Tag Archive for 'NGO'

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?’

3 Reasons Charities Need to Drop the Guilt

A Charity Guilt-Ad Currently Airing in Canada

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:

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There Is No “Them”

I don’t know what this means but, despite being inspired by Dr. Jeffrey Sachs (author of “The End of Poverty”), I sometimes find myself also agreeing with Dr. William Easterly (author of the book critical of foreign aid called “The White Man’s Burden”).

Today was one of those days:

What Dr. Easterly is referring to is the fact that, even if you had the power to control billions of aid dollars, this really can’t be about what “we” (in the developed world) can do to help “them” (those in the developing world).

But here is where I believe we need to change the conversation – and the thinking – on global poverty. When it comes to humanity, there is no “them” there are only facets of “us”. So we don’t have to help “them”, we have to help “us”.

And we can only help “us” if we understand “us” and talk to “us” and not second guess what will help “us”. This, of course, is what any good charity or NGO says they are already doing. But I believe we can do much more on this front.

For example, take the very medium in which Dr. Easterly is espousing his views on aid. Even if “we” derive an online consensus on what is and isn’t “good aid”, it is a consensus made without the inclusion of the poorest of the poor.

If the poor don’t even have a say in a “free and open” platform like the internet, what chance do they have of having a strong say anywhere else? In the classrooms of Western universities? In NGO boardrooms? In government?

“What can we do?” is really the only question that needs to be asked – but only if “we” is redefined.

The Nexus of Aid Work & Islamic Extremism

Hartel (Strike) in Bangladesh

With less than a month before the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, violence, protests, and strikes have erupted in Bangladesh. Much of this is fueled by an Islamic political party called Jamaat-e-Islami. This is a political party that exists both in Bangladesh and Pakistan. Their goal? To advance the Islamization of Muslim countries (with the goal of ultimately ruling by Sharia Law).

When acts of violence and religious extremism occur in a far-away country, we usually don’t think of it as having anything to do with the charities we donate to, how NGOs operate in these countries, or how the attitudes and approaches of aid workers affect these issues. But the two are closely interlinked.

What surprises me the most is that aid workers are often the ones least willing to admit that such a connection exists at all. The impression I get from many of my friends and colleagues in the humanitarian sector, is that many see themselves as Starfleet officers operating on their own version of Gene Roddenberry’s Prime Directive.

Unfortunately, while there is a great deal of nobility, selflessness, and self-sacrifice in the aid industry, the notion that one can provide humanitarian aid and development while being impartial and above the fray of local conflicts is science fiction.

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From Riots to Aid: The Impact of the Social Lens

Nathan Kotylak - Water Polo All Star

Meet Nathan Kotylak. A few weeks ago Nathan was a rising star. He was the best water polo player in his school, he was training with the Canadian national water polo team, he earned a scholarship to one of Canada’s best universities, and he was on track to be one of Canada’s Olympic athletes in a few years time.

But that all changed in about the time it takes to make a tweet.

Continue reading ‘From Riots to Aid: The Impact of the Social Lens’

Female Aid Worker Harassed in Bangladesh

Earlier this week, I got a letter from a young lady who had interned with an NGO in Bangladesh. With her permission, I am sharing excerpts of her email below:

I’m a female Canadian who spent a summer in Dhaka and it took me over 2 years to regain my ability to think and function like the typical North American female. Even still, it’s a challenge.

Your youtube videos on Eve Teasing & Purdah, especially the conversation with Nirjhar, were all too familiar.  No one prepared me for this aspect of my trip to “volunteer/intern” for [OMITTED] in Dhaka.  I knew I was going to a largely Islamic nation, with a great deal of modesty expectations for females.  I had no idea that because I was young (21), unmarried, and female, (and the coveted white-skinned!), that [OMITTED] would pretty much hide me away in a room for the duration of my 90 day visa because it was too much of a hassle to escort (felt like babysit) me around to go anywhere at all, and it seemed as though they also somehow considered me incapable of doing anything.  At the end of my stay in Dhaka (which felt like a lifetime spending 80% of it in a single room), I was told to come back someday after I was married and maybe they would have work for me.

I returned to [OMITTED] being unable to go out in public places without this overwhelming fear of men staring at me, with vivid memories of males pointing and talking about me in words I couldn’t understand but could sense were not exactly kind-hearted, and taking millions of photos of me with their mobiles. I was unable to bare my shoulders or ankles. To this day, I still wear scarves 75% of the time to add an extra layer of coverage to my front because I otherwise feel so incredibly indecent and ashamed. It is a constant battle to look males in the eye when I talk to them. It took over a year before I actually felt safe while going out after sundown by myself.

The Dhaka experience was incredibly… oppressive. It killed my heart to know that Bangladeshi women live through even worse every single day of their lives. I wish I knew of something I could do. I would go back if I had some sense that I could be of any use; but the result of my last trip gave me the impression that my presence is only a burden and therefore not wanted, only my money. Which as a student, I still have very little of.  So in the meantime I fund a Kiva loan every month, am slowly finishing my education, and ultimately aspire to get a decent enough job so I can give half my money away to the most respectable NGOs/foreign aid organizations I can find. But this plan leaves me feeling like I’m copping out, and just handing over money for other people to do the hands-on work.

Needless to say, I have more respect for Nirjhar the aid worker than words can describe.  And I hope and pray that maybe someday I, too, will have even a small portion of the courage that she has.

I asked for her permission to post this letter because, while I am sure there are tons of women who have had great experiences interning in Bangladesh, this is by no means an outlier.

There is a lot I like about Bangladeshi culture and tradition. For example, I believe local non-NGO ways and approaches to helping the poor are just as valid (if not more so) than foreign institutional and professional methods.

But not every facet of Bangladeshi culture, habits, and tradition need to persist. And this is a prime example.

P.S. Check out my friend (and personal hero) Anika Rabbani. As a guy, I will never fully understand the kind of hurdles she faces in her job.

Negative Attitudes to NGOs in Bangladesh

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.