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.