Our Most Important Job

It happened just this morning. On the blog post of a friend who has recently moved to South Africa, containing pictures, someone wrote:

“The kids in Africa were soooo amazing and so darn cute. People don’t understand how great the people are until they have been there!”

And so, the smoke poured out of my ears before I could even have my morning coffee.

We’ve all been there. You’re at a cocktail party or a family gathering, when an acquaintance, or your aunt in my case, proudly announces, “We’re going to Uganda in June to build an orphanage for AIDS orphans.”

If you’re anything like me, you are shocked, horrified, even frozen. “Where do I even begin to engage this person?” my head races.

Why can’t I control my boiling blood when I hear people are going “over there” (a favorite reference by U.S. “ordinary citizens” to any country not our own) to build an orphanage? Or to send environmentally-friendly, yet manufactured in the U.S., cook stoves? Or, or, or…you get the picture.

This is my attempt, like many others recently, to explain why. But more importantly, I need to write this to help script myself and hopefully illustrate to others how that cocktail party conversation could go.

Scrambling for Common Ground

Good-intentioned or not, what I do know is that this person, if they go to Africa, will most certainly have a life-changing experience. Here’s where I can try to find our connection.

You see I first went to Zimbabwe at the age of 19. There, I volunteered at an orphanage for three weeks. I cannot claim that, upon my return when inevitably started fundraising for the institution, I never said something such as, “the kids were sooooo amazing.” In fact, it was probably a very standard line.

Yet now, well into my career, mostly in children’s programming, I have become a raging advocate for community-based care of vulnerable children. I have an all-consuming belief in the strength and resilience of children, families, and communities. I’ll say it a million times over, “Our jobs, whether we are working for a multilateral donor in Nairobi or having wanderlust dreams while we work a boring office job in Ohio, must be about getting community groups the resources that they need to address their own priorities.”

My own hypocrisy shocks me.

Somewhere, between then and now, I have to own to the fact that I experienced a transformation from “emotional reaction/ignorance” about vulnerable children in Africa to “emotional and intellectual reaction/claimed ignorance” about the deeper issues that cause children to become or stay vulnerable in Africa and everywhere else.

If an evolving awareness is possible for me, it must be possible for other folks too. Right?

But there is something so offensive…

TalesfromtheHood yesterday gave an eloquent explanation of the inherent harm embedded in any “perpetuation of stereotypes and assumptions about whom the poor are, what they need, and how they should be helped.”

So here’s my attempt to offer a couple of lines that I hope might help bring awareness to the orphanage or stove evangelists of the world.

“Just because people have vastly fewer cash resources, does not mean that they are ‘poor’ in the way you might be thinking.”

“Most of the time, people actually have very good reasons to act the way they do that are not readily apparent to us as outsiders.”

Introducing the concept of relative poverty and rationale choice is tricky, though, because you also have to be careful not to romanticize poverty, nor deny real issues.

“It’s important to realize that many people are already organized and doing something about [insert here whatever problem they are concerned about.] There is a non-profit sector kicking, though struggling, in most places and these local leaders need our support.”

Though introducing the concept of no-you-don’t-need-to-start-your-own-new-NGO is especially tricky when you’re talking to someone who is motivated by ego, which let’s face it, we all can be in moments and, which is hardly ever apparent to that person.

“Well, no actually, not all Africans [insert any other identity-denying label here] are necessarily amazing. Every person and society struggle with good and bad traits and behaviors.”

Though starting a theological discussion has its own risks, let alone highlighting to people their own subtle or overt racism or blind privilege.

“Oh really, how is the community involved in “your” work over there? (Another blood-boiling claim I have trouble with.) How do you know that that’s what’s most needed and most wanted by the folks you’re helping?”

Small, personal, humbling errors

So at this point, I fully aware as I’m writing this that I’m failing at my task help ensure that the next family reunion is not a fiasco.

So what to do? A great article by writer J.B. MacKinnon last year entitled, “The Dark Side of Volunteer Tourism” grounds me. He wrote,

“First, nothing is likely to stop the increase in person-to-person contact between people of the richer nations and people of the poorer. Second, there is much to be gained on both sides from this exchange. Third, those gains will be made through a series of small, personal, humbling errors.”

Oh thank goodness. Maybe that’s where the perfect entry point for dialogue may be found:

“You know, it’s great you are learning so much about [insert country, issue, etc] and gaining so much from your efforts. Let me let you in on a little secret though. In the many years I’ve been doing this work, I’ve made many, many large and small mistakes, sometimes causing much more harm than good. It’s actually never easy to help another person overcome great obstacles.”

It’s somehow ironic that working internationally, whether a professional or an amateur, while we attempt to help humanity at large, much of our day-to-day is to fight for our own personal humanity, and thus humility.

But that, at the end of the day, is actually our most important job.


Note: The organization I used to work for created a publication specifically to address the phenomena of faith-based groups building orphanages for children affected by AIDS in Africa. It can be found at: http://www.firelightfoundation.org/publication-from-faith-to-action.php

Another great post on this subject by Desiree Adaway: http://desireeadaway.com/ignoring-the-voice-of-dependency/


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  2. Heather Mason

    I’m so glad to see that my blog is generating commentary on another blog! It’s interesting — I had a similar reaction when I read that comment about the girls. Although with it came a little bit of guilt, because I must own up to feeling the same way about the children I’ve met here, many times. It’s hard work learning how to care and make a difference in the right way — hopefully we’re all on the right track. Keep up the good work!

  3. And it sometimes happens that when we follow an urge to go “over there,” to build something, organize something, its only in the beginning that we come back with reflections on “so amaaazing” experiences and people. With time and deepending of ties, many of us become part of the fabric of the community we keep returning to, and that’s where real empowerment ma be possible -in both directions.

    When I worked with the Rotary Foundation,there was a Rotarian from Indiana, a retired businessman who spent months and months every year in India with various projects. The few months he was in the US was spent running around the country getting support,and persistently (!) visiting Rotary staff in a way that could be described as truly Indian.(It’s OK for me to say this since I’m Indian, too.) When he was diagnosed with terminal cancer, he just worked faster to get more done. I’m sure from time to time he did more harm than good, but the relationships allowed for that.

  4. Again, this calls to mind the need for aid org workers to be very cognizant about how we talk about our work and our experiences to friends and donors.

    For example, how do you respond to people who ask about your international trip? Do you say, “It was so great to meet the people!” or “Wow! It was a lot harder than I thought to interact and I learned a lot.”?

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  6. Here’s a couple of great sites/articles that offer great advice to those wanting to engage in service learning abroad:

    The Poverty Tourism Debate – a compilation post from the blog “Good Intentions are Not Enough” http://goodintentionsarenotenough.com/2010/08/poverty-tourism/

    Volunteer tourism defies recession but is this positive news for the South? from the International Institute for Environment & Development

    Tips (and links) for the responsible traveler from Pepy Tours

    How to Focus a Conversation to Facilitate Volunteer Reflection from HandsOn blog

  7. Pingback: The Poverty Tourism Debate – a compilation post | Good Intentions Are Not Enough The Poverty Tourism Debate – a compilation post | An honest conversation about the impact of aid

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  9. Pingback: Sorry but it’s not YOUR project: Why possessive adjectives are the most detrimental aid jargon we use | Practical Initiatives Network - the PIN blog

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