Recently, a donor raised concerns about the quality of the construction work being done on a new school I'm helping locals build. His concerns were all raised by a single instagram.
From this single photo, the donor concluded that the rods were not joined properly. Therefore, this building is being built improperly. Therefore, this school won't last. Etc etc etc.,.
I'd like to address this and I'd like to start by sharing a classification system I've developed as an educational tool to explain to others how various charities build schools.
The Latest Chapter
A Muslim’s Thoughts on 9/11
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 ...
The Project for Awesome (aka P4A) is an annual charity event done on YouTube. It’s organized by Hank and John Green. This was the video – quickly done with me and Jory – before that event. It was unscripted and basically showing another side to this school construction.
Just a reminder that The Uncultured Project has been nominated for a Webby Award. Please help it become the People’s Choice by voting for it here.
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.
Hank & John Start VidCon Early in the Morning (thus the rare shot of empty seats)
VidCon. In a word? WOW. As one friend put it, “it’s like the internet exploded into real life”. It was surreal, amazing, & awesome to meet people that I’ve only been able to see through my computer screen.
Even though there wasn’t nearly enough time, I’m in awe at how seamlessly online friends turned into “real life” friends. In most cases it’s like you’ve known someone for ages and are just hanging out.
This photo makes me look more epic than I ever have the right to be.
Hank & Me on Stage
It was also a real honor to be able to speak in front of 1,700+ people at VidCon. I can’t thank Hank & John Green enough for this opportunity.
In all honesty, if they were picking speakers solely based on number of YouTube subscribers & views, than I would never have been picked. But, that’s part of the reason I’m so grateful I had this chance.
I believe that YouTube is an unprecedented force for good in this world. Forget the haters – we as a community can do amazing things. But, I believe the power of this community remains largely untapped.
With the exception of YouTube featuring stuff, the conversation about global poverty is but a small teeny tiny fraction of the conversation going on YouTube. That’s something I’d like to change.
I’m trying my best – but I can’t do it alone. It’s hard because I can’t do what normal YouTubers do to climb the charts and become a success.
For example, I can be informal & casual but – given the subject matter – I can’t be too silly. Although I want to, I also can’t make videos on a regular & frequent schedule. I’m forced to balance doing a good job on-the-ground with spending time making videos.
In some cases, the projects I do take years to complete. They require planning, networking, budgets, on-the-ground trust building, and also need to account for natural disasters & political unrest which push back schedules.
The video I showed at VidCon is a perfect example. It took 1,000 days to bring this story to an audience. It’s hard to do something like that on a weekly basis. It’s for that reason I need the YouTube community to help me share & spread videos like this one:
So speaking at VidCon was very important because, not only is what I do funded by the YouTube community, the future success of this project is entirely dependent on how much support this work gets on YouTube.
Although this project is called uncultured (a description of myself), culture matters a lot to me. This is because I seem to have to two feet in two very different cultures. There is the one I was born & raised (“The West”) and the one where my parents came from in Bangladesh (“The East”).
This duality has made me realize that people with both feet in a single culture often fail to grasp the other. To paraphrase my friend John Green, we fail to “imagine complexly” the cultures we were not raised in. And, when we fail to imagine complexly, we fail to see the real story.
The reason why I’m talking about this now is because I recently read a blog post by Adrienne Villani – a New Yorker living in Mumbai. She recently wrote about the difference between social entrepreneurship in “The West” vs. “The East”. I’m going to quote the article below:
The truth of the matter is that entrepreneurship is hard. It’s really hard. Venturing out on your own. No steady stream of income. No way to know that your idea will be the one that works, not the one that fails. No stability. No demarcation between life and work. People constantly questioning your progress. You get the picture. It’s hard.
Despite this, entrepreneurship, and particularly social entrepreneurship, are in vogue. They are cool. Everyone wants a piece of the action. What is cooler than chasing your dreams and having a social impact? No one is ever going to accuse you of selling out to the machine, of being a slave to the man. Instead, you are going to sit with your MacBook, in your Ray-Bans and Birkenstocks, eating organic dried fruit, and bring affordable drip irrigation to 5 million indian farmers in the next three years. Yep, that is what you are going to accomplish. No sweat.
Yet it is increasingly becoming clear to me that this is the western conception of entrepreneurship, the view in the hallways of western universities and western corporations. Romanticized. The holy grail of individuality, of being your own person, of choosing your own path. And this is where the stories are coming from.
In the east (yes, India is the east!), there is no such romantic vision of entrepreneurship. No one coming out of business school wants to chance this life of instability. Instead, they want to join the most lucrative graduate scheme – Deutsche Bank, Goldman Sachs, ICICI Bank. Their families will be happy because they will be professionals, something to brag about back home. No way does any Indian mother want to say “My son’s an entrepreneur.” She wants to say “My son’s a banker/doctor/lawyer/engineer.” She wants a son who she can marry off. This is the reality.
So, are we even having the same conversation? Do we need to be having two conversations? Is one somehow applicable to the other? Or not? Maybe we need to begin the dialogue anew, starting from the different cultural conceptions of entrepreneurship. And only then can we chart the way forward.
Click the jump to read my thoughts on Adrienne’s critique of Western social entrepreneurship.
In January of 2008, a few months after Cyclone Sidr hit Bangladesh, I approached a (then) relatively new and unknown charity that specialized in providing clean water to the developing world. I wanted to team up with them and repair a tube well – or perhaps build a new one.
Unfortunately, it was too late. After extensively corresponding with their volunteer coordinator, I learned that they had already left Bangladesh and were currently focusing on the water crisis in the African continent. Although they haven’t come back yet, they told me “Bangladesh is an area dear to us”. The charity? You know them as charity: water.
Even though I wasn’t able to team up with these guys, over the four months I corresponded with that organization (and even their founder Scott Harrison later that year), I was able explain a lot about my project and my philosophy and desire to change the conversation about global poverty – a theme many of you following my work may know quite well. This is an approach charity: water seems to have wholeheartedly embraced.
A few short months after I corresponded with Scott Harrison over Facebook, I noticed that charity: water posted a new video on their YouTube channel. Their new video wasn’t a TV spot or mini-documentary. Instead, it was just Scott.. standing on a roof… vlogging! What impressed me even more was what he was talking about. Taking a page out John Green’s “Nerdfighting in Bangladesh” video, Scott was vlogging about “showing exactly where the money goes”.
Top: charity: water founder Scott Harrison does his first rooftop vlog (2009), Below: I do one of my rooftop vlogs from Bangladesh (2007). This cheap, simple, and no BS approach can really be a great way to connect to people to the fight against global poverty.
That all looks and sounds familiar doesn’t it? In fact, in a recent interview Viktoria Alexeeva (the Director of Design & Branding of charity: water), basically took the words right out of my mouth by touching on the same themes I’ve been talking about for a while now:
I think one of the worst things a non-profit can do is have the poverty mentality. When it comes to asking people for donations, there are two ways to present the interests of your beneficiaries: the traditional way has been the charity case. We’ve all seen the kids with flies on their faces in bad infomercials at 2 a.m. This approach is just not effective anymore. I think one of the things a non-profit can do to get ahead of the game is present their cause as an opportunity. Which is what it really is! Every day we have the chance to buy a consumer product to satisfy ourselves in some way. It’s not every day that we have the chance to actually help another human being. The non-profit that recognizes its value in such a way will be able to blow their competition out of the water (no pun intended). Who says that charity has to be boring or a chore? I think we’re proof that it can as trendy, cool and satisfying as buying a new iPod. (source)
A good friend of mine once told me that a good idea (like my idea of changing the conversation about global poverty) can spread like a mustard seed caught in the wind. I brushed it off as flattery – but maybe that’s what is happening? Using this personal, interactive, and non-guilt inducing approach, charity: water has been able to raise hundreds of thousands of dollars through social media like Twitter, Facebook, & YouTube, increase it’s profile and name recognition around the world, and help hundreds of villages around the world (including Bangladesh).
Hopefully this is just the first of many charities to follow this approach.
[edit:Also congratulations to charity: water for their nomination by The Webby Awards. Both The Uncultured Project & charity: water were honored with this year's Webby Awards - with charity: water getting nominated for best charity website and Uncultured Project becoming an Official Honoree in the area of Experimental Online Film].
For this year’s Project for Awesome, I decided to pull out all the stops and show you guys a lot of the stuff I’ve been doing but haven’t had the time to put into individual episodes or videos. I keep saying that this project is less about me and more about the community behind it – hopefully this latest video helps convey that.
And, yeah, this video does use copyrighted music by Coldplay (part of EMI Records). I did enough research into YouTube’s agreement with EMI Records and am fairly certain this video won’t be taken down. But, of course, I also had to forfeit any chance of earning any ad revenue and (as I later found out) any reasonable chance of having this video being featured or promoted. EMI can also reserve the right to take down this video, region lock it, or place ads on it where they can earn all the ad revenue from it (just like the Counting Crows & Universal Music have region locked my Cyclone Sidr video and take all the ad revenue from it).
But that’s cool. This was a kind of video I wanted to make for ages. I just never could find the right match of visuals and music until I heard “Life in Technicolor ii” by Coldplay.
Following-up on my blog post about the Tour de Nerdfighting – here’s my video from that event. There is also lots of deleted scenes and bonus footage from this event up on my secondary channel. Hope you check it out!