Confessions of a former idealist

Today I realized two things. First, that I haven’t written a blog post on my personal blog (this one) in quite a while; second, that I seem to have lost every shred of idealism that I clung to so tightly in my younger days. Let me explain.

When I was in college, I believed that non-profits, on the whole, were good. I admired organizations that collected school supplies and other random items (much of it that might better be known as #SWEDOW), and either shipped them or packed them into suitcases and delivered them to “needy African children,” thinking how sweet it was that they were able to impact children so far away. I really did think that the straw ratio was important, and prided myself on doing work for the Make-a-Wish Foundation (which I still love) in part due to their minimal administrative costs. I got caught up in the good intentions of organizations, and neglected to ask the right questions.

I’m laying this all out there because I feel like most of us, who have grown to be critical of aid projects, have been there at one point or another, before spending time in the field, getting masters degrees and PhDs, and gaining invaluable life and work experiences. I would be amazed by the person who, as a second grader, would refuse to ask his or her mom to buy some extra school supplies so they can be shipped to Tanzania with those donated by the rest of the class, or even send some of his or her old clothes to someone, far away, who needs them more, because you’ve seen the photos of these kids, in that far away land, who don’t have shirts, and would instead say, “Well, shouldn’t we look into collecting money and buying this locally?”

The difference between the people who eventually choose to reflect critically on how to do aid, philanthropy, and charity in a way that puts the needs of the donor first, and those who continue to say, “I want to go volunteer in Africa!” but can’t answer the question, “Yes, that’s all well and good, but where will you go and what will you DO there?” is information, and a willingness to use information to make more informed decisions.

It seems to be a trend, lately, for friends and friends of friends (mainly in their mid-twenties) to come tell me how they want to go “volunteer in Africa” or “start doing development work, since my job doesn’t make me feel fulfilled.” And what do I ask them? What are they going to DO. What skills are they going to bring. Are they going to be taking a job away from a local by going somewhere. Why do they want to volunteer. Why Africa. Why not Big Brothers Big Sisters that’s located down the block.

And then I tell them to learn. To read. To expand their mind beyond the happy success stories filled with smiling photos of the small African children that so many of us know can steal your heart in a moment. To read blogs like Aid Watch, Tales from the Hood, Good Intentions are Not Enough. Wait…What?, Blood and Milk, Humourless Lot,  and others who provide insights based on far more time in the field and experience working in development than I could have possibly achieved at 24 years of age. To read Easterly, Sachs, Moyo, and others who have written about development, and sometimes [often] disagree with one another.

I share all of this because I was in their shoes, not terribly long ago, and wondered what I could do to make a difference in the lives of people overseas. And the answer was to get an education, practical work experience, and field experience that would make me a valuable contributor, able to focus on the needs of those I most wanted to help, rather than on what warms my heart. And when they finish reading and talking to people and learning, and can definitively answer the question of what they’re going to do, why, and how their activities put the needs and wants of their African constituents first, I’ll be happy to pass along my guidebooks, but I’ll want them back along with the others I might lend…because I’m still learning myself.

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6 thoughts on “Confessions of a former idealist

  1. Hi Amanda–great post. I would argue that you don’t have to completely lose your idealism. I, too, desired to volunteer in college and I was fortunate enough to travel with an organization that believed in hiring local talent to serve the needs of the community, but also valued sharing the work with people like me. If it were not for that experience I doubt that I would be where I am today. It’s a challenge that plagues all of us. I’m optimistic that people will learn that they need skills they can contribute before embarking on such journeys. Especially as organizations like ghcorps.org grow! It’s an interesting process watching those around us who were motivated by unknown factors (well, I can guess a few) to begin careers they hate. Hopefully our friends–and friends of friends–will find opportunities that educate them and they can make an impact without perpetuating the sometimes ineffective NGO world.

  2. Thanks Charles – I think my sentiments of losing my last shreds of idealism come from the fact that I seem to find myself talking about failed projects and flawed projects more than the successful ones, and have become hyper-critical of well intentioned NGOs.

  3. Nice post. Sometimes I get worn out and give up when it’s the people closest to me that come tell me they want to volunteer, help Africa, collect and take a bunch of canned goods to Haiti, etc. and I just try to change the topic or give lukewarm advice that I imagine won’t really be considered. It can be awkward and difficult to have those conversations when people are excited and fired up, and at the same time, doing something I wouldn’t agree with and don’t think will have a huge impact. I’m glad you haven’t given up. Keep at it! 🙂

  4. Let me echo you and everyone else, I really struggle with this. I first went to Zimbabwe at the age of 19 and worked at an orphanage. Fifteen years later, my blood boils when I hear people are going “over there” to build an orphanage. I am now a raging advocate for community care of vulnerable children.

    But somewhere, between then and now, I experienced a transformation from emotional reaction/ignorance to emotional & intellectual reaction/claimed ignorance. If this awareness was possible for me, I take faith in knowing then that it must be possible for those other folks too. Therefore, my reaction is to always discuss with people (when my blood’s not boiling) that 1) just because people have vastly fewer cash resources, does not mean that they are “poor” and 2) many people are already organized and doing something about whatever problem they are concerned about. There absolutely is a non-profit sector kicking in most places and these local activists are the true heroes and the true experts about what’s needed at the community level. Our jobs, whether we are working for a bilateral or having wanderlust dreams while we work a boring office job, are about getting community groups the resources that they need to address their own priorities. And that’s where I find my hope when it’s missing.

    You haven’t lost your idealism. My guess is that you, like many of us, are just in the process of figuring out how to not let “the system” breed cynicism and distrust. It’s somehow ironic that working in international aid that we have to fight to keep our humanity, but that is part of the work. In fact, I think it’s those who do that are the most innovative, the most effective, and the most fulfilled. My post today might be of interest to you: http://www.how-matters.org/2010/07/28/heartbreaker/

    So my humble advice is to keep your mind and your heart open. A very wise mentor in this sector once told me, “In development, you won’t really know if you’re doing anything right. But if you’re not questioning, you are most certainly doing everything wrong.”

    • Thanks Jennifer — I especially like the advice from your mentor. I’ve actually had to remind myself of why the job I do right now (which is primarily behind a desk in DC, drafting documents and crunching numbers that support future investment in global health) plays an important role. Behind my desk are a number of pictures from when I was in the field as a little reminder. Also, I did stumble on your blog post yesterday, and found that it resonated a great deal. Thanks for sharing!

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