This isn’t the story of how donations built a school. Donations don’t build school. Watch the video to see what I mean.
Haphazardly Trying to Make the World a Better Place. Inspired by my time as a student at the University of Notre Dame.
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 ...
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 ...
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 ...
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.
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?”.
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.
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:
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.
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.
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?
I guess you can call it a 5 Step Program for NGOs using guilt:
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: