Thematic post titles are thematic. (Let me Google that for you.)
Today, I’m letting other people say things I wish I’d said first. By quoting them liberally. Welcome to the Friday “link dump.”
Before we get started, though, I’d like to give credit where credit is due. I can no longer say Misha Collins‘ Random Acts isn’t taking what I say to heart. Check out their page highlighting the “random” acts they’ve undertaken: “The C-List.” Sure, maybe it’s short for “charity,” or maybe it’s named after that one time I called Misha a C-lister. If the latter, good on you, Random Acts! Now about those orphanages… (Aside: I say it with love, Misha! Can we still be frenemies?)
Now to our regularly scheduled programming.
Over at Wanderlust, morealtitude does an amazing job at dissecting how and why an aid project involving Shawn, a well-meaning video blogger, which seems like it could go terribly wrong actually might end up being the exception to the rule. A set-up:
There’s a bit of a negative vibe among the aid blogger community about the appropriateness of voluntourism, and high-profile well-intentioned (and occasionally self-promoting) do-gooders jetting off for a few weeks to some developed country, seeing all the flaws in the aid industry, and sharing their epiphany on how they can do such a better job than the aid professionals currently working in the field. On the surface, Shawn appears that he could be an easy target for this sort of criticism. I’d actually like to suggest he isn’t. Shawn’s approach has on many levels been substantially different. He’s remained engaged with a community not just for a few weeks, but over a three-year period. He’s done his time reading up on the subjects he’s interested in so that he has some theoretical knowledge behind him. He’s not gone off half-cocked with his own project, but he’s joined forces with a well-established aid agency [Save the Children]. And to boot, he’s gone to a country to which he has some cultural links, speaks the local language, and can engage directly with people in what appears to be a meaningful way. And he’s used his strengths—his social network—to add value to the process.
The reason Shawn may be successful where so many others are not is he’s doing the hard stuff that so many well-intentioned people tend to skip. He’s done the research, he recognizes the importance of accountability to donors and aid recipients, and he’s willing to work with large aid agencies, but also willing to challenge them. This last point is, I think, crucial. As morealtitude says:
It’s good to challenge NGOs to do better. I—and many of my online aid-blogger type comrades—are big fans of holding agencies, big and small, to account over their aid practices….
If you’ve been reading this blog for the two weeks it’s been going, then you know that is a sentiment near and dear to my cold little aid blogging heart. Supporting international development necessarily means also holding aid agencies, big and small, to account. If an agency is doing more harm than good, that’s not an international development agency, that’s an international regression agency (points for catchier epithets in the comments.) Just like we should always question the potential consequences and impact of policies proposed by political leaders, we should question the potential consequences and impact of proposed aid projects.
On accountability, Shawn has developed an interesting approach to linking donors with aid recipients. See, Shawn’s a sort-of-celebrity in his own right. He’s a video blogger with quite the following on YouTube. He called on followers to raise money for aid projects in Bangladesh, then he traveled there and filmed people receiving the benefits of money donated by those followers. It builds a virtual relationship between the donor and the recipient of their donation. They get the gratification of seeing their money going to use in the community.
It bears repeating: Shawn delivered this aid through a large aid agency, Save the Children. In this way, the aid benefited the whole community—not just a few orphanages. (Yeah, I’m still glaring through the computer screen.)
There’s a lot of great things that can be said for this idea as a concept. It’s an exciting new way to mobilize donorship. It gives the opportunity to educate donors in a really tangible fashion. And it allows near-real-time accountability: I get to see my donation being handed out to the recipient the next day on my 3G iPad screen sitting in the tram on the way to work.
This is, of course, very similar to what Random Acts has done in filming their “random” acts of kindness and putting them on the internet. It’s trendy! It’s “web 2.0″! It’s something I can share on Twitter! But it’s not something that will encourage donors to hold aid agencies accountable. This is pure one-way accountability, agencies-to-donors. Agencies get to tell the story they want to tell, the ones that will ensure donors open up their pocketbooks during the agency’s next fundraising appeal. It’s not (necessarily) agencies showing the efficiencies and inefficiencies in aid, it’s not (necessarily) recipients telling their own stories.
For that, we have The Listening Project. The project began in 2005 and has since gone to over 20 communities on the receiving end of the aid industry. Instead of just speaking with direct recipients of aid, the project’s listeners spoke with people at all levels within the community receiving aid. How Matters has a great summary of the initial findings.
Basically aid recipients care more about how aid is delivered than how much is delivered. They care more about long-term development than the impact of short-term projects. They’re worried donor agendas too often drive what aid is given instead of the actual needs on the ground. They want a voice when it comes to aid, “they want to ‘discuss together, decide together, and work together.’”
I’ll admit it: I felt so strongly about the importance of The Listening Project’s findings that I Tweeted Misha about them. I’ve become a shameless, shameless promoter of smart aid with an overinflated sense of self-importance. Who knows what I’ll do next. Maybe something like “Dear Mr. Clooney.” Watch out, Misha minions. Sure, some might say I’ve become something of an attention whore. All the name dropping, the Tweeting, et cetera. Like I’m trying to use the modicum of blogging celebrity I have to blather on and on about international development and make the world a better place. In that case, yes, I’m an attention whore.
Finally, Shotgun Shack has a comprehensive roundup of why the debate about international development and aid will never, ever end. Good for blogging, bad for everyone else. Shotgun Shack sums it up with:
You feel like you are spitting into the wind, but you plug along with the conviction that what you are doing really does matter, because when you listen to staff and community members, they are telling you what the obstacles are, but they are also saying that they don’t want you to leave.
We always need to work on delivering aid in a more effective way. Just because aid delivery is broken is not a good excuse to stop delivering it, it’s a great excuse to talk about ways to fix it. Hence, the blogging. Even if sometimes it does feel like we’re spitting into the wind.