Archive for the 'changing the conversation' Category

The Foreign Pornographer

“What are you doing? Making poverty porn?” I asked.

It was a Sunday night here in Dhaka. I was drenched in sweat having nearly completed a 50 mile bike ride around the city. I was passing by the upper class part of town when I had to stop.

In the middle of the street, stood a foreigner taking a photo of the most crippled street beggar he could find – an elderly man with stubby deformed legs roaming around in a wheelchair.

Armed with a DSLR and lighting rig, worth more money than this beggar would see in his entire lifetime, the foreigner had the beggar pose with a photo of Ronald Regan in front of his face.

“Why Ronald Regan?” I asked the foreigner. He ignored me – pretending I wasn’t there.

I pedaled right next to him – putting myself between him and the expensive luxury SUV he had rode up in. I didn’t notice it at the time, but the car sported yellow license plates: a privilege reserved for diplomats and dignitaries.

“Excuse me – why Ronald Regan?” I asked again. The foreigner coyly shrugged. “Because why not?” he asked. “But why Ronald Regan? What are you trying to do? Besides make poverty porn?” I asked. He turned to me and smirked.

“That’s exactly what I’m doing” he replied.

His flippancy was astounding. It only got worse.

Continue reading ‘The Foreign Pornographer’

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’

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’

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.