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Poverty Makes Bangladesh Look Bad?

I recently received this comment from a Bangladeshi who is wealthy enough to live in the United States:

I understand that this guy is helping the people in Bangladesh, but honestly is it that hard to shoe [sic] the good part of Bangladesh and not the part that’s poor because not everywhere in Bangladesh is like that. [emphasis mine]

I’m sharing this comment because many wealthier Bangladeshis equate anything that has to do with poverty (whether or not that focus embraces guilt-free positivity and eschews poverty porn) as automatically “bad”.

There’s nearly 150 million people in this country and, according to the United Nations, over half of them are living in extreme poverty. It would be nice if wealthier Bangladeshis could acknowledge we can have a conversation about Bangladesh’s poor without it being seen as “showing the bad”.

I’m not saying this based on one lone YouTube comment. This point-of-view is actually fairly commonplace among wealthier Bangladeshis and has actually been the focus of a thorough academic analysis in the book “Elite Perceptions of Poverty in Bangladesh” by Dr. Naomi Hossain.

As Dr. Hossain points out, wealthier (or “elite”) Bangladeshis “do not feel threatened by the extent of poverty, or by poor people”. Rather, they feel that poverty threatens “the wealth or international stature of the nation”. So for many Bangladeshis, talking about the poorer half makes Bangladesh look bad.

We need to get over 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.

Toilet paper, antibiotics, soap, and pajamas - not taking a salary from donations is not enough for my Bangladeshi uncle. I also can't use donations to buy personal necessities.

I was able to put the matter to rest by explaining that my groceries were paid for with an allowance from my parents. Besides, if I bought something such as computer or video equipment that I could benefit from outside of charity work, I have a fund specifically for equipment. No donations to help the poor have been “stolen”.

The next day, after having dinner, I pulled out a small snack I had brought to Bangladesh with me from Canada. I brought it with me because it’s a small little treat you can’t find here. As I was eating in front of my aunt, my aunt looked at me and asked: “if you’re helping the poor, why do you eat such expensive food?”.

Eating this protein bar (about two bucks) is a "betrayal of my principles to help alleviate poverty" according to my Bangladeshi aunt.

The snack cost me less than $3. But, when 80% of Bangladeshis earn less than $2 and day (and about half earn less than $1 a day), I could see how this snack (a protein bar) could be seen as an opulent indulgence. “If you help the poor” my aunt elaborated, “you should live a very modest life – or it goes against your principles of wanting to alleviate poverty”.

I bring this up because many aid experts, aid bloggers, or aid professionals simply don’t get what it is I’m trying to do with this project. Some see me as a fundraiser – raising funds for charities I like. Others see it as online promotion – getting lots of tweets, retweets, and YouTube views for my favorite charities.

That’s not it at all. At best, you could call all that stuff a side-effect of my work.

Continue reading ‘Have To Be Poor To Help The Poor?’

Islam 101

I’ve been writing a lot about Islam lately. The reason is because,  in the realm of aid and development, I don’t think Islam is properly understood. This matters because quite often the communities, countries, and individuals that aid and development is meant to assist are Muslim.

Yet, we live in a world where some of the largest organizations have gone to court for the right never to have to hire or work with Muslims. We also exist in an online space where discussions of aid and development exclude Muslims because the tone and language of these conservations foster groupthink and exclude minority (especially Muslim) voices.

But what is Islam? Well, instead of citing a religious scholar, I think my friend John Green summarizes Islam pretty nicely in this video. If you have 13 minutes to spare, it’s a must watch:

 

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.