Earlier today, Shahnur Alom (a 25 year old Bangladeshi) wrote me this:
Fuck you Shawn, and fuck those chinky basterds you’ve come to help and molest during the night (that’s what aid workers do around the world in the name of charity). you dirty mother fucking Americans can fuck off from our land and suck some Jewish Israeli cocks.
To a Westerner, this guy is just a troll and a hater. However, to a Bangladeshi, this is an attitude which is sadly quite commonplace in Bangladesh. It’s attitudes like this which have made it difficult for NGOs to exist in Bangladesh, for aid workers to do work, and for potential donors to trust whom to give money to.
Anti-NGO attitudes are even worse if you're perceived as being a Christian NGO. Sadly, level of education does not change negative perceptions. The above comment was sent to me be a Bangladeshi whom I discovered had studied at the London School of Economics.
This is why I do things the way that I do. When I’m in Bangladesh, in virtually every village, I end up having to emphasize three things. And only by emphasizing these three things do I avoid sentiments and attitudes like those from people like Shahnur:
- I have to emphasize that I am not an NGO. What I’m doing is as just a guy.
- I have to emphasize that I have blood ties to Bangladesh.
- I have to prove and emphasize that I respect Islam.
With a population of over 150 million people, Bangladesh is by no means a country of uniform consensus. But, prevalent negative attitudes and perceptions towards NGOs and aid workers is something I feel has been under-reported, insufficiently documented, and poorly-studied.
"Elite Perceptions on Poverty in Bangladesh" by Naomi Hossain is one of the few academic pieces that delve into Bangladeshi attitudes towards NGOs and poverty. However, it focuses primarily on Bangladesh elites. Many anti-NGO attitudes, I have discovered, are prevalent amongst all social classes in Bangladesh.
Granted, there has been one notable study on Bangladeshi elite perceptions on NGOs and poverty. And, on a rare occasion, a non-Bangladeshi aid blogger traveling in Bangladesh will encounter this and blog about it. But the majority of aid & development professionals and scholars don’t focus on this.
This is because, at least of late, there is a focus on quantitative data and a dismissal of anything else as “anecdotes”. But, as any anthropologist will tell you, not all knowledge and insight can be gained from a quantitative approach. Sometimes a small, individual, and ethnographic approach is needed.
A blogger interviews a director (pictured above) from "Alternative Movement for Resources and Freedom Society (AMRF)" in Dhaka. In this interview the AMRF director says that "Aid is an industry... and it's not the poor people who profit.", "NGO is the main impediment to development", "NGO jobs depend on perpetuating poverty," and "When I see an NGO with very good paperwork about all the amazing work they are doing, I know they are a fraud." Not even including the years I've been doing this project, I can attest these are VERY common beliefs in Bangladesh.
I don’t believe the solution to this is for NGOs to go away and for aid and development to be done just by individuals. But I do believe that NGOs and charities can benefit from independent individuals who work alongside NGOs as “bridge-makers”. I’ve already talked about how I try and do this.
In fact, everything I’ve done: from not incorporating, to not using donations to give myself a salary to stipend, to raising funds for overhead separately, to saying no to lucrative job offers with UN agencies and NGOs, and to leveraging technology to directly connect donors and villagers has been with this goal in mind.
These two village women have been trained by Save the Children to be village health workers. I, as an individual and not an NGO employee, collaborated with Save the Children to make sure these health workers have stipends. In addition to some paperwork, everything was captured on video and photos. Donors and villagers both know exactly where the money came from and exactly where it went. Save the Children also got double the administrative and overhead funds it requested thanks to donors who donated specifically for that (which was collected separately from donations designated to help the poor). By the end of 2011, these two women will have helped an estimated 300 to 400 kids - almost all of them Muslim. This was part of a larger project I did with Save the Children that will ultimately help over 10,000 children in Southern Bangladesh. Oh, and the specific donations helping these two village health workers came from the Jewish community in Haifa, Israel. If this causes cognitive dissonance for people like Shahnur Alom than everything is going according to plan.