here isn't that the poor are speaking for themselves, but rather that the work I did with Save the Children was done in a way that 100% of donations given to help the poor went directly to help the poor and not aid worker salaries or "overhead".

That’s what I’m trying to do. That’s why I’m here in Bangladesh. And I love that, along the way in this work, I can do charity projects, raise money for organizations I like, and promote worthy organizations. I guess I’ll just eat my protein bars away from my aunt while I do it.

  • http://twitter.com/abmakulec Amanda Makulec

    I respect those sentiments, Shawn, but I think the way the system is built you have to think about NGO-funded programs and bilateral/multilateral-funded programs in two different ways. 

    When the US Congress makes allocations for foreign aid, one of the selling points to many Republican critics of aid spending is that some of those dollars come back into the US economy by hiring US-based aid workers/consultants, buying flights on US-based carriers, etc. 

    Is their reasoning perfect? No, but considering that the alternate scenario could be severe reductions in aid allocations and having funds cut off to meaningful impactful projects, which would you rather see: US-based aid workers paid a salary to manage or administer valuable programs, with the majority of funds supporting field efforts, or having the programs cut off entirely based on your apparently rationale that aid workers who take a salary are stealing from the poor and should work for free?

  • http://uncultured.com Shawn Ahmed

    Hi Amanda – I just want to be absolutely, unequivocally, and 100% clear about this: I personally do not believe aid workers who take a salary are stealing from the poor. Period. End of sentence.

    What I am saying is that – among locals in many countries, communities, and regions that aid workers serve in that IS the perception. It’s a perception that exists exogenous of income level, education, and religion.

    The point I was trying to make is that – we need to do better. We need to address this. We need to talk about this. And we need to explore ways that these two points of views can be bridged for the betterment of all.

    I think the tone of your comment hits the nail on the head regarding the current POV. You see it as a dichotomy: either things continue exactly as they are and locals just accept it, or foreign aid and aid workers pack-up their bags and funding gets cut.

    There has to be a better way. 

    And it starts by expanding what we all consider “meaningful impactful projects”. How meaningful is a project, if local villagers have a disdain towards the system which implemented the project? How impactful is a project going to be, if villagers don’t want to invest in sustaining something done by “rich NGOs”? 

  • http://jremps.wordpress.com/ Jenni

    Very interesting post! I think that it is totally valid for aid workers to have salaries. In fact, I think that by sustaining people “doing the work”, more work can be done. This is a challenging territory though because I also am weary of charities which have founders with large salaries. I guess then I have to ask, what is a fair wage?

    I am more concerned with the protein bar though, to be honest! I think you are doing great work Shawn, have you ever considered veganism? The milk in that protein bar resulted in the torture, suffering and death of many cows. http://www.peta.org/issues/animals-used-for-food/dairy-industry.aspx

  • Alain Labrique

    This recent blog is especially relevant: http://devpolicy.org/should-aid-workers-lead-comfortable-lives/