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How I Use Social Media & My Ethnicity to Help the Poor

Young Mother Stands with Her Child after Cyclone Aila Hit

Let me introduce you to this young mother I met in Galachipa, Bangladesh. This photo was taken just after Cyclone Aila – you can see that part of her house’s wall is missing. Trust me, I don’t bring this up as a downer.

After I met her, I explained to her what I was doing: that I’m not a charity official or employee – I’m just a guy. And, with my camera and camcorder, she could send a message to all my friends around the world.

I asked her: what does she want people outside of Bangladesh to know? What single message would be the most important to send? After I heard what she had to say, I knew I could never release the message.

She made a message with the names of specific individuals and groups who she felt were mishandling people’s donations. She urged people not to donate through these methods – because it would never reach her.

This is not an uncommon occurrence. And I mention this because of a blog post written by a friend and aid worker whom I have a great deal of respect for.

While I agree with much of what he said, this one passage sticks out the most:

I want to just remind folks of the risks of observer bias- that being that when you rock up to Village X with a notepad, or a camera, your very presence affects the answers that will be given. Community members may lack resources, and even education, but they’re not stupid. When a donor representative like myself or Shawn asks them a question, they will always give the answer that makes it most likely that they will receive more funds. If they turn around and complain about the quality of aid, they know there’s a risk that the donors in question may write off the village as a failed project and move on. Big smiles and thank-yous are far more likely to make a donor feel good and give more- and they know this.

I mention this because, for me, this couldn’t be further from the truth. Click the jump to find out why.

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Help Danielle (& Help Me Learn)

A few months back, I was contacted by the brilliant Dr. Michael Wesch. If you don’t know who he is – he’s basically writing the book (literally & figuratively) on what it means to form and be a community on the internet. This video with over a million views is one of Dr. Wesch’s most well known online works.

Dr. Wesch had contacted me because one his students is doing a term-long research project on me and the uncultured project! It’s a very surreal experience. It just seemed like yesterday I was the one doing term papers and calling up people to interview as part of my research. Now I’m the one being interviewed.

But this project isn’t about me – it’s about you guys. And I need your help.

Danielle Vaughn (the student doing the research project) has asked people to let her know why it is you support the uncultured project. Part of her report will have a video component to it, so she’s asking for people to submit video responses on YouTube to this video that she made.

I’m hoping you can help Danielle out – not just because I know how hard it is to research these things, but also because this helps me as well. For much of the time I’ve been doing this project, I’ve been guessing, assuming, or piecing together why you guys support this project.

This is a perfect opportunity for me to learn from you guys and learn what you like about UP. Not just that, but it’s also an excellent opportunity for me to have concrete feedback on certain things I should keep in mind as I move forward with this project.

For example, in this above response, I learned that the fact that I’m not selling anything and that I’m not asking for huge amounts of cash is important. I now have something I can cite the next time someone insists I should start selling t-shirts or that I should “take my work to the next level” and focus on big fundraising campaigns.

I won’t lie: the landscape of charities, non-profits, and people wanting to make a difference are changing. When I first uploaded my first video on YouTube, most charities & orgs were still only using YouTube digitize and store their TV spots. There wasn’t anything by which to compare my efforts to.

Now major charities are vlogging, creating creative online content, and interacting with their supporters. And, more often than makes sense to me, I’m told (in private) that my work is cited as the “one to beat” or the “one to copy” in boardrooms and briefings of some of the biggest (and smallest) charities.

This little project is getting less unique by the day – and maybe that’s for the better. And so this research project is a great way to put together what made this project unique in the first place – and what I can continue to build on.

[And, sidenote to charities reading this, what’s with the competition? Why hire someone to copy me when I’ll team up with you for free. I work for food, shelter, and enough logistical support to get the job done. Charity work doesn’t need to be as competitive as many of you make it to be.]

It’s Never As Easy As It Looks

Save the Children USA Country Director in Bangladesh

Country Director for Save the Children USA in Bangladesh

“This is development work,” he said to me as I sat across from him. I was in the offices of Save the Children USA with Kelly Stevenson – the country director. I had lost count of how many meetings I’ve had with him – though I was grateful for every single one.

My view of development work and fighting poverty has certainly changed a lot since I first started this project. For one thing, I had come into this project with an overly consumerist attitude to fighting poverty.

Having started by using my money saved for an Xbox 360 to help the poor, I foolishly assumed that helping the poor would be as easy as buying an Xbox 360. That is, I thought if you had the money, you should just be able to do it.

But it’s never that easy. And, if anyone tells you it is, they’re lying.

The first thing I learned is that non-profit organizations don’t run like for-profit organizations. “Duh!” some of you are no doubt saying right now. I always assumed that non-profits would be as eager to take my money to help the poor the same way Best Buy would be eager to take my money and give me an Xbox 360.

But it’s never that easy.

Save the Children Meeting with Regional Director

Staff in Barisal - Working on My Project Means Other (Bigger Funded) Projects Go Temporarily on the Backburner

One thing I learned with Save the Children USA is that every level of their staff plays a fine balancing act. They work in a world where the need is so great and the resources are so very finite. Every time they give their attention to one project (or one person), it comes at the cost of ignoring something else.

In such a reality, you can’t help but feel a bit guilty. Every meeting I have with Save the Children was coming at the cost of something else. I also realized that – if they were purely utilitarian or doing it by the numbers – they’d never give me the time of day. I mean, when you have multi-million dollar grants to deal with, who would have time for a kid with a couple of grand?

Then there are emergencies.

Save the Children USA Meeting in Barisal

Meeting to Discuss "Challenge Poverty" Projects

Emergencies in Bangladesh are like a giant reset button. No matter what progress you make or what you have scheduled – it can all go down the drain when an emergency comes. Whether it’s violence that delays a trip or a cyclone (like yesterday’s Cyclone Alia) – when an emergency comes, everything stops. No matter how important.

Over 100 days ago, I flew to Bangladesh in order to complete Challenge Poverty. The goal was to complete a Pond Sand Filter for a rural village & to help repair a school damaged by Cyclone Sidr. Although I know Save the Children is doing their best, there are a lot of hurdles and a lot of things to take care of before any of this is complete. I still don’t know when it will all be done.

It’s never as easy as it looks.

The Struggle to Survive to Five

If you have 45 minutes to spare this weekend, I highly recommend you watch this episode from a BBC World documentary called Survival – Fit For Life:

[UPDATE: If you want to watch the embedded version, just click the jump]

The program focuses on the challenges of childbirth in rural Bangladesh. After seeing this documentary, I began to better understand why Bangladesh’s child and infant mortality is fifty times worse than the developed world. It’s not just lack of access to medical facilities, medicine, and equipment – it’s also about educating people to move away from traditional beliefs.

In rural Bangladesh, traditionally, when a baby girl is born the placenta is buried inside the house. If it’s a boy, it’s buried outside. Why? Because they want the girl’s heart to stay at home and the boy to wander. But not all traditions are harmless – some do affect newborn’s chances of survival.

In traditional home birth situations, babies are usually given honey shortly after birth. It’s believed this will “sweeten the speech” of the child. The same goes for feeding – babies are usually fed cow’s milk the first few days instead of breast milk because they believe that will enhance the immunity of the child. And often after birth the baby’s arms and legs are tugged at in order to “stretch them out”.

I am really glad the BBC made this documentary. This is exactly the kind of stuff I couldn’t easily capture. Not only do I not have the filming and production resources of the BBC – but also, as a guy, there is also a gender barrier for me to capturing moments like these. I think producer/director Cassie Farrell and her film crew did a pretty even-handed and insightful job.

For more information on the Survival documentary series – you can check out their website.

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Challenge Poverty (with Save the Children)

The Pond Sand Filter (Save the Children USA)

Choosing has always been the hardest part of this project. I’ve tried my best to share all the emotions I’ve had during this project like the joy of helping children in the Hill-Tracts, or the anguish and sense of powerlessness during Cyclone Sidr disaster relief, or the craziness involved in reaching some remote rural village. With this latest video, I’m sharing the toughest reality of this project: being forced to choose.

With this video, there is no wrong answer – only tough choices.

More after the jump.

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The Beggar Children of Main Street

The Beggar Children

We ten interns had more or less just landed in Uganda.  It was Day Three, and we were touring Jinja on foot.

Imagine.  A parade of mzungus meandering around downtown, fingers pointing, and heads on swivels.  With stomachs full of matooke and rice, we took our time digesting as we strolled along the broken sidewalk.  Shopkeepers called out, hoping that their wares could draw our attention.  Boda-boda drivers offered us rides on their bicycles or mopeds.  A third group called us too.  Three small children, around five or seven years old, quietly implored, “Sirs, 100?”  They were asking for a meager 100 shillings, and we had just spent 8000 on lunch.  Surely we could spare the equivalent of 6 American cents.

Before we could respond, our program director shooed them away in their native language.  Many of the interns were heartbroken.  I know I was.  Here is a little kid, malnourished and poorly clothed, and all he wanted was a nickel.  That’s not too much to ask.  I could have tossed him the coin and moved on.

But, as our program director explained, it is not about the amount of money.  It is the principle.  You can only effect serious change by striving for sustainability.  What will that boy do when we leave?  Who will care for him then?  Any change that you try to initiate must be able to last without your input.

It was only the third day, and I felt like I was already being taught how to rationalize away the most vulnerable members of society.

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My First Post!

Musiibye mutyanno bassebo ne bannyabo!

I must say, Shawn did some digging when he was introducing me, but he didn’t get all the dirt.  My work in Uganda is going to be considerably different than what Shawn is doing in Bangladesh.  Hopefully, you know Shawn’s story (if not, read from the master himself!), so I’ll just share mine.

This summer, instead of getting the normal finance internship in New York or Chicago, I’ve got one with an NGO in Uganda.  I have a lot of help from many different people.  Notre Dame, St. Peter Church in Deland, FL, The Rotary Club of Deland, and several other well-wishers are all helping me to make this trip.  The internship itself is through the Foundation for Sustainable Development (FSD), a multinational NGO operating out of San Francisco with offices on four continents.  FSD placed me with a local NGO in Jinja, Uganda, where I will be acting both as a consultant and a student, exchanging ideas and developing a microfinance project that is self-reliant by the time I leave in eight weeks.

Now that I’ve got the intro out of the way, let’s get on to what you want to read!  I got here in Uganda on last Saturday, May 24, and I’ve been busy ever since.  I am not the only intern working with FSD in Jinja, there are nine others.  Week One of the FSD experience is culture orientation, so I haven’t really gotten dirty yet in terms of aid work.  But, I am slowly getting used to Ugandan culture.

I have been learning Luganda, the primary trade language here, which is why I greeted you all with “Good day, gentlemen and ladies” at the beginning of this post.  Three hours  a day of in-depth language training for five days will get you farther than you think.  It is like your typical language class on speed.  Check out the vocab cards on the wall:

Language Lessons

[More of Matt’s post including more of his first photos since arriving in Uganda after the jump – Shawn]

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