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Aid Work, Cynicism, and Islam

Recently, I stumbled upon this post by a Muslim. It outlines what they feel Islam is about. I think most of the Muslims reading this would agree with what’s written.

Here’s an excerpt:

Be truthful in everything, don’t lie.
Be sincere and straightforward, don’t be hypocritical.
Be honest, don’t be corrupt.
Be humble, don’t be boastful.
Be moderate, don’t be excessive.
Be reserved, don’t be garrulous.
Be soft-spoken, don’t be loud.
Be refined and gentle in speech, don’t curse and use foul language.
Be loving and solicitous to others, don’t be unmindful of them.
Be considerate and compassionate, don’t be harsh.
Be polite and respectful to people, don’t be insulting or disrespectful.
Be generous and charitable, don’t be selfish and miserly.
Be good natured and forgiving, don’t be bitter and resentful.
Share and be content with what Allah has given you, don’t be greedy.
Be cheerful and pleasant, don’t be irritable and morose.
Be chaste and pure, don’t be lustful.
Be alert and aware of the world around you, don’t be absent-minded.
Be dignified and decent, don’t be graceless.
Be optimistic and hopeful, don’t be cynical or pessimistic.

I wish more aid workers (especially aid workers that serve in countries where there are a lot of Muslims) understood this and respected it. Because, especially in online conversations about aid and development, there seems to be a penchant towards cynicism.

Don’t get me wrong – I understand why that is. Anyone who spends any reasonable amount of time doing aid work (and I don’t mean short curated celebrity, journalist, or voluntourism trips) will understand there is a lot to be frustrated, enraged, and outraged about when it comes to aid and development.

But, and this is why I often see the beauty in some of the sayings and teachings of Islam, there is a need to acknowledge a grey area. It’s not a binary proposition: one needn’t be either cynical and bitter or doe-eyed and optimistic. One can intellectually acknowledge there is a lot to be cynical about… and choose to be optimistic.

For those who are Muslim – that’s what God commands people to do. For aid workers who work and serve in Muslim communities – they need to acknowledge and respect this fact. Unfortunately some aid workers (especially vocal aid bloggers) don’t get it.

I think what these individuals feel is that cynicism is a sign of intellectual refinement and critical thinking. While that can very well be – there are ways to be intellectual, to disagree, and to offer critique in a way that follows the tenets listed above. And, to be honest, Muslims aren’t saints in their adherence to this either.

It’s also important to realize that aid workers aren’t Jon Stewart or Stephen Colbert. Aid discussions can’t be compared, as have already been, to shows on Comedy Central. Because when aid workers pretend to be Jon Stewart they may end up coming off more like Rush Limbaugh to those that they are trying to serve.

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.