As a Muslim, I feel personally ashamed at what happened on September 11th, 2001. I know I shouldn’t be – I wasn’t (nor any Muslim I could possibly personally know) involved in that heinous act.
But Islam emphasizes unity. It doesn’t matter if you’re a Canadian Muslim, Arab Muslim, or a Bangladeshi Muslim. It makes me think: the 9/11 hijackers probably prayed in the direction of Mecca and fasted for Ramadan just like me.
Yet, the first thing that most Muslims around the world did was point out that the perpetrators of 9/11 don’t represent them or Islam. As if distancing ourselves ...
Have To Be Poor To Help The Poor?
If you follow me on Twitter, you already know I'm back in Bangladesh. When I'm Dhaka, I live with my maternal uncle and aunt. Lately, I've been noticing a trend.
Just a few days ago, when I came back home carrying a bunch of groceries, my uncle chastised me saying "you better not have used any donations to pay for those groceries!". In his mind, using donations - however small - for my own food, clothing, or anything that benefits me would be tantamount to stealing.
[caption id="attachment_3748" align="aligncenter" width="499" caption="Toilet paper, antibiotics, soap, and pajamas - not taking a salary from ...
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 ...
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.
How do you measure success? Even though I’m not an NGO, should I measure success by the aid I’ve been able to give? Even though I’m not a charity, should I measure success by the money I’ve been able to raise? Or, since I have a blog and a YouTube channel, should I instead measure success by view counts, website hits, and number of subscribers?
I won’t lie – those are all very important measures of success. But I’m not a NGO – this isn’t about doing things at the same scale as those big guys. I’m also not a charity – this isn’t about pulling in the big dollars. And, especially given the subject matter that I’m focusing on, I’ll never be able to develop a cult-like aurora of celebrity (although I think that’s probably for the best).
Rather, the more time I spend doing this project, the more I realize what matters the most is not the things I give, nor the funds I raise, nor even the popularity this project receives. What matters the most is the lives that this work has been able to touch – both here on the ground and online. And, by that measure – and by that measure alone – this project stands to eventually have (or already has) a success that is second to none.
Having been here in Bangladesh for over a year, and with the one year anniversary of my first blog post coming up, I thought I would share some of the most memorable moments of this project to date…
Most Memorable Game Changing Experience: Matt Joins the Project
I can’t take credit for Matt’s decision to fly to Uganda to try and make a difference. Anyone who has had the privilege of getting to know Matt would realize he was bound to do something like this sooner or later. What I can – or rather, what all of those following this project – can take credit for is making Matt’s trip to Uganda a lot more meaningful than could have otherwise been possible.
Matt had gone to Uganda with the expectation he’d be helping some family move beyond subsistence level agriculture. What, instead, he found is that things are always harder than it seems. Much of his two months there were spent trying to reconcile disparities in what various funding agencies wanted and what the locals there were the most comfortable with.
The only thing I’m debating is who is the most grateful: Matt for the assistance he was able to get, the grandmothers for the help they received, or me for Matt joining this project in the first place.
Most Memorable Online Community Experience: Nerdfighters
To the outsider, the whole concept of Nerdfighting might seem a bit.. childish? Made of Awesome? In your pants jokes? DFTBA? But the fact of the matter is that the Nerdfighting community has been – by far – the most important community I have had the honor of being a part of.
And I say that not because of the help John and Hank have provided in helping to spread the word and raise funds. Rather, Nerdfighting is important because of what it represents. On YouTube, it is very easy for “community” to be nothing more than a fan club centered around a charismatic celebrity-like personality.
Nerdfighting – on the other hand – is centered around an idea, not a person. It’s about having fun, making friends, and doing good (aka decreasing “worldsuck”). Although all this was started by John and Hank Green, since its inception, it’s extended far beyond just being about them.
John and Hank Green have been able to show what a genuine YouTube community can be like. And, by being able to team up with them, this is an opportunity to show what kind really tangible on-the-ground impact such a community can have.
Most Memorable Impact: Helping Single Mothers
When it comes to my single most memorable impact – I actually have a hard time narrowing it down to just one. There are actually two experiences that distinctly stick out in my mind. Both of them, actually, deal with helping single mothers as they struggle to support their children with little or no money.
The first one was helping a widow support her children (seen in the photo above). That is definitely the single most tangible impact I’ve had on any person’s life. There is also the single mother I met during my return to the Cyclone Sidr disaster area. That was really my emotional high point and – by far – the biggest emotional impact I’ve had on any one person’s life.
Both experiences actually highlight something else I’ve learned over the course of this past year. While I may not be able to compete with the sheer scale of big NGOs and charities, the approach I’ve taken with this project has allowed me to give a special attention to detail that charities aren’t able to do. I’ll have more on that in Part Two.
My sparse writing during these last two weeks can easily be explained: I have been incredibly busy. It started with an email, which led to a second meeting. Then, things really started moving fast.
After the second meeting, I had a list of all the grandmothers and what animals they chose to receive. It is probably the most interesting shopping list I’ve ever had:
My co-worker Joseph and I got to the village of Buwaiswa on Wednesday afternoon, and were immediately greeted by Mama Lillian, who helps out at the orphanage. Mama Lillian conveniently had eight piglets ready to be sold, we could have first pick if we so chose. Done.
This gave us time to go around on foot (anything else was impossible) and visit some of the grandmothers who wanted goats. Three of them had even done shopping on their own and found goats for us to buy.
That night we went into the trading center of Busota to see if we could find an animal salesman named Dadi. He supposedly had a bunch of goats waiting to be sold. After we arrived in Busota and were mobbed by kids who hadn’t seen a white person before, we eventually found his assistant. He confirmed that Dadi had some goats ready to sell; the only problem was that he wasn’t in town. We would need to come back tomorrow. We exchanged phone numbers and then hitched a ride back to Buwaiswa.
The next morning, we took an early tea and then ventured up to Busota again. Dadi was still missing. His phone wasn’t getting any reception (no surprise), so we just had to wait. And wait. After repeated attempts, we finally got Dadi on the phone long enough to find out that he was technically sold out of goats at the moment, which was why he was frantically driving around trying to find more.
Back to square one. This was going to be a long day. Our boda-boda driver told us that he had an idea, which was as good as anything, so we pulled a u-turn and headed back past Buwaiswa. Along the way, we found a chicken farmer and made his day. He finished the transaction sixteen chickens lighter and 105,000 shillings richer.
The goat dealer we found didn’t have any either, but he at least knew where to get some. We found a tree for some shade and sat down as he took our boda driver off into the bush. Over the next hour, he came back four times with a goat on his lap, tied it to a stump, and headed off in another direction. On the fifth trip, he hopped off, tied up the last goat, and walked over to us.
“That’s all I could find.”
I was impressed. Five goats in an hour. That’s twelve minutes per goat!
After this stroke of luck, things were looking good. In war, what we did next is called “mopping up.” For the rest of thursday and friday, we just meandered around on foot and found the last four goats.
Our shopping was over. We called the grannies. They needed to help bring in groceries.
With new funding and less restrictions, I’ve been running around lately trying to get my project complete before I finish next Wednesday.
Before my grant got rejected, I had a meeting with all of the grandmothers who would be receiving loans. I explained the rules of the loan:
It had to be used for income-generation
It had to be paid back with 10% interest
It could not deal in animal husbandry
They were perfectly fine with the first two rules, but when I explained the third, they groaned. They were frustrated, and understandably so. They knew how to raise animals. They didn’t know how to run a business. And they were quite frank — they weren’t interested in learning. They wanted to tend to their crops and animals. They wanted to do what they were good at.
But we continued, and I guess the meeting was an overall success. We settled on different activities for the grandmothers to pursue and they walked away thankful. However, I could not shake the feeling that they were not in it. Sure, some of it was a lack of confidence, and that could be changed with training. But there was also the fact that they weren’t able to do what they wanted to do.
Then I had my second meeting with them.
Last week, I went out to inform them that the restriction on animals had been lifted. I thought that I’d give them the chance to reconsider their project again, this time with the possibility of practicing animal husbandry. There were fourteen grandmothers there, and fourteen of them changed their minds. They all wanted to raise animals.
Not only that, but the meeting itself had an entirely different feel. In our first meeting, I was struck by how aloof they seemed. In this meeting, they participated in the discussion. They made jokes. They laughed at ours. They stayed around after it was finished to make small-talk.
They were excited!
Their excitement rubbed off on me. It was contagious. We all had our own reasons, but everybody wanted this project to succeed now. We all had something at stake.
What have I learned this trip? The capacity and the expertise can come from outside, but the ideas must come from the people. You cannot storm a country with ideas of your own and hope to make an impact. Someday you will have to leave, and if the people do not feel ownership in the project, they will abandon it.
So what’s involved in helping Matt in Uganda? The most important thing is making sure I do this in a way that’s both transparent and has the consent of those who have donated money to this project. In order for Matt to help these 187 grandmothers, he will need a total of $500 US Dollars – that’s the total amount needed after all the transfer fees, PayPal fees, and conversion fees are done with.
There is enough donated funds to meet this need. But this operation may not be what some of the donors signed up for. So, over the next couple of days, I am going to try and contact a few donors to see if they would be interested in letting me divert some or all of their donations to Matt’s project in Uganda. This is also the first time in this project we will be doing something called microfinance.
Dealing with other people’s money has brought out the control-freak in me. I admit – I really gave Matt a hard time on this one. Here’s some of the details/requirements I got Matt to agree to as part of this Uncultured Project funded microfinance operation:
The microfinance operation will be managed, operated, and supervised by a government-registered NGO (in this case OGLM).
The recipients will – under no circumstances – be pressured, forced, or coerced to repay these loans. They repay them as they are able and at a pace they set.
The first time this money is used, it will be given to the recipients as an interest-free loan.
Upon repayment, this money will subsequently be loaned at an interest rate that is based on the rate of inflation.
While the first two points were always part of Matt’s plan, the later two were things I insisted upon. It actually took a bit of creative account on Matt’s part to agree to these conditions. But, at the end of the day, the 187 grandmothers will receive $500 worth of assistance through microfinance. In turn, these grandmothers will have to repay $500 – and not a cent more.
So between now and when Matt distributes these $500 worth of farming equipment and livestock, I’m going to have to get in contact with enough donors to pull together $500. If you are someone who has donated and think this is something you’d like to help with – let me know. You can email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Don’t get me wrong – I’m not saying this as an appeal for more donations. There is already enough funds to do this – I am just not sure which donors would be comfortable (or uncomfortable) with such an operation.
A while back, I wrote about my project’s turning point. I wrote about how FSD had decided that because my project is young, they didn’t want to put any more money in it until it proved itself to be sustainable. There were certain FSD stipulations attached that made my project “unsustainable.” For instance, I had to find a way to guarantee that the loans would be repaid. I had to complete 75% of the project by the time I left Uganda. Also, I wasn’t allowed to use it for anything that “exploits the earth.”
My project didn’t guarantee that loans are repaid. If something terrible happened to the loan recipient, OGLM wasn’t going to be there kicking down the door for repayment.
My project would have gone on much longer than I was here in Uganda. It was long-lasting. Granted, I wouldn’t have been here to oversee it, but isn’t long-lasting the goal?
And admittedly, my project exploited the earth. It was going to supply small subsistence farmers and animal breeders with the capital necessary to grow from subsistence to business.
In summary, a project that was going to fund local solutions to local problems, repay itself, benefit others on down the road, and last for a long time was ruled unsustainable. To paraphrase the oft-used phrase from Zoolander, I felt like I was taking crazy pills.
Even though I had flown all the way to Uganda, I was stuck inside writing Excel spreadsheets. I was doing something important, sure, but it didn’t take long before I was finished and just waiting for the end of my internship. What is worse, of the 187 grandmothers who are registered for our loan program, only 24 of them had anything to show for it.
Then, along came the Uncultured Project. Along came the power of YouTube and the internet, connecting people who care about poverty. Who want to change the conversation about poverty by seeking real-world solutions.
Thanks to the Uncultured Project and its donors and its awesome community, I won’t have to confront those three groups of grandmothers and deny them their loans. Instead, I will be able to give them seeds and tools and animals and training.
It will be tough, since I only have 10 days left before my internship is over. But now, my project can go past my ending date. I can do “tough.”
What I can’t do is “impossible.”
And thanks to the Uncultured Community, I don’t have to worry about “impossible” any more.
Last week was a pretty big turning point for my trip. This entire time, I have been operating under the assumption that I would be applying for a grant from FSD, and with that grant money, I would issue loans to grandmothers for income-generating activities. I have developed budgets, interviewed grandmothers, and written a huge grant proposal all to these ends.
However, when I submitted my proposal, the feedback from the local site team was a little different than I expected. Since the last grant given to my host organization, OGLM, was also used to deliver a batch of loans, FSD would most likely not fund my project. Since the first batch of loans has not yet started repayment, FSD has no way of knowing how well the project has been working. As a result, they will not risk any more money on the project until its success is more tangible.
That left me, with only 18 working days left at OGLM, without a plan of action. Had I wasted my first five weeks here? What can I do with only one month left? How am I supposed to effect any change in this short time period? I really started envying Shawn, who has both much more time and freedom to do what he wants without the interference that comes with working for an NGO.
I have since come to realize that this change of plans isn’t as bad as I thought it would be. In my remaining 18 days, I had budgeted the following activities:
Work with four groups of grandmothers to develop sustainable income-generating activities.
Determine what materials each group would need to start these projects.
Deliver loan-basics training, bookkeeping training, and business-specific training.
Work with an agriculture specialist to train the two agriculture groups in proper farming-as-a-business techniques (this would require five days of training alone).
Bring each group to the market and buy the materials they needed to begin their projects.
Monitor the grandmothers as they begun business operations.
Once you factor in the fact that the work pace is much slower here and that most of this work depends on my translator being free, that schedule is ridiculous! It wasn’t that I was being naive, it was just that I didn’t realize how little time I had left before I leave here.
I have since worked with the staff to develop a new plan for the rest of my time here. I will be developing OGLM’s microfinance program on the organization side. Kind of like a microfinance consultant. I will be restructuring the program and training the staff to make sure that the program lasts for a long time.
The bad news is that this work won’t be anywhere near as interesting as the stuff that Shawn does on YouTube. The good news is that OGLM definitely needs it. This is something I am confident that I can accomplish and its effects will last long after I hop on that plane 31 days from now.