Tag Archive for 'Save the Children'

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.

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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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.

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Why Save the Children Sucks

Haha – April Fools! Anyone who knows me knows I’d be the last person to say that Save the Children sucks. In fact, I didn’t have the heart to even fake trash talk them for April Fools’ Day. So, instead, I’d like to write about why I’m such a big believer in what Save the Children does.

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“Lying” in Aid & Development

Last month, I wrote a blog post about negatives attitudes to NGOs in Bangladesh. I’ve also talked about how these negative attitudes can be avoided by being a “free agent”, emphasizing blood ties, and respecting and understanding Islam.

I’d like to elaborate on that last point because I recently stumbled on this video:

Before you click play, I should probably point out this video is not for everyone. At the very start of this video, the Imam suggests that all non-Muslims (with a particular emphasis on Israelis) are liars.

It’s also important to note that this particular Imam, has got in trouble in the past and has been accused of hate speech. But, honestly, what he’s preaching would not be out of place in many conservative villages in Bangladesh.

Traditional Islam has a strict standard on what is and is not considered a lie. There is no such thing as an “innocent white lie”. Moreover, the penalty for lying is severe and can incur the wrath of God (including the afterlife – Qu’ran 4:145).

“Fear Allah, and be with the truthful.” (Qu’ran 9:119)

In the strict interpretation of Islam, even hyperbole is considered a grave lie (i.e. “I called you a million times!”). In fact, as the Imam points out, even wearing colored contacts or dying your hair is a form of dishonesty.

But how does this pertain to aid and development? And why does not being a NGO or charity seem to help foster greater trust in more conservative villages in Bangladesh? Find out after the jump

Continue reading ‘“Lying” in Aid & Development’

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.

What Coming to Davos Means to Me

In 2009, I had a frank talk with the Bangladesh Country Director of Save the Children. His name is Kelly Stevenson and I’ve often joked that “The Uncultured Project” should be renamed “The Kelly Stevenson Project” because much of what I’ve been able to do is because he has said yes to my ideas.

The problem facing Kelly, as he explained it, is that I lacked credibility. He liked what I’m doing but it was hard to make things happen because I lacked recognition. Unfortunately it didn’t matter how many subscribers I had or that I became a Webby Honoree – none of that counted as recognition in the aid system.

This small white badge I’m wearing on my neck changes that.

Those who know me well know that I’m not easily star-struck and don’t easily fangirl. I don’t drink – so I don’t give a damn how expensive the champagne is. And I’m a pretty cheap foodie – so it doesn’t matter how expensive the desert is, I go for quantity not quality.

The reason why coming to Davos means so much to me is that it gives me something that no amount of press coverage, no amount of subscribers on YouTube, and no amount of followers on Twitter can give me. In the eyes of the top in business, charity, and government – my registered status here is equal to them.

As staff at the World Economic Forum put it, just being here means that I’ve been “vetted and deemed a person of accomplishment [...] and not crazy”. It may seem like the “not crazy” part is a bit tongue-in-cheek, but as many of you know that’s exactly the reaction I get from many aid professionals.

Holding a panel discussion alongside distinguished Harvard Professor Bloom. My contribution as a panelist was as respected and as equally applauded by World Bank officials, NGO leaders, and professors. No snark. No egos. Nothing but great discussion and great ideas.

Virtually every idea I’ve ever had has always been met with incredulity and resistance by at least some aid professionals. And, if you look at them, the ideas aren’t that crazy:

  • I believe the way charities shaped their messages around poverty did a disservice to the poor. Yet, the few aid experts I knew back when I started this project insisted I was crazy (or at worst dishonest) for talking about poverty in any other way. Now? Watch this ad and enjoy.
  • I believe charities don’t (or at least didn’t) understand the importance of YouTube. Yet, this idea didn’t get much traction at first. YouTube was a site for cat videos. Now? Find me a charity that doesn’t have a YouTube channel or a position dedicated to “social media”.
  • I believe ordinary citizens on YouTube have more potential to genuinely mobilize people than celebrities. Yet, even as late as 2009, I was getting lectured about how charities need to control their message and, somehow, celebs achieved this better than regular folks on YouTube. Now? Just ask World Vision how they have benefitted from working with YouTubers.

What coming to Davos does for me is it gives me the hope that I have a chance that someone will hear my ideas and actually consider it. Here are a few:

  • I believe charities need to become networked non-profits and move away from being silos that don’t work along with outsiders.
  • I believe YouTube and other “social media” is more than just a marketing & fundraising platform – but only if we unleash this potential.
  • I believe a truly post-colonial charity can’t just be okay with how it does things because it fits our values. It also must be okay to those who receive aid.
  • I believe, because of that, rethinking how to fund (much needed) overhead should not be vilified when it can be about the recipient.
  • I believe that there is too much of a skew on quantitative methodology in the aid system when in fact a qualitative, anthropological, and ethnographic approach can potentially yield equal (or greater) truths about how to pull people out of poverty.
  • I believe that, because there is a quantitative skew, people obsess too much about scalability. There is no shame in local solutions that just fit local problems – whether it is one village, one country, or one religious, ethnic, or cultural group.

What’s so great about this trip to Davos is that I don’t have to become Bono’s BFF for this to happen. I don’t have to woo a grant from Bill Gates – who, at least when first hearing about my work, met it with a bit of skepticism. I don’t even have to network with charities while I’m here. This is a credential that I can take back with me and build on even when Davos becomes a distant memory.

I’m sure Kelly will appreciate that.