When you think about it, we all want to be cool. Women wear painful high heels to look good, men wrap a noose (tie) around our neck to feel powerful. Fashion trumps comfort when we head out on the town. We upgrade our phone, not because it is broken but because it is a generation behind the latest and greatest. That is why your development goals also need to be super-cool.
We all know it is somewhat ridiculous, vain and self-centred … and totally human. This is a universal feeling for everyone on the planet. That everyone, also includes the materially poor.
That is why international aid programs that allow people to feel cool – work a lot better than those that just pay attention to a problem.
Why Cool Matters (a lot)
Programs are started every day in places where there is perpetual poverty. They might be started by well-meaning outsiders who see the horrible states of infection of malaria, or STIs and want to change the terrible stats of unemployment.
Even as outsiders, we KNOW these are the major issues that the community wants to face.
But, when we jump in gung-ho-style with our great solutions, we are shocked by the lack of interest.
Local people know that the problem exists, they might even agree with your solution, but it is frustrating to find out that people won’t just quickly change everything just because you told them to.
That’s when we can blame the people.
We can focus on the people who are not doing what we say they should do. We grow mad at how they are not contributing to the success of our program. Unchecked, this can lead to a racist sense of superiority. “My development goals would have totally worked if they had just listened to me!”
It is easy to forget that the problem may be more complex than our simple solution. An example might be a lot closer (and uncomfortable) than you think.
In fact, we deal with the exact same issue at home.
A human-sized problem
At home we also have serious problems. To name a few, obesity, depression, heart disease and diabetes are all fine examples.
We also have unlimited information to cure those problems.
Fashion magazines and Hollywood celebrities promise miracle cures
Your doctor will always advise you to try and lose that 20 lbs …
Entire forests have been harvested to write up peer-reviewed studies about better nutrition.
There is no lack of information about the problem and what we need to do.
The Solution is not the Solution
In the end, everyone knows we should “eat less and exercise more” and many (not all) of our health problems would disappear overnight.
But knowing the solution and doing the solution are different things
Shame and guilt doesn’t work to get people to change, it is hard to keep motivated to eat less and exercise more
So where does it work?
If you convince people to get together in a cool new gym. When you make it a club, a place to meet friends and listen to good music. When you gather people together in community … something interesting happens.
The side-effect is that by making it fun to gather together, you can watch a bunch of those health problems start to disappear.
People say they want to lose weight and be healthy, but they are much more interested in being part of movement and a community.
To be in the ‘in-group’.
If you want your development goals to work … don’t forget to be cool.
In 1984 Bob Geldof decided to tell people about one of the greatest disasters of his time. The famine in Ethiopia was staggering and countless people were dying. Bob raised an amazing amount of money for a problem that the world was trying hard to ignore. I have to heartily applaud him.
The problem is that he is trying to do it again.
Why is this a problem? There is still a need. Poverty and disease are still problems. The West/North/Developed world still has no clue about Africa and needs to be made aware (my recent experiment proved that point)
Bob you asked if Africans know it is Christmas?
Coptic Christians in Egypt (an African nation) recall that Jesus spent his first two birthdays in Africa. There are 2.5 times more Christians in Nigeria alone than the entire population of Canada. In fact, the majority religion of many African nations is Christianity. I dare say that they all know about Christmas. Bob, the song sure sounds condescending.
“where nothing ever grows, no rain or rivers flow, do they know it’s Christmas at all?”
Bob I know you didn’t start BandAid to educate Africans about December 25 on the calendar. You sang the song to collect money for a country of starving people and you succeeded. Shouldn’t I just thank you and move on? So much good came out of it!
The irony is that donors give a lot of money because of those kind of pictures. Aid agencies know this and take more of those kinds of pictures. This ultimately means they make money from the exploitation of children and women.
It is really easy is to criticize others. I find it a lot easier to find fault with someone else than to create something better. Bob, I don’t want to be your critic because it is the boring way to avoid the adventure of getting involved. I don’t ever want to stand by and take shots, or worse, make snide comments about you in a poorly read blog.
I also don’t have your ability to call even one artist, let alone pull an international cadre of superstars together. I don’t have anyone’s phone numbers. But Bob, I do think you still could do something that might make a real difference. Here is my unsolicited advice.
How to Stop Pimping the Poor
Bob Geldof if this ever reaches you, I think your motive is probably right but you need to reconsider your method. Think about your own life. At your personal poorest would you have wanted to be described as a “victim of poverty” or would you rather be seen as an “aspiring talented musician”? The same goes for everyone. Don’t describe people by what they don’t have or don’t know, rather describe them by what they hope to be.
If you wouldn’t want it said about yourself and your kids don’t say it about African mothers and fathers and their kids.
Pull off the BandAid fast (it hurts less) and use the old song but co-opt it. Be subversive. Reverse the storyline.
Show Africans in positions of power and have them sing as ridiculous a song to all of your celebrities.
Have fun with the fact that the 30-year-old song is maudlin tripe.
Let everyone know you are in on the joke.
… and yes, please raise a tonne of money, we need you to use the drawing power of your A-list celebrity friends. I will be first in line to donate.
In short. Please Exploit the song. Not the Africans.
Thanks for listening Bob.
If you could talk to Bob Geldof, what creative advice would you give him?
Last week I started up a war. I wrote a controversial post about the country of Africa and said that due to bad press because of the Ebola media hoopla, I was going to share some “lesser known facts” so people could understand the ‘real Africa’. I wrote a blog post. A lot of people complained when I said Africa is a country. It struck a nerve.
So why did I say that Africa is a country when I knew it was not true? It was all a joke of course. I know that Africa is an ancient city-state stretched along an enormous archipelago of 15 large and hundreds of smaller islands just off the western coast of India. For reference purposes, I have included a quick sketch of that fabled land (not to scale):
Why did I write the post? I had some noble reasons: I wanted to break stereotypes, stop the ‘poor African’ storyline, and to share a conversation with a wide audience, the same conversation I have shared with plenty of Africans over the years.
I also wrote the article to have a little fun and I figured more people might read it.
There was a method to the madness, but if I am honest, it wasn’t until I saw the comments on Facebook or Twitter that I really understood what I had written. In the middle of the backlash one small niggling fact really stuck out for me. I learned a lot from it.
In my post I tried to give plenty of cues that I was writing satire. I kept repeating that Africa is a country, and then wrote something else equally silly. Most caught the hints. If you were just skim-reading you may have missed what I was trying to say. Here are the clues I tried to leave:
I gave my article a sensational over-the-top title like the headlines that flood my Facebook stream.
I made sure that every single sentence I wrote was ridiculous or wrong, or both.
I made up absurd facts. Some were so crazy I thought that I had gone too far.
I used the most condescending language I could think of
I made up senseless quotes from imaginary people.
Each of my links in the post actually told the exact opposite story.
I kept the ruse going. I played an arrogant jerk or a clueless idiot in my Facebook responses when people reacted.
Africa is a Country: The reaction
I got a lot of confusing “WTF!?!” type responses. A number of people tried to correct my uninformed facts. But I must say that I was personally surprised by one little thing. Most people would only scold me about the error of my title. Again and again I was told:
“Africa is a continent, not a country!”
I was surprised that with all the dumb things I said about Africa, people were mostly concerned about my geography. They ignored the bigger picture. No one questioned my condescending tone about the needy people in Africa waiting for a brave hero from the west. People were fine with the thought that volunteers should go to Africa to hold babies and give away stuff. Or that an African’s favourite sport was war. No one challenged those statements.
One of my favourite recent videos comes from a group of students in Norway. SAIH has made some hilarious videos about this way of thinking. Do yourself a favour and please watch this genius clip! Maybe Africa is a country you can visit to save a child?
Other videos from SAIH are here on their Radi-Aid page. They are so brilliant that the only fault I can find is that I jealously wish I could have made them.
Know any other great videos like this? Share the link-love and post them in the comments below!
Sustainability is one of those buzz-words. It is right up there with gender-balance and environment. That’s the problem.It means that everyone uses the word on every single proposal. Some projects should never be intended to be sustainable at all (like all disaster relief projects). Still, sustainable language is rammed into proposals.
The alternative is donor-funding suicide.
How do you know if something will actually last longer than your attention on this post? I like to use the crisis test.
Simply put, “If I get hit by a flaming meteor (or bus), does the project die with me?”
Have you ever tried to corral a group of friends and come up with a plan. What do we want for lunch? What movie do you want to see? Should we go camping for the long weekend? It could be anything but when you get 5 or 6 friends together it gets tough to make a decision on something simple. Imagine something hard:
“Hey friends, want to start a successful business together? “
Getting all your friends on the same page is not easy, add something as complicated as a new business and finding a way to agree just got a whole lot worse! That is why I think it is naïve and maybe even unhelpful when I hear people ask ‘why aren’t these poor people collecting together and collaborating to make their lives better’
“It’s naïve to say poor people should just collect together to make their lives better”
Liz is a woman I trained who is volunteering in Zambia. Energetic and adventurous only begins to describe this retired Dutch-direct woman. She started her work with a child program for a year and went back for a second year to continue with a group of 5-6 widows and single mothers. Her agenda was simple – Connections and support for the women. They would cook together and chat over a meal, sharing laughter and tears at the table.
As Liz walked deeper into the stories of her friends she saw the everyday hard decisions of poverty. She wanted to step in and lend a hand. She talked to the group and suggested that maybe they should start a business together. Liz had her retirement income and she thought she could swing a small loan.
“Want to REALLY help? Give up on the romance that the #poor are waiting to hear your great idea.”
The idea is out there that no one in the village has thought of working together before and they need a visitor to arrive with plans for them to happily share a business together. This way of thinking romanticizes people. The local culture may certainly be a lot more collaborative than yours, but it sure doesn’t mean that they are all going into business together. Do you have the free time to find a group of five friends and start a new business? Think of how tough that would be.
What business do we start?
What do we need to buy?
Who is in charge?
Who does what?
How much do we chip in?
When can you work?
Who bankrolls this?
Where will the profits go?
And another 1000 practical questions
Getting into business with friends is a recipe for complication.
I wanted to warn Liz about these questions, but since I was travelling all I had time for was to send her a strong email, written directly to her, asking her to hold on! I gave her some rushed quick points and asked if we could meet soon.
Liz told me that she read my email and suddenly saw the trouble she was getting into. She certainly didn’t want this project to end up totally dependent on the outsider. She wanted to change her plans but felt bad that she had already promised money. As a woman of strong faith she prayed and decided to lay her cards on the table.
She did something awful.
Liz opened up my email to her and read it to the group. When she told me this I felt terrible. I hadn’t known she was going to read my email out loud. I certainly would have written it differently if I knew I was directly communicating with her friends.
When Liz and I later talked, Liz laughed. She told me that my fears were unfounded. The meeting went really well. The women even told Liz that they had wanted to talk to her about the same questions that I had raised but they didn’t want to offend her. They liked her too much.
In the end Liz read my suggestion that the women start a savings group together. The women discussed and agreed. Each of them decided to pitch in a little each week, and at the end of the month one woman would get the cash, enough to fund a personal project.
Then Liz did something great!
Liz asked them to consider how much they could save each week and did something really helpful. She didn’t suggest an amount. The next time they met Liz discovered the women were saving double what she had assumed they could. They drew names and at the end of a month, Brendah received the group savings of $200. She immediately put it into buying more handbags to sell at her stall in the local market. No committee meetings. No profit-sharing. Just a hard-working woman who is building her business.
Every month, another woman receives her group savings cash and expands her own business. Some women are fixing their homes and shops, others are buying more stock to sell, others pay school fees and build up their sewing businesses. Community collaboration is vital for development. Unless it is the wrong kind (lead by an outsider)
Our solutions are easy – we think about them every day. Sustainability is hard. To be successful we must restrain ourselves. Maybe as outsiders we need “to not be the change we want to see in the community”
Did this post influence you? If so, tell me why in the comments below.
PS. This is the email I wrote to Liz, unedited.
thanks for the further detail … I love the heart you have to engage and appreciate the wealth of experience you have with the women in the room.
I want to give you some principles of a good project as this is a critical phase to begin well. There are many people who start these kinds of projects and the high majority of them fail. I want you to succeed, so here are some principles to keep in mind.
i would encourage you NOT to be the one who holds the money and gives the loan. Instead, I would do the training and ask if they would like to do a program like this. the unspoken thought if you hold the money is that a foreigner needs to be involved to really make this work. Good, sustainable development puts this back in the hands of the local people each and every time.
secondly, I would suggest it is very important that the project is owned by an individual, not the group. If a group owns it, the group will commonly consider the project somewhat outside of themselves. failure and success are not as important to a group as blame for the failure can be put on something outside of oneself. the worst possible outcome would for the project to be seen as your project. This is what we see with projects all over Africa … “That is Unicefs well..”, “That is ERDOs chicken farm…” for a project to be successful, it must be owned locally.
Do not start them out. Let the group build up savings together in order to build trust and anticipation – and most importantly long range project planning where there is a real risk for failure and lost money. Even a failed project that is owned localy is good for a person, as they tend to be a lot more cautious with how they plan for the next opportunity. If failure is not a very real option, in such a way that it will affect the people personally, the project probably does not have local ownership.
Finally – realize that your suggestions are not suggestions. As the richest person in the room, they are heard with Biblical weight. IF Donald Trump ‘suggested‘ a business opportunity to you, you would probably pay very close attention and ignore your other plans, because you know that he is very financially successful. You are the Donald Trump to these women!
These concepts are not from me, but are the results of hundreds of thousands of others who are attempting this work around the world. The principles I am suggesting are proven and I encourage you to slow the process to do the research on how to faciliate an implementation with the ladies you are partnering with.
1. you cannot be in charge of anything (suggesting a project to do, or even holding the money at your home)
2. have the individuals come up with individual plans (they can collect money together), and let the project fail or succeed
3. Dont suggest options – let people make up their own mind on what to do entirely. fight the urge to suggest.
I am gone to Japan and Philippines for a few weeks, perhaps we can find a moment to chat after?
Did this post influence you? If so, tell me why in the comments below.
I was training a group in Toronto. All of them were on their way overseas to go work in countries where poverty is the norm. They all want to help the poor. The question is what helps?
That’s when I surprised them with a strange social experiment.
I asked the group to do a crazy social experiment where they were to give away a toonie at a time to three unique people. They were not allowed to explain why, they simply had to give $2 to three separate people. To make it interesting they had to:
Give $2 to a person who is obviously economically poorer than you
Give $2 to a person who looks like they are at about the same economic level as you
Give $2 to a person who is obviously economically wealthier than you
Laughing a bit nervously, they fanned out across the city and bravely attempted. Later when we debriefed the experience I asked them how it went, I thought the responses were surprising!
Everyone said that it was easy to give money to people who looked poorer than them. People simply gave to pan-handlers who were already asking for money. When they gave the $2, the people who received looked them in the eye and said thank-you or God Bless.
It was a pretty natural exchange. The gift felt good and kind.
The story changed when people tried to give money to people at the same economic level. People who were offered the money were guarded and surprised. The donors raised a few eyebrows. They were asked ”What is this for?” and “Why are you giving me this?”.
The general response was perplexed wonder and confusion. Recipients laughed and gave the givers a double-take, shaking their heads at the craziness of the situation. The gift felt odd.
It was when people tried to give money to the rich that things got really interesting. Flashes of irritation crossed people’s faces. Responses were quick and snappy, “No thanks” and “I don’t want this”. People walked away in a hurry, trying to avoid the giver.
In most cases it was almost impossible to give $2 to a rich person. The gift was an insult.
What does it mean to help the poor?
Giving money is an exceptionally powerful act. When we give money to help the poor we are setting up a powerful relationship. Money is power. And the act of giving money conveys power to the giver. This relationship with money affects us in deep ways:
the giver is benevolent, the receiver should be grateful.
the giver is kind, the receiver is needy
the giver is good, the receiver should learn from them
Giving $2 to a homeless person reminds us that we are noble. We are re-affirmed and thanked. When we disrupt this story (by giving money to the non-poor) we create tension. It breaks down this story. This is a good thing.
Poverty needs you in power.
If we continue to find immediate gratification by giving to an person who can thank us. We will continue to reinforce the power structure that poverty requires. Don’t believe me? Do one of two things:
Just go and try to give some money away to a rich person yourself.
Or sit on the corner and beg for money for 30 minutes
So what should you do with that $2 in your pocket the next time you want to help the poor? You may just try giving it to a person in a BMW. This kind of giving will change your perception of how money affects you as a giver just as much as it does the receiver.
Until we change how we give, we won’t be able to understand how others need to receive.
Wells have been installed all over the world by organizations that collected donation money from people just like you. A lot of pictures are sent back home of the big celebration, unveiling of the plaque and congratulatory speeches. This is usually the last we hear of the well.
Job Well Done!
Another Broken Well
The problem is that the pumps were broken by some local kid and haven’t worked in years.
The first time I saw this kind of thing (and it is not that uncommon) I thought, what is wrong with these people? They have to walk for kilometres for water, often to polluted streams, and this pump is just sitting there at their doorstep – Why don’t they fix it?
Don’t they care?
If someone gives you a gift shouldn’t you keep it up?
That is a fairly obvious isn’t it? Is this some sort of moral deficiency or “cultural” issue … I tried to come up with all kinds of explanations. Most of them were convoluted and sort of racist, but over time I think I am starting to understand why.
The answer is the people did not realize the pump was theirs
In too many cases, no one knew who actually owned the pump. Sure it was given to ‘the community‘ but it was never clarified who that actually was. It is like the road in front of your house, it is “yours” But you don’t fill the potholes.
When it is given to everyone, it is given to no one.
No one owns the well.
Everyone else assumed someone else owned it. When the outsiders came in with the water in the first case it is usually enormously appreciated, but because no one actually owned the pumps, and no one collected money for maintenance, it meant that no one was in charge.
The pump is most commonly seen as a broken promise and a failed responsibility of the donating agency
Whenever I saw a broken well, I started to ask a simple question, “Whose well is this?” I had hoped to hear people tell me that this is “my well”. Instead I heard over and over that “this is the well of [insert name of your favourite development agency here]”.
Why does the community think the well belongs to an outsider? Probably because an outsider brought it in and even though they most certainly told the local people it was theirs, words don’t mean as much as action.
And their actions clearly showed that this well was not theirs. At no point was the well actually given to anyone with an enforceable interest in maintaining the well.
Consider if you were suddenly told by a friend, colleague or pastor that the work that they have done for the past year is now yours. And – “oh yeah, by the way, the money run out in 6 months so you need to make sure that you find a way to keep it going …” How would you feel?
You may feel a lot like many recipients around the world feel when they receive one of our projects. Sure, I like this project, but I like it as a user, a recipient, not an owner. Why are you trying to pass this time-consuming and expensive responsibility on to me?
When wells are given to a community and not to an owner (person or team)- no one owns the well.
If you form vague requests for maintenance schedules but avoid the plans for a person to make an income from his work – no one owns the well.
When there is no clear system in place, everyone expects that the company who brought the water will manage their investment, collect fees and repair the breakdowns.
If you don’t want another broken well
For a project to last in a community, the community must own it at all times. From long before the planning phase, to long after you are gone. How do you make sure of real ownership? Simple.
Don’t do the kinds of things that owners do.
If you dream it, plan for it, pay for it, manage it and sell it to the community … guess who the owner is? You, of course. Do something different instead, find out the dreams, plans, resources, management and promotion of the community and join what they are doing.
Have you ever been frustrated by a big waste of money?
I recently had lunch with a friend and we talked, as I often do, about international relief and development work. He asked about my travel over the next year and I mentioned that I was planning another trip to Haiti in about a month. He asked, as most people do whenever I mention Haiti, “So how are things going there anyways?”
I have found that the unspoken question behind this question is this, “Is all of our efforts, goodwill, intentions and resources really making a difference? Are we able to change what seems like a fundamentally broken place?”
Are we making a difference?
I responded with some of the success stories, and suggested that it takes time to change social patterns, thoughts and behaviours (worldviews), blah, blah, I started to bore myself. I realized as I spoke, I knew the most critical, most difficult, #1 change in attitude that is absolutely necessary in any successful development project.
After every disaster, I will often hear from people that they are interested in helping out during the disaster. Many are hoping to find an agency that will pay for their trip and they will volunteer in turn. Aid agencies are usually hammered with volunteer requests when a disaster strikes.
Not all Aid Agencies work at the initial point of the disaster. Initial response efforts require trucks, airplanes, security, specialized personnel, warehousing and tonnes of commodities. Large aid agencies are first responders.
Nov 09 marked the end of a highly successful food aid response to 21 000 of the most vulnerable people in the war-affected areas of eastern DR Congo.
If you have read any of my previous posts on the subject, you have already heard of my first of three visits to the region, during a visit into Nindja, we spent 8 hours on the road. That got us to and from a one-and-a-half hour meeting. The total distance we travelled was probably about 269 kilometers – 130 km each way, and about 9 in climbing in and out of potholes.
During our drive to the community, at first we passed other four-by-fours, large transport trucks with crowds seated on top of the mass of products, and small Toyotas with the suspension about to burst. Eventually the vehicles dwindled down to the occasional motorcycle, until finally we met no other car on the road, no one passed by, except on foot. Later we discovered that we were the fourth vehicle into the region that year.
We passed some of the most beautiful country in the world, gentle mountains, lush and green, gave way to groves of banana, tea, pine and countless small farms. The hillsides were alive with countless women, men and children, each hard at work with worn shovels and smoothed hoes. The observable evidence of a return to normal cultivation is on the rise.