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The Nexus of Aid Work & Islamic Extremism

Hartel (Strike) in Bangladesh

With less than a month before the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, violence, protests, and strikes have erupted in Bangladesh. Much of this is fueled by an Islamic political party called Jamaat-e-Islami. This is a political party that exists both in Bangladesh and Pakistan. Their goal? To advance the Islamization of Muslim countries (with the goal of ultimately ruling by Sharia Law).

When acts of violence and religious extremism occur in a far-away country, we usually don’t think of it as having anything to do with the charities we donate to, how NGOs operate in these countries, or how the attitudes and approaches of aid workers affect these issues. But the two are closely interlinked.

What surprises me the most is that aid workers are often the ones least willing to admit that such a connection exists at all. The impression I get from many of my friends and colleagues in the humanitarian sector, is that many see themselves as Starfleet officers operating on their own version of Gene Roddenberry’s Prime Directive.

Unfortunately, while there is a great deal of nobility, selflessness, and self-sacrifice in the aid industry, the notion that one can provide humanitarian aid and development while being impartial and above the fray of local conflicts is science fiction.

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So, I recently stumbled on this article (h/t)…

Click to Read

Article from The Guardian

I agree with a lot that is said here. In fact, I’ve said similar stuff myself (and got grief for it). I’ve also seen amazing stuff that’s really changing the conversation away from “poverty porn”. But, it also got me thinking, what do Bangladeshis think of my work?

Here’s what I found in a five minute search:

For someone who normally has a lot to say about this topic – I find myself speechless.

Thought I’d share…

Empathy vs. Sympathy

If you’re familiar with the YouTube community, you probably already know Craig (aka WheezyWaiter). If not, I strongly urge you to check out his channel and subscribe. Craig recently made a video talking about the difference between empathy and sympathy.

I’m mentioning this video on this blog because the difference between sympathy and empathy is something I’ve talked about a lot – albeit mostly offline with friends – when I talk about changing the conversation on global poverty.

You see, one of the things that inspired me to start this project is that I hated how charities were (and sometimes still are) talking about global poverty. You’ve probably all seen the ads: it usually features black and white images of emaciated crying children with an ominous voice saying how you can save their lives for just $2 a day.

Screenshot from a child-sponsorship charity TV advertisement that airs here in Canada. Ads like this are sympathy-based marketing. We're provoked into donating because we feel pity for what we see - not because we relate to what we see.

The problem with this kind of messaging is that it reduces the poor to a “them” or to objects which we pity. More importantly, as we become a more connected and globalized society, many of the poor are becoming aware of how their images are being used abroad and do not want to be portrayed in such a manner.

And bottom line, if we get inundated with guilt-based messaging, it only becomes a matter of time until we tune out the whole issue of global poverty. Guilt-based messaging does a disservice both to the individuals whose images they use and the overall goal of ending extreme global poverty.

Empathy-based messaging tries to portray the depth, complexity, and humanity of those in need. It often skews towards positive and happy imagery because, as a nature of the human condition, we are able to better empathize with someone's joy than someone's pain.

Moving to empathy-based messaging is the first step to trying to understand the complexity of ending extreme global poverty. But, to paraphrase John Green, we are limited by our own experiences and the lives we were born into. This limits how fully and how complexly we can imagine those who are different from us.

But just because we have limits to empathizing what it’s like to be from a different culture, ethnicity, or religion doesn’t mean we shouldn’t constantly be striving to imagine people complexly. And this is where I think the next step (beyond empathy-based messaging) comes in. There can be bridge-makers (or “free agents”) who can help foster greater mutual understanding and empathy.

But that’s a blog post for another day.

This is how it should be.

Lately, this project has attracted a lot of attention from NGO and charity professionals from big organizations. They’ve all been trying to drive home the point that things like tracking donations, not taking overhead from donations, and connecting you directly with those you help are not sustainable, scalable, or something they want to do.

Let’s ignore that for a moment and watch this video:

When I started this project, I was advocating that we need to change the conversation about global poverty. That means we need to move away from controlled charity messages that are about guilting us into donating and disconnecting us from those we want to help.

The fact that there is now a charity director (Scott Harrison) preaching the same thing just blows my mind. And, I can’t commend him enough for having the guts to share this failure with us. I’ve been talking a lot about transparency – it doesn’t get more transparent than publicizing your failures for the world to see.

I haven’t worked with Charity: Water (yet) but let me tell you what I think will happen based on my own experiences. First, existing donors who see this will admire Scott’s honesty and transparency. Some of them will actually even donate more. That’s actually what has happened with me whenever I’ve talked & tweeted about my mistakes & failures.

Secondly, and most importantly, people on the ground will respect Charity: Water even more. Villagers aren’t dumb – they know when a charity wants to hide failures from the public. If the people Scott encounters are anything like the villagers I’ve encountered – they will respect him more for keeping the cameras rolling during this failure.

It will be respect well earned. And something worth supporting.

P.S. As a note to big NGO professionals who remind me that Charity: Water is small scale. I’d like to point out that, Charity: Water has been growing at an astronomical rate year-after-year. This is a growth during a bad economy no less! If you don’t think Charity: Water isn’t in this to scale even larger – keep watching them.

World Vision Vloggers

The tl;dr version: World Vision is the first charity to genuinely engage with the YouTube community. We need to support this – but we also need to make it clear we have more to offer than just vlogs.

I’ve also said the same thing in more detail (and with examples) in this video:

During my time away from Bangladesh, I’ve been talking to a lot of charities. I’ve consulted with UNICEF, presented at Save the Children HQ, entered talks with the Red Cross, and have been giving input to World Vision.

World Vision is the first charity that’s heard me out and created a plan of action to engage the YouTube community. I was glad to have some input on this. And World Vision has done it in a way that experts like Beth Kanter would be proud: they are letting outsiders come in and aren’t worrying about perfection on the first try.

If you’ve been reading this blog, you know I’ve been advising charities to stop relying solely on Hollywood celebrities. Sending regular folks like Alex, Shawna, and Tom to Zambia have already generated over 300,000 views for World Vision on YouTube. See charities? I told you so.

The big challenge is the next step. My hope is that World Vision will use this success to do more ambitious things with the YouTube community. My fear is that, impressed by the amount of views they are getting, they won’t be challenged to try and engage this community in a deeper way.

If the support I’ve been getting is any indication, the YouTube community wants input on the charity work being on the ground. We want to see where the money goes, we want to see a project executed from start to finish, and we want to get to know the specific people our money has helped.

The technology to do this is here and it’s something I’ve been doing for a while now. But, after spending over 2 years to repair a school, what incentive does a charity have to do something like this again when I can only generate less than 40,000 views? Alex packing for his trip already got World Vision over 200,000 views.

This is an important moment for the YouTube community. We need to praise World Vision for engaging the YouTube community – but we also need to let them know we want more than just them replicating their celebrity-style visits with high profile YouTubers.

One way you can do this is let World Vision know. They are listening. On the World Vision Vloggers website, they have a place where you can leave a note (see the photo below for where the link is). Feel free to drop them a line. You can also tweet something using the #wvv hashtag and they will see it.

World Vision wants your feedback either through leaving a note (see link that I highlighted in the photo) or by tweeting #wvv as a hashtag.

How to Engage Us

Beth Kanter

This blog post is for those who have found my work through Beth Kanter’s presentation at the Personal Democracy Forum in New York City.

First, don’t let the self-referential blog posts, tweets, and videos fool you – this isn’t about me as much as it is about the community supporting it. We are a group of idealistic people who want to be part of the generation that ends extreme poverty (in our lifetime no less).

But, we don’t like being guilted into donating with depressing images of poverty. We don’t like to donate money in a way we can’t track where our donation has gone. And we don’t like the fact that most charities can be fortresses which tend to keep us at arms length.

My role in this community is simple: I’m part journalist (telling stories from the field), I’m part philanthropist (raising funds as a private citizen), and I’m part implementer (executing the democratic will of the communities I meet on the ground and the community that participates online).

I call this community-powered “philanthropic journalism”. Beth calls it being a “free agent”. If this is something you’d like to engage – here’s what you should keep in mind:

Interviewing Save the Children Field Personnel

On the Ground Access

5) I need on-the-ground access: I need to be able to bring my camera, cellphone, and laptop into the field with your charity or organization so I can write blogs, make videos, and tweet. This means I need both the permission from your organization to do so and technical capacity (i.e. internet connection & bandwidth) to upload content from the field.

4) I have a preference for Bangladesh: My parents were born & raised in Bangladesh – it has a special place in my heart. More importantly, if we team up in Bangladesh you don’t have to worry about needing a Bengali translator or worry about setting me up with mobile internet. I can figure it out.

3) I do more than report: I need to be able to provide your organization with restricted donations to do specific projects. Why restricted? Because it’s the only way I can guarantee to the community where exactly their money has gone. Ideally, I’d like to negotiate minimal (or no) administrative costs.

Connecting Communities

Connecting Communities

2) I do more than donate: I have learned the devil is in the details. Having control over naming rights, signboard design, and allowing for changes in project plans based on on-the-ground feedback and online input is how this becomes less about hand-outs and more about one community helping another.

1) I don’t do it for name or fame: If this was about self-aggrandizement, I wouldn’t be writing this blog post from Toronto, Canada. I’d already be back in the field with a fly by night “charity” which would let me do whatever I wanted. This is about doing good with good organizations.

I realize that these five things don’t make it the easiest for me to work or team up with. It would be so much easier for me to take photos while I hand you a big check at your home office. But, the community behind this project wants something more substantive. In exchange, you will find we’re fiercely loyal and passionate. And made of awesome.


If you’re a for-profit, you’re more than welcome to join what we could call a “threesome for good”: with me as a free-agent, a trusted organization as charity implementer, and a for-profit helping to fund the logistics (and the charity’s admin costs) behind all this. And hey, if there is a for-profit that will pay a man to dance around the world, surely there is a for-profit that will pay for this guy to go and help people.

You can reach me on Twitter @uncultured and by email at