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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.

Tori had shared with me what 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. Here in this restaurant, I was experiencing the same thing.

“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?

Signs outside of the UN compound in the Dadaab Refugee Camp in Kenya, where Tori’s story begins.

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.

***

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2 Comments Add Yours ↓

  1. 1

    I am so excited about this book and can’t wait to get a hold of it. In my experience, too, there is much defensiveness when I talk about problems with aid. I’ve learned to a) focus on the system, not the individuals, b) acknowledge my own complicity, and c) invest in those who want to engage and not worry too much (yet) about those who don’t. Good luck to Tori and thanks for highlighting the book, Jennifer.

  2. 2

    Thanks for such an insightful post, Jennifer. I think this inability to have honest, constructive conversations about what isn’t working in international aid is reflective of insiders’ inability to have those same conversations within other industries and institutions, everything from print media to U.S. politics, many of which are lumbering and faltering. Talking to a journalist I know recently, I was surprised to hear him say that he thinks the downfall of the American newspaper industry is largely due to journalists’ arrogance–a refusal to be flexible, to be open to solutions from outside the field, to flatten hierarchies, and to acknowledge that it is not indispensable.

    Obviously, there are other issues too, but I take his point to heart and see some unfortunate similarities between what has happened very rapidly in American journalism and the on-going issues with international aid. Hopefully the international aid sector can face its challenges more successfully than journalism has been able to.



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