Who Are You Calling Shallow?

I’ve had the sick, sadistic pleasure of watching college-aged kids learn how to swim. It’s very similar to watching little kids learn how to swim, but for me the flailing and wailing of a six-foot-two, 20 year-old man faced with three feet of water is much more entertaining than the same ruckus coming from a diminutive 5 year-old girl. Hence: sick. Sadistic. But you knew that.

After a few lessons, though, the swimmer, be he or she 20 or 5, will eventually take those first tentative strokes towards the deep end. Spend enough hours in the water and a person who first came to a pool more likely to sink than swim will end up jumping off the high-dive.

But everyone starts in the shallow end, their toes reaching for purchase on the pool floor, their noses firmly set above the water.


Problem: There are orphans in Haiti.

Solution: Send money to orphanages.

It’s so simple! It’s so easy and direct! Clearly, this is the best way to help underprivileged kids!

In a recent blog post, my dear friend J. at Tales from the Hood makes the case that in America, we idealize a simpler era, one presumably without Twitter and smartphones and LiveJournal and all the other things that make life worth living. We like simple pleasures and simple solutions. Complexity, we disdain. “Complex people are less genuine, less honest, ultimate less trustworthy. Complicated things, complicated situations are best avoided; complicated answers more difficult to believe.”

In case my inelegant juxtaposition of orphans and simple solutions wasn’t clear enough, J. wraps up with how our desire for simplicity relates to international development.

Right now we’re dealing with an increasingly aware and engaged general public (the “Third Audience”). An engaged general public whose default setting is to assume that both the challenges we face as aid workers as well as the solutions are simple ones. Their perceptions of what we do and how shape how they give, who they give to, in some cases even how they vote.

We have got to tell them the truth about what we do. We have got to stop selling simplistic versions of aid to the public.

Ultimately, I don’t think people want simple solutions. Just as people don’t want to return to a life without BlackBerrys or TiVo, people don’t want a return to an era of isolationism or colonial paternalism. (Except maybe Newt Gingrich.)

People donate to international relief efforts because they want to make a difference, they want to save or change lives. To that end, they want solutions that work. They want to learn how to swim. They want to get to the deep end of the pool, but they’re still in the shallow end and we can’t ask them to jump off the high-dive. We have to teach them how to swim first. At some point in our lives, we were all flailing and wailing in the shallow end, too.

Webs are scary.

The deep end.

Elizabeth Ferris of The Brookings Institution recently made a presentation on “Burning Issues for Haiti’s Recovery.” She noted there are four main areas impeding Haiti’s recovery: governance, displacement, housing, and security. Okay, so, basically everything. Nice and broad. And it’s all interconnected. It’s all big picture stuff, all big theoretical things. What, our new swimmer asks, about the kids who are starving?

Ferris says, “Keep the big picture in mind, but focus efforts locally.” Work with communities to build the capacity of local organizations and always consult with local partners, “even when these processes seem frustratingly slow.” She emphasizes patience and persistence. Long-term development takes time blah blah no easy solutions and yadda yadda progress on land rights and legal issues will speed recovery faster than physically constructing buildings and crap. Our swimmer is drowning concepts and theories and just swallowed a mouthful of hypotheticals.

Weren’t we talking about local efforts? About supporting underprivileged kids right now, not just ten years from now? How did we get all the way to the deep end so quickly? Maybe that’s why they call them “think tanks,” they’ve got unimaginable depths of theory just waiting to suck the inexperienced swimmer under.

Let’s stick with supporting local efforts. Let’s use Mercy Corps as an example for reasons that will become apparent later. (“Are you now or have you ever been an employee of Mercy Corps?” No! But I’ve worked with them and have a lot of respect for them and their work so I will continue to call them “the second-best aid agency I know.”)

So, I’ve got this six-page “Six Month Report on Haiti” that Mercy Corps has helpfully put up on their website. I’m sure it’s as completely and totally unbiased as any hour of Glenn Beck’s show, not just some glossy report for donors about all the wonderful things that have been done with their money. Not to say wonderful things haven’t been done, this just isn’t the document that’s going to tell anyone about the obstacles and failures they’ve faced. Need to know the backstroke before getting all the way out there.

Our inexperienced swimmer still wants to know about the starving kids. What about them? How is his or her donation going to help the starving kids? Let’s see. Uh. We’ve got something about partnering with Haiti’s largest microfinance institution to inject new capital into local economies. Hmm. We’ve got a bunch of numbers about emergency relief distributions. Oh, hey, we’ve also got a story about a woman participating in a cash-for-work program. The money she makes goes towards feeding her children and into her savings she hopes to use to restart her small business.

What? Was that a tentative step from the three foot depths to the four foot depths? Mercy Corps just told a story about employing a Haitian woman and empowering her to support her family. They didn’t just tell a story about a handout or about the aid worker flown in from Portland extending a high-energy biscuit to a child. They told a story about communities, about social relationships, even.

J. says aid workers have to start telling the truth about what we do, that there aren’t simple answers, that aid work is complex. Complex ideas rest on a foundation of simpler ones. As bloggers talking about international development—and as representatives of international development agencies—we need to make sure we’re offering a shallow end and a deep end. We shouldn’t offer diving lessons when our audience is still wearing floaties.

We need to show that complex solutions work. We need to tell stories that teach donors how and why empowering communities feeds starving kids better than sending care packages. If we earn their trust in the shallow end, if we teach them to swim with us into the deep end, then maybe when we ask them to trust us and jump off the high-dive, they will.

I’ll close with what I hope can be an ongoing feature of this blog: highlighting ways in which Random Acts is implementing smart aid. Let’s face it, Random Acts could be doing much, much worse things (I’ve got a list, even.) They could be hosting voluntourism trips to Haiti to do yoga and take pictures with orphans. But they’re not!

Why you should have watched "Stonehenge Apocalypse."

I don't know. It seemed inappropriate. (Yes, it's Misha Collins.)

If you recall, Random Acts was going to raise a bunch of money, send 33 percent to orphanages in Haiti, send 15 percent to relief efforts in Pakistan, and spend the rest on random acts of kindness and bribing public officials. Presumably, that means public officials are even more anti-flower disbursement than I am. I knew I should have asked for a pay-off…. Anyway. Misha said the 15 percent for Pakistan would go to “a larger aid organization.” I said, “yay!” Well, they’ve decided the money is going to go to Mercy Corps (the second-best aid agency I know!) So, I tip my hat to you, Random Acts.

Hats off, though, to my Twitter buddy Kalsoom from Changing Up Pakistan. In mid-August, she partnered with other activists to start Relief4Pakistan as a way to consolidate the giving power of their online and offline networks. So far, they’ve raised over $135,000 for Mercy Corps. And this is just the first phase of their project. Next: world domination.

Wait, that’s Misha’s project, nevermind.

Coming Soon: “The Kiddie Pool,” for donors who never want to jump off the high-dive. Also, something mean about Sean Penn.


2 thoughts on “Who Are You Calling Shallow?

  1. Pingback: 11 concerns about ICTs and ‘social media for social good’ « Wait… What?

  2. Pingback: Concerns about ICTs and ‘social media for social good’ | Global Health Hub

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