Author Archive for ShawnPage 3 of 50

An Open Letter to Invisible Children Supporters

Dear Supporters of Invisible Children,

A lot of you may be confused at all the criticism that Invisible Children (IC) has faced as of late. Perhaps you feel that this criticism is coming from people who fail to understand the mission and nature of IC. Alternatively, perhaps, you may feel that this criticism – while having some merit – has been unfairly blown out of proportion.

What I think needs to be understood is that there is no such thing as black and white. Invisible Children, as an organization, isn’t some nefarious evil group robbing people of their money. But, at the same time, Invisible Children isn’t an organization that can claim to be the most efficient or on a path that does the least harm.

I want to briefly touch upon 3 points which I hope explains why some of this criticism exists. And why it’s important.

Continue reading ‘An Open Letter to Invisible Children Supporters’

Instant Replay

Today I had one of my flashbacks of Cyclone Sidr. I don’t know if you’d call it PTSD or not but it’s certainly not fun to have those memories replaying in your head like some DVR. Instead of keeping it to myself, or writing it in my Moleskine, I thought I’d talk about it here.

It was 2007 and Cyclone Sidr had just hit a few days prior. I had teamed up with a Western INGO (that was not Save the Children) that was one of the first to respond. Bodies and corpses were showing up everywhere – burying the dead hadn’t even begun yet.

This INGO was helping provide clean water to what was the equivalent of a Save the Children Child Safe Centre – a place for children to stay safe, get help, have shelter, and be protected from human trafficking during this post-disaster period. One of the kids, if I remember correctly, lost her last surviving parent and had become an orphan.

I remember timidly interviewing her on camera – choosing my words and my tone ever so carefully. This was quickly disrupted by the INGO that I had come with. The lead aid worker barked at me to stop filming and to pack up. The reason? “Their needs trump mine” and they want this girl for themselves.

The girl was quickly whisked from a private corner with me and her current guardian and plopped in the middle of a group of children. Why? Because it looked better on camera. She was then strung and wired up with AV gear – stuff she’d never seen in her life. Why? Because the audio was better.

Then one of the INGO’s aid workers/videographers propped this giant camera bigger than this girl’s head inches from her face. There, surrounded by a dozen kids, strangers, expat aid workers, and on-lookers she was instructed to talk about her dead parent. The girl, who just a moment ago was calmly talking to me, started gasping and crying.

I don’t have a grandiose point to make with this post. It just… angers me. There are more aid, development & relief organizations out there now than there have been in the history of the world. And the technology to arm each of these organizations with the gear to record video or capture images has never been cheaper.

And, maybe because it is so easy to go “into the field” with this gear, we assume that we have a sense of entitlement. Whether it’s to “capture the truth” or to “tell a story” or to “raise awareness” or to “raise funds” or to “promote the good works of an organization”.

But the purpose of a camera in the field shouldn’t be for the benefit of the viewer, or the donor, or the organization. It should be about serving and empowering those in front of the lens. And just because it’s a video and can have slick editing, music, and graphics doesn’t make it entertainment.

I wish more people understood that. That’s all.

We Speak For Ourselves

When it comes to international aid and development, we are all biased. It doesn’t matter if you’re a donor reading pamphlets, a celebrity or YouTuber endorsing your favorite NGO, a journalist interviewing villagers, an academic outside of the ivory tower, an experienced aid professional talking about “good aid”, or even a free agent trying to be a bridge-maker.

There is nothing nefarious about this fact. We as human beings, while capable of untold capacities for empathy, will never have a complete verstehen and fully imagine the complexity of others. This is important because the arbiters of what is and is not “good aid” and what does and does not “harm the poor” must be the ones whom international aid is meant to serve.

This latest video, which among other things shows a project I did in collaboration with Save the Children, is my attempt to bring the poor one step closer to being able to speak for themselves. This is by no means the pinnacle of the kind of global voice I think the poorest of the poor should have. Rather, I see this as merely Step 4 out of a 5 Step Program.

This video also connects with a lot of things I’ve talked about on this blog – from mistrust of NGOs in Bangladesh, to raising overhead separately, to Islamic POVs on aid (which partly influences why many Bangladeshis talk about overhead), to the need for the poor to be more digitally and globally connected, to explaining the significance of the woman (near the end of the video) blessing the donors.

If you’re new to my work then I should point out this isn’t about raising as much money as possible. If you want to donate, I strongly suggest you consider donating to Save the Children instead of me. My goal has always been just to change the conversation on global poverty – that means less guilt, pushing for diversity, and letting the poor speak for themselves.

5 Steps for NGOs to Move from Guilt to Empowerment

My thoughts on how charities need to drop the guilt is getting tons of views. But the question remains: how does a charity drop the guilt? Can they do it overnight? Cold turkey?

As I mentioned some charities, like the US-branch of Save the Children, have already stopped using “poverty porn”. I’d like to share something I’ve talked to them about behind closed doors.

I guess you can call it a 5 Step Program for NGOs using guilt:

Continue reading ’5 Steps for NGOs to Move from Guilt to Empowerment’

3 Reasons Charities Need to Drop the Guilt

A Charity Guilt-Ad Currently Airing in Canada

It’s 2011 and we still live in a world where many charities think that the best way to raise funds to help those in need is by using guilt.

This needs to stop and here are three reasons why:

Continue reading ’3 Reasons Charities Need to Drop the Guilt’

Islam and Online Aid & Development Discourse

Recently, a Muslim reminded me of verse 49:11 from the Qu’ran. For most of you reading this, and most likely unfamiliar with that verse, here’s what it says:

O you who have believed, let not a people ridicule [another] people; perhaps they may be better than them; nor let women ridicule [other] women; perhaps they may be better than them. And do not insult one another and do not call each other by [offensive] nicknames. Wretched is the name of disobedience after [one's] faith. And whoever does not repent – then it is those who are the wrongdoers.

The Qu’ran, for many Muslims, is considered to be the direct word of God. Not “divinely inspired” like the Bible – but the actual direct word-for-word message from God. As such, it’s considered perfect and constitutes a moral code by which all Muslims must adhere to.

As I’ve talked about before, there is a great deal of distrust and even hatred towards the aid industry and NGOs in Bangladesh (a country where the population is about 90% Muslim). I’ve also talked about how I’ve been trying to use my ethnicity and social media to bridge this gap. But part of this problem also stems from how those in the aid industry talk about aid.

Even in an open and democratic platform like the internet, aid discussions tend to suffer from groupthink and exclude minority voices. This exclusion can happen simply because of the snark, sarcasm, and personal attacks that are frequently thrown around in online aid conversations.

Blog post from a prominent aid blogger (working at a major International NGO). Post uses the word "douchenozzle" five times and ends the post with "Total. F-cking. Douche. Nozzle."

The definition of "douchenozzle" (as provided by UrbanDictionary.com)

I try to keep this blog G-rated, so I won’t provide more examples than what you can see in the above screenshots. But, comments like this are by no means an outlier. I have screenshots of aid bloggers using words and/or vulgar euphemisms for words like this, this and this on a myriad of topics, posts, and tweets. What makes it worse is that such words are actually condoned or, sometimes, applauded.

Comments left by other aid bloggers to the above cited blog post.

Complements were also sent via Twitter...

As the digital divide is being bridged, more of the world’s poor will be able to observe these online conversations. Unless organizations develop an internal professional code of conduct for their aid workers who use social media, this could be the next great liability for NGOs. Posting anonymously may not shield NGOs. Aid workers aren’t l33t haxxors and no one stays anonymous forever.

Many Bangladeshis already tell me that the aid industry and INGOs don’t reflect them, their values, or their way of doing things. If this tone is condoned and applauded by those working to help the poor…. then they may be right.

There Is No “Them”

I don’t know what this means but, despite being inspired by Dr. Jeffrey Sachs (author of “The End of Poverty”), I sometimes find myself also agreeing with Dr. William Easterly (author of the book critical of foreign aid called “The White Man’s Burden”).

Today was one of those days:

What Dr. Easterly is referring to is the fact that, even if you had the power to control billions of aid dollars, this really can’t be about what “we” (in the developed world) can do to help “them” (those in the developing world).

But here is where I believe we need to change the conversation – and the thinking – on global poverty. When it comes to humanity, there is no “them” there are only facets of “us”. So we don’t have to help “them”, we have to help “us”.

And we can only help “us” if we understand “us” and talk to “us” and not second guess what will help “us”. This, of course, is what any good charity or NGO says they are already doing. But I believe we can do much more on this front.

For example, take the very medium in which Dr. Easterly is espousing his views on aid. Even if “we” derive an online consensus on what is and isn’t “good aid”, it is a consensus made without the inclusion of the poorest of the poor.

If the poor don’t even have a say in a “free and open” platform like the internet, what chance do they have of having a strong say anywhere else? In the classrooms of Western universities? In NGO boardrooms? In government?

“What can we do?” is really the only question that needs to be asked – but only if “we” is redefined.