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Don't you talk about my...that way...

“Excuse me. What’s that you’re reading?” the woman wedged next to me in the busy restaurant asked.
Sitting on the table in front me yesterday was Tori Hogan’s new book, Beyond Good Intentions: A Journey Into the Realities of International Aid. (Now available here.) I told the woman and her companion about Tori and went on to praise the book’s accessibility and grounded depictions of the problems that plague international assistance efforts of all kinds.
“Is the [insert government agency well known for sending people abroad] in there?”
Even though I had read the manuscript prior and knew that Tori would encounter many related stories along the way in Kenya, Uganda and Rwanda, I replied, “I haven’t read anything in particular about them yet. Of course since there’s lots of issues with [agency that shall remain nameless], I’m sure it’s bound to come up.”
No response. Looks of what? Disbelief? Disgust?
“Do you work in aid?” I ask, trying to fill the uncomfortable silence amidst the clanging dishes and murmur of the Sunday brunch crowd.
“I work for [yes, that agency],” she replies. “We both do.”
I back pedal just a little. “Of course, the [agency] is only as successful as, well…each volunteer has such different experiences and it’s what they make of it I suppose.”
“Do you work in aid?” they solicit my credentials. I list the organizations with which I’ve been employed and try to give an example of how the book breaks down issues, one of which I assume they will relate.
“In the chapter I’m reading now, Tori traces her steps to find her host family in Uganda from a decade earlier and she’s dealing with the inevitable ask-for-money.  That’s a situation we all have to know how to deal with gracefully.” Stares still blank.
Luckily my coffee arrives so that our awkwardness can end. I pull out my journal to signal that they can stop engaging me and have their meal, but in such a cramped space, it’s hard not to keep listening.
I had experienced directly what Tori described to me happened when she first tried to share her ten-part film series of the same name with industry “insiders.” She initially found when the series was released in 2009 that aid workers were not receptive to discussing aid effectiveness issues.
“People just didn’t want to engage around the films,” Tori told me. “I had a lot of closed doors in my face.”
So Beyond Good Intentions focused instead on “changing the lens” of U.S. high school and college students, in effect, to influence the next generation of aid workers. The films have now been screened in over 165 countries.
As a colleague told me recently, “Working for an NGO, it’s like family. I can bad-mouth my mother, but you can’t.”
And therein lies the issue. These [nameless agency] employees were curious about the book, but saw me as non-family. If I was someone who would bad-mouth their mother…that is, NGO…then I was not to become a desirable brunch-time friend. I could have name-dropped the people I know who have worked for [nameless agency] and potentially gotten somewhere, but I chose not to. Sometimes a woman just wants an NGO-talk-free meal, you know?
As the food was served, their conversation (that I was supposedly not overhearing) went on to discuss their host families, and then on to inevitable expat-aid-worker fare—maids, homes, and safari vacations.

This is the contradiction that will continue to make many of us uncomfortable—the glaring reality that a Nebraska farm girl like me can become upwardly mobile by joining this industry while economic gains have largely been negligible for the “poor” in the global South over these past decades of international assistance.
This, among many other contradictions of intent, rhetoric, and results, is why I created how-matters.org and why Tori first set out to create the film series. It is also why she went on the journey described in the book. She’s a self-professed aid critic with the guts to share her experience out loud and to look for what is working in international aid.
People may dismiss her book as only one woman’s experience, but any aid worker, social entrepreneur, grantmaker or do-gooder willing to be honest with themselves will identify with the questions that plague Tori in the book. They will think about all the times they asked themselves the same thing but did not speak up.
Let’s hope we’ve moved the dial forward on aid effectiveness over the last three years. My message to do-gooders who still may, consciously or unconsciously, think Tori is letting the skeletons out of the closet?
Don’t worry. Our family should be able to handle it.
***
This post originally appeared at: http://www.how-matters.org/2012/10/22/dont-you-talk-about-my/
***
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Wendyiscalm's picture

VERY MULTI-LAYERED ISSUE

Hi Jennifer,

I read your article with interest and some knowledge of the frustration you feel. I have worked in my own NGO I AM ONE IN A MILLION since 2006 in Livingstone, Zambia and there are so many hidden traditions, customs and feelings that the blacks will not even tell us about on purpose so we cannot understand them. Talking to them sometimes I feel there is a subset conversation going on beneath the verbal conversation that I do not understand.

I read somewhere: "Each of us has a picture of ourselves in our imaginations.That "self-image" is similar to a thermostat.in a room,. It sets the standard at which you will function. You will never consistently rise higher than the image you have of yourself and you will never accomplish things that you do not first see yourself accomplishing." Most people in the world have a different thermostat than you. BUT by being yourself you plant seeds to the few who have a high thermostat they can't get ignited by themselves and you DO make a difference. LIke a seed. A marigold seed sprouts in 5 days. A begonia bulb in 6 weeks and it takes weeks to grow and lasts for years. Marigolds die in about 5 days. So, by being yourself, you will reach some one(s) but you won't know about it. Think back to the teachers you had. I had Miss French. I wanted to be like her in so many ways and I worked on it. She never knew that or how successful this poor little nothing became as a result in part of mimicking her.

I spent 4 years doing a study in Livingstone, Zambia to understand the hidden traditions, culture and to get behind their eyeballs. It is very different. The teachers there are horrible. My vision with my NGO is different and I am making sustainable progress and improvement. I do not want other NGO people working for me because I have a separate vision. I am not writing to tell you about me, though it seems that way. I am writing to tell you that you are unique, I expect you feel different. That is not because you are not as good as the others. You do not fit in because you have so much MORE than the others. Most people settle for the status quo. You will never be the status quo. BUT you WILL make a difference in some people's lives forever. Hang in there, keep being your authentic self and when you run up against people who do not understand you, don't waste forever trying to convince them. Move on. There are LOTS of young people who want to soak up what you have to offer, they are like sponges thirsting for water/knowledge. You can't reach and change everyone anyway. So keep the faith. God will put the right people in your life at the right time and you will ignite their fire and change the world in doing so. I know. It happens to me daily now that I realize who I am and how much I am. You're the real deal. Keep it coming !

Ubuntu (I am who I am because of who we are together),

Wendy

Wendy Stebbins
Founder/CEO
I AM ONE IN A MILLION Non-Profit Organization focused on helping street orphans and vulnerable children in Livingstone, Zambia Africa.

Amei's picture

NGO's

Hi Jennifer,

Beyond Good Intention - A ... seems like a good read. They way you have brought the issues faced by the NGO's and the recipients are interesting.

I enjoyed the article and mad me wonder about the aid Maldives were given after the 2004 Boxing day Tsunami. I was in the mist of it and I understand implications of Beyond Good Intentions... After nearly 8 years I have to see how International Aid impacted the people.

I hope things change fast within both NGO's and the recipients. Lets face the Skeleton if Tori;s is letting it out.

Glad to have read your post. It has been sometime since I read a post of yours,

Have great day.

With Love,
Amei

HowMatters's picture

thanks for your comment

We have to keep telling the truth about Aid and its implications for the people on the receiving end of it...again and again.
Jennifer

how-matters.org - Aid effectiveness is not about what we do, but how we do it.

Nusrat Ara's picture

Thanks for sharing. Love

Thanks for sharing.

Love

Nusrat

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